Nobody Went Broke Underestimating an American’s Intelligence

As someone with two engineering degrees, I’ve found it increasingly frustrating to talk to a lot of people whose knowledge of science is pretty darned close to nonexistent. It bothers me more when it comes to people marketing things.

A classic example is Dr. Mehmet Oz. Oz, for lack of a better way to describe him, is a “pop” physician. While he is a UPenn-educated cardiac surgeon, he is more well known for his television show, The Dr. Oz Show, where he gives viewers general advice on how to stay healthy.

This “advice”, however, often translates to scaring people into buying something. It can range from the harmless, like telling people to buy a book in order to resolve vitamin D deficiencies, to advertising untested, unregulated supplements to help people lose weight. There is even a new term called the “Dr. Oz Effect” where sales of supplements skyrocket as soon as Oz mentions them on his show.

Comedian John Oliver tore Oz a new one in the wake of Oz having to testify in front of Congress for advertising these supplements:

As an MD, Oz should know better than anyone that there is no way of knowing if these supplements don’t in fact have adverse effects when consumed. With that in mind, I think viewers should really ask themselves about a potential conflict of interest between Oz’s responsibilities as a doctor and the drug companies paying him to advertise their products. Naturally, Oz opted for the more profitable route.

It’s equally as true in the marketing of “organic” foods. “Organic”, like “antioxidant”, is one of those words where the average person doesn’t know what it actually means, but they are convinced anything containing at least one of those words is good for them.

The reality is all food is organic. “Organic” simply means something that is a carbon-based lifeform. Even genetically-modified organisms fall under that category.

How to advertise food 101

How to advertise “health” food 101

Usually, people take “organic” to mean something that was raised on a traditional farm instead of America’s factory farming system. Producers then use that as an excuse to hike up the prices of their products. It’s for that reason people say, “Whole Foods, Whole Paycheck”. People almost religiously follow the pseudo-science of assuming something is better by virtue of having the Whole Foods stamp of awesome on it, almost for the same reasons many people buy Apple products. They don’t really know why, but they are convinced what they’re buying is better.

I am willing to concede certain things I know. My friend at school put it nicely. Bread and beer are two of mankind’s oldest consumables. It wasn’t until recently people started suddenly developing an intolerance to gluten. I think that is one area where it really is important to think about what we’re eating; however, I think organic salad dressing is a bit extreme. Let’s not go into how Whole Foods keeps shelves stocked with homeopathic remedies, which everyone agrees to be designed to (ideally) induce a placebo effect.

There were times people have told me that they are simply unable to comprehend why I would want to know as much science as I do (which admittedly isn’t that much. As my trade is engineering, my knowledge of medicine is nothing beyond what I remember from 10th grade biology), and they are the ones that are more likely to blindly do what some Don Draper-wannabe on Madison Avenue told them to so a drug company or a food producer can separate them from their money. I think I can finally say that I have been empowered at least to the extent that I can ask critical questions before someone tries to convince me to do something that may not necessarily be in my best interest.