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Criticism > Friday, 3 August 2012 03:19:47 EST

Basket 'O Cash: A Case Study in Deceptive Advertising

Keywords: epistemology, statistics, video, product

Don't get me wrong, I know that it's the job of advertisers to use the truth selectively and to tell a narrative that may not be completely true to reality.  But every so often I notice a commercial that I have to admit is a masterwork in using completely meaningless babble to trick people into believing they're getting actual information.

Case in point, Downy's recent "Basket of Cash" commercial.  Take a look, and notice how not one single point made in the commercial carries any actual real world meaning:

Now let's take a deeper look at what the ad was showing us:

We start off with a meaningless stunt.  A woman is standing out on the street with a washing machine and  a laundry basket full of money.  I'm sure we've all been there.  Just a typical Saturday, right?

She calls over some actors... um... I mean random people on the street, and asks them to dump all the money into the laundry machine.  We're told that the reason for this is to demonstrate that each load of laundry is worth about $200. 

Okay, fine.  I'll accept that.  I'm certain that my laundry falls far short of that price, but I'm a pretty frugal person. I don't know what the average person spends on clothes. The very hard to read caption at the bottom says that this figure is based on an "Internet study of US consumers". 

That raises some red flags, and it might be interesting to actually check out this study, but in the end it's not important.  It doesn't really matter how much money your clothes are worth, because I think we can all agree that they're worth some amount of money.  So sure, everybody wants to protect their investment as much as possible. Pouring a basket of cash into a laundry machine really doesn't tell us anything. 

Now meaningless stunts are fairly par for the course, so I'm not going to come down too hard on them for it.  I'm just going to point out that this stunt kind of represents the unstated message of the commercial: that if you don't use Downy Ultra, you're basically just throwing your money away.  That's the message you'd take away from this commercial if you weren't a critical thinker who actually takes the time to question things.

But let's move on to the first point made in the commercial.  Basket O' Cash lady informs us that for each wash, your clothes lose value.  Fair enough, the washing machine adds some wear and tear to your clothes, I'm sure that's not a controversial statement.  But just wearing your clothes between washings also adds wear and tear. No way to really avoid it.

But maybe we can slow it down, right?  That seems to be the message for this second point.  According to the cash lady, 1 cap of Ultra Downy will protect that $200 worth of clothes (or however much money your load is worth). Left unsaid is exactly how your clothes are protected.  From my research, the proposed mechanism is simple enough.  Fabric softeners coat your clothes with a chemical layer that reduces friction, thus making your fabrics feel softer. Less friction means less wear and tear.

So maybe there is some kind of protective effect.  I can believe that.  It's probably not a drastic effect, but I'll go with their premise on this one.  Strangely enough, this claim was not listed on Downy's official website under their page entitled "The Benefits of Fabric Softener". That's kind of strange.  But surely they'll elaborate a little more in the ad, right?

A woman with funky tiger striped glasses says "Prove it to me!".  I like her style!  Who do you know who says things like "Prove it to me!"? If I'm doubtful of something, I'll say "do you have any evidence?", or maybe "how can you be sure about that?"  I've never once said "Prove it to me!" - that's in-your-face, demanding! That'll take people aback!

"Hey Dumbass, I found this place that sells the best sandwiches!"
"Prove it to me Bob!!!"
"Um... er... well...."
"C'mon Bob, I don't have all day! Prove it to me!"
"I... uh... guess I can... take you there for lunch....."

But cash lady is up to the challenge! Without skipping a beat, she produces this graphic:

Downy Fiber Simulation

Looks impressive. First response is from a shocked man who says "Why haven't I seen this before??"

Well, perhaps because it's complete nonsense.  Look at the small print: "Simulation of actual cotton fibers at 1000x magnification" - what does that even mean?  Is this just an artists conception of what the fibers would look like under different conditions? Did they actually do some sort of experiment? There's no data!

Even if we were to accept these images as real world representations of cotton fibers, we still don't have any useful data! The captions are "With Downy" and "Detergent Alone" - but what are the other criteria?  Is this what the fibers will look like after... say... 50 washes? After they were subjected to some sort of harsh conditions? What are the parameters?

This image is absolutely useless, it gives us no useful information as it is, and I have a feeling that they just pulled it out of thin air! But it's plenty enough evidence to convince the actors... uh... I mean random people in the street in this commercial.  One of them said outright: "Downy's pretty much saving our clothes!"

Well, maybe it is helping to protect our clothes, but by how much?  Certainly there's nobody who expects that without Downy their $200 worth of clothes will be ruined straight away.  So if it does help the clothes last longer, then by how much? Will your clothes last years longer? 20 loads longer? 2 loads longer? There's no information!

But it's certainly not the case that without Ultra Downy your $200 goes down the drain.  You're paying that $200 over the lifetime of your clothes.  If your clothes last longer, then your $200 has been stretched further.  You'd have to figure in the amount of extra wear you got out of the clothes and consider the $200 over their lifetime in order to know how much you really saved.

My guess is that the amount you save is probably not worth the cost of the fabric softener.

Now at this point you may be asking whether I'm making too big a deal out of a standard, fairly inconsequential television commercial.  Well, the fact is that I enjoy analyzing things.  If you think I'm angry, you're mistaken.  I'm having fun! But it's all in the service of a more serious point.  Critical thinking should be applied to the small matters as well as the big ones.  And I highly encourage everybody to be critical of the things they see on television.


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