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Ads that masquerade as blogs look so fake! Is that the point?

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According to her blog, Kathy Anderson — a mom who just happens to live in a city near you — started thinking about how to improve her smile, yellowed from years of smoking and eating sugary foods, after watching a segment on CNN about teeth-whitening products. Cathy Anderson — a mom who just happens to live in a city near you — started thinking about how to improve her smile, yellowed from years of smoking and drinking coffee and red wine, after seeing a segment on CNN about teeth-whitening products.

If you think it’s a little improbable that two women with such similar names would both feel moved to blog about their adventures in oral beautification, wait, it gets even more amazing. Tanya Melton — a mom who also just happens to live in a city near you — started thinking about whitening her teeth after she, too, saw that segment on CNN. And she has the exact same teeth as Kathy Anderson! Before their teeth-whitening discoveries, their choppers yellowed in precisely the same manner. After, they gleamed with identical radiance.

Naturally, there are some conclusions we can draw from the remarkably similar blogs of these remarkably similar women. First, CNN is devoting an awful lot of coverage to teeth-whitening news. Second, America’s moms are a lot more self-conscious about the color of their teeth than
America’s dads. Finally, of course, these blogs are faker than George Washington’s dentures. No, they’re faker than that. These blogs are as fake as a pair of plastic vampire fangs. The glowing kind.

Indeed, even if you had only seen Cathy’s blog, or maybe Amanda’s, or Karen’s, or Kelly’s, isn’t it obvious that these “blogs” are advertisements? How many busy moms with dingy yellow teeth go through the trouble of registering a domain name just to create “a mom’s blog about beauty, cosmetics & staying young;” experience an apparently debilitating case of writer’s block after penning a single entry; and yet somehow manage to attract comments from a dozen strangers anyway, none of whom use obscene screen names or have anything negative to say?

In the old days, before the Web, it was easier for advertisers to simulate professional journalists than moms with sub-standard toothcare regimens. In an effort to dupe potential customers into thinking they were reading objective, disinterested reportage and not mercenary product pitches, they made their ads mimic, in layout and editorial voice, the publications in which they appeared. In the late 1960s, the Federal Trade Commission insisted on branding such masquerades with “clear and conspicuous” labeling that identified them as paid advertisements.

Even bearing such labels, however, such ads persisted. They even migrated to television in the mid-1980s in the form of 30-minute infomercials that often took the form of newscasts and talk shows. In fact, both the faux news articles and the faux newscasts persist to this day. Which is quite strange if you think about it. Once upon a time, perhaps, newspaper articles and your local anchorman exhibited a certain authority, a certain integrity. But at this point, don’t most people think that anyone, even advertisers, are more honest and trustworthy than journalists? Aren’t most people far more interested in buying stuff than they are in learning about what’s going on at City Hall? If anything, you’d think that journalists would try to pass off their work as ads, so that someone might pay attention to it.

Instead, the advertisers continue trying to pass off their ads as newspaper stories, or news casts, or blogs. Except that that’s not quite it, exactly. They don’t try to pass off their ads as the genuine article. They deliberately present their ads as obviously fake newspaper stories and obviously fake newscasts and obviously fake blogs. Why? Think of such ads as the really bad toupees of the media environment. They stand out. They create intrigue. We spot them, then move in closer for a more intimate look. Who are they kidding? What are they thinking?

Certainly it would not be hard for today’s teeth-whitening entrepreneurs to simulate blogs more effectively: Add a few more entries per fake site, make the comments a little more realistic, find some more stock teeth photography so we’re not greeted by the same slightly horrifying molars at every site. Or just go ahead and pay some real amateur bloggers to talk up Dazzle White Pro, AltaWhite, Whitening Brites, Ivory Brites, and whatever other names the tooth goop masterminds behind this enterprise have applied to their product.

The tooth goop masterminds don’t do this, however, and one suspects it’s because obviously fake blogs aren’t just good at attracting attention, but also at setting expectations. After all, certain consumers — disillusioned by hard experience; defeated by the burdens and indignities life has dished out; their teeth yellow not just from coffee and cigarettes, but also from loss, failed promise, and ennui — don’t truly anticipate that a dentist-strength bleaching gel is going to give them all the things (loving spouses, high-paying jobs, beautiful homes) that people with shining incisors enjoy. They hope that it will, sure, but they’re not exactly counting on it.

Market your product in an honest, straight-forward manner to this kind of consumer and you’ll soon be filing for Chapter 11. But create a bunch of obviously fake blogs that lead to Web sites offering “risk-free” product trials, small-print mentions of $88.97 monthly recurring charges, and the promise of future billing disputes, and you’ve got a viable business. There are people out there, millions of them, who want to be disappointed. There are people out there who, as soon as they set foot into their neighborhood meat market, gravitate toward the cheaters, the liars, the gold-diggers, the manipulators, the ones who, in short, seem most likely to screw them over — at least that won’t be quite as heart-breaking as getting screwed over by someone who initially seems nice, decent, and trustworthy. The same dynamic plays out in the realms of teeth-whitening, fat loss, Christian money-making scams, and countless other allied arts. In this era of disenchantment, lowered expectations, and rampant cynicism, a dubious proposition is all that many people are willing to believe in anymore. • 2 June 2009

 

Greg Beato is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Follow @GregBeato on Twitter.

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