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November 23, 2021

Contextualize Everything, Part I: Advertising [Joe Mannix]

People lie. Advertisers, press and government (those last two being essentially the same) seem to lie as they breathe. Despite this, the best manipulations aren’t exactly lies. The best manipulations are contextless truth that attempt to guide you toward the manipulator’s desired conclusion. This is constantly on display in mass media, and the best defense against it is to add the missing context. When you see a fact, attempt to contextualize it, no matter what. This may mean doing a bit of research. This may mean sitting there and thinking about it for a while, to find the logical trap. This may mean trying to assess motivation and working backward.

This series will look at two examples of claims and the way the claim is made, add context where possible, and assess whether the conclusion changes or picks up an asterisk after doing those things. We’ll take one example from each of advertising and government.

Let’s begin with advertising.

I’ll pick on Allstate, but every auto insurance company does this and Allstate is not special. Here’s a 14-second TV commercial (on
The claim: “Drivers who switched and saved averaged $718 [in savings]”

So how do we assess this claim? It is based on private industry data and an internal survey per the fine print at the end of the spot (“Average annual auto insurance savings reported by new customers surveyed who saved with Allstate in 2019”). We can’t independently validate the number, so we’ll assume it’s correct. It is based on a survey of their new customers who saved money as compared to their prior carrier.

Now we have everything we need if we just think about it. And when we think about it, we find the manipulation: cherry-picked data. It isn’t savings against the industry. It isn’t savings against your state or city. It isn’t savings on average. It is savings among customers who switched to them. And what would motivate a customer to switch carriers? Car insurance is a pain in the ass. You’re not going to switch unless you despise your current carrier or the savings are significant. It’s painful to switch carriers and you’re probably not going to do it for twenty bucks a year. This is a self-selected and limited data set. The play is obvious: when you have an ideal data set, the desired statistic is often easy to find.

What they want you to think: I can save a ton by switching to Allstate.

What the context adds: Some people saved by switching to Allstate, but I don’t know how many people, what their circumstances were, or if it applies to me.

A better-informed conclusion: I might be able to save, but it is going to take some work and some shopping to find out and it might not be worth it to find out depending on how much I spend today.

This is advertising, so it is the most honest of the three examples. Next time, we’ll look at a news report about a government budget proposal, do a lot more leg work and see what we find there when we add context.

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posted by Open Blogger at 05:15 PM

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