Economists Do It With Models

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Truth In Advertising, Home Cooked Meals Edition…

April 8th, 2009 · 13 Comments
Advertising

Once you start looking for the correlation versus causation problem, it really does seem to pop up everywhere. Furthermore, it’s a good thing I watch too much TV and have a TiVo or else I would have substantially less to write about. (Seriously, I turned the TV on as background noise and went to make myself an english muffin with apple jelly when I heard the statements I am about to recount, and I rushed over to press the pause button on the TiVo so I could go back to it after I was done with my oh so tasty breakfast. And yes, I realize that it is almost noon.)

Since I watch a lot of TV during the day, I am well aware of how geared towards stay-at-home moms the advertisements are during these time slots. (As a result, I have a pretty thorough understanding of the universe of cleaning products. Personally, I think the stay-at-home moms should be a little insulted.) As such, the Stouffer’s advertisement that I saw perplexed me on a couple of levels:

This is the statement that first caught my attention: “Studies show that kids who have regular family dinners tend to get better grades.” While I am confident that this is a true statement, it’s not as meaningful as it appears. The advertisement is trying to imply that having regular family dinners CAUSES the good grades, so obviously the viewer should buy whatever Stouffer’s product is enabling the good grades…you don’t want your kids to grow up stupid, do you? In reality, it is just as likely that the families that have regular family dinners are more supportive in other ways as well that enable the students to get good grades. Or perhaps the students that have regular family dinners are the ones that aren’t overscheduled with other activities and thus have more time to study and get good grades. The point is that there are a lot of explanations for the grades, and only one of them has to do with a microwaveable lasagna. I would criticize the people who conducted the “study” being referred to, but my guess is that they were hired by Stouffer’s to collect data that would satisfy the truth in advertising rules. To summarize:

So there’s that…but let’s also come back to this microwaveable lasagna – “ready from the microwave in under 20 minutes”. That’s fantastic and all, but remember what I said earlier about appealing to the stay-at-home mom demographic? It seems to me that this wouldn’t be a demographic that is necessarily looking for the “I need something that I can throw in the microwave because I don’t have time to do anything else” solution…

On a sidenote, the commercial that came on after all of this was for the Venus razor, with the tag line: “What if embrace, the latest from Venus, came with a closeness guarantee? Not just a guarantee to shave you closer, but to get you closer…and closer.” The first time I was listening, my suspicious ears wanted to know how on earth they could make a guarantee to get you closer…and closer to what? (Oh wait, the ad shows a woman pushing a man onto a bed. Got it.) Upon closer inspection, which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t paused again to quote the ad, I see that the ad doesn’t actually make said guarantee, just asks a hypothetical what if…clever. The lesson? Listen carefully people…

Tags: Advertising

13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 The PULSE Review // Apr 8, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    When I was studying for the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test), I started seeing these things everywhere, because the LSAT was absolutely saturated with them.

    But you’re absolutely right; presumably, the dinner table phenomena could simply be one of the many products of some other base characteristic of the family – such as parents who take an active roll in the lives of their children.

    That’s not to say, however, that the dinner table doesn’t have anything to anything with better grades. It might be a vehicle for the whatever the underlying reason is. For example, my parents utilized our time together at the dinner table to lambast my deplorable spelling and reading skills. Mysteriously, I then became a hell of a lot better at those subjects in school.

  • 2 econgirl // Apr 8, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    Did you have microwaveable lasagna at the dinner table? 🙂 I kid, but you are absolutely right. It probably would also not shock you to know that I tutor people for the LSAT.

  • 3 Dan L // Apr 8, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    Your assumption that SAHMs have little need for microwave dinners might be even more insulting to SAHMs than the daytime commercials they are subjected to.

    By the way, Stouffers lasagna is pretty darn good. It’s one of the best mass-produced frozen foods available. It’s even better than *many* specimens of homemade or restaurant-made lasagnas. But making it in the microwave is probably a bad idea–at least use the damn oven!

    As for truth-in-advertising, we have a right not to be lied to, but do we really have a right not to be intentionally misled? That seems like an impossibly high standard. In practice, that’s almost like a near-total ban on information. The solution is to educate people to not be morons.

    This reminds me of your post on the xkcd bailout comic. I thought it was one of the worst xkcd’s I’ve seen, and I didn’t even understand it when I first read it. Because if referring to the number 1,000,000,000 as the word “billion” is somehow disingenuous, then god help us all. In any case, if a person is so clueless that he does NOT intuitively understand the difference between a million and a billion, is there really any point in reporting any numbers in any context at all to this person?

    In summary, there is fact, opinion, and then the murky world of interpretation of facts–wherein fact and opinion get muddled together. In a world dominated by pure opinion and highly opinionated interpretation of facts, let’s be happy to see plain old facts. I, for one, don’t mind being educated by the Stouffers corporation that there happens to be a study correlating family dinners and good grades. (Unless, of course, Stouffers paid for the study or something else like that. I’m not cool with that.)

  • 4 econgirl // Apr 8, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    My only real assumption was that a microwaveable lasagna is a last resort type of item, but based on your review, I have to admit that I am a little curious. (And to be fair, the lasagna looked pretty good in the commercial.)

    It is actually quite likely that Stouffer’s paid for the study, but that in itself doesn’t make it bad- after all, pharmaceutical companies do it all the time. (Yes, insert ethical grey area here.) If the study was conducted scientifically and objectively, it should be fine, and the only problem is taking a useless conclusion from the study and making it seem important.

    I agree that educating people to not be morons is a good way to go, but the FTC rules for truth in advertising do in fact imply that we have the right to not be misled, since deceptive ads are outlawed by the Federal Trade Commision Act. From the FTC:

    “According to the FTC’s Deception Policy Statement, an ad is deceptive if it contains a statement – or omits information – that:
    Is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances; and
    Is “material” – that is, important to a consumer’s decision to buy or use the product. “

  • 5 The PULSE Review // Apr 8, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    Yes, this is self-serving promotion, but since it came up in the discussion…

    We utilized that xkcd comic in an article entitled “Putting AIG in Perspective”, which can be found here http://pulsereview.com/putting-aig-in-perspective.

    As for lasagna, no, my parents cooked for us – it was another avenue to build character; I’m not the largest fan of eastern european cuisine, and my mother knew this. As for the LSAT, it perhaps is unexpected, but not surprising. I think it’s safe to say “because you know the difference between causation and correlation, you must be an LSAT tutor” is a logical fallacy, highlighted ironically by the difference between causation and correlation.

    That made me giggle. It’s obviously time to sleep.

    Also, did you know that your page is not accessible from the Pentagon?

  • 6 leftymarine // Apr 9, 2009 at 8:02 am

    I’d prefer any frozen food item by Trader Joes over Stouffer’s any day. Actually had a shepherd’s pie last night while studying for my intermediate macro exam. Quite yummy. How’s that for “optimum consumption”?

  • 7 Mid-Week Links | The PULSE Review // Apr 9, 2009 at 9:06 am

    […] Truth In Advertising, Home Cooked Meals Edition… […]

  • 8 muddle // Apr 9, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    As a former FTC advertising lawyer, and someone with a fair knowledge of statistics and economics, I think you hit the nail on the head with your Stouffer’s ad analysis. A reasonable person could interpret the ad as claiming that having regular meals with the family causes good grades. A “reasonable” person does not mean a person who understands the correlation/causation issue. Put another way, if you ask an appropriate sample of people how they understand the ad, and a significant percentage of respondents understand it to mean having regular family meals causes good grades (or aids in the achievement thereof) I think Stouffer’s goose is cooked (sorry for that metaphor).

  • 9 Dan L // Apr 10, 2009 at 11:54 am

    I disagree with muddle, though not on the legal issue. For example, if you showed a normal (read: kind of dumb) person the Stouffers commercial and asked him afterward, “Does having regular family meals cause good grades,” I think he would probably say no. Not because he understands correlation/causation, but because it doesn’t pass the basic common sense smell test. So I would wager that Stouffers is probably safe.

    My analysis then begs the question of why Stouffers makes the claim at all. I think that advertisers know that most good advertising works by planting subconscious associations in people’s minds rather than convincing them of certain truths. So for Stouffers, the point is not get people to go the store thinking, “Ooh, I want my kids to get better grades. I better pick up this Stouffers.” That would be stupid. The idea is to plant the subconscious association: Stouffers lasagna family dinner good grades. In fact, the first association is probably more important to Stouffers, because how many people even associate frozen dinner with the traditional family dinner? Maybe we can get an advertising expert to comment.

    Side note: In my previous comment, I wasn’t saying anything about what is or is not legal, but maybe what should or should not be legal.

    @econgirl: I think this might be the first time you’ve directly responded to one of my comments. I feel honored. I think I will celebrate by cracking open a box of lasagna.

    @leftymarine: Trader Joe’s frozen stuff is okay but overrated. The best place for frozen food is Costco, hands down. I think frozen food gets a bad rap, but a lot of it is pretty decent IF YOU AVOID THE MICROWAVE.

  • 10 andbenwaslike // Apr 14, 2009 at 11:27 am

    Dan L: The common sense filter can easily be surpassed by the little phrase “Studies have shown…”

    I thought the comments about SAHMs not needing a 20-minute dinner solution were interesting. This is an example of a trend I see in advertising all the time, especially in car ads. You see a big SUV off-roading and hear a narrator talking about all the camping and exploring they’ve been able to do in their whatever-the-model-is-this-time. I am wondering how many of the customers who buy the car actually go off-roading or camping at all. Probably few, but the ad is playing to the fantasy that they would become a modern Lewis and Clark if only they had the means. The ad is not saying “you need this” but rather “if you get this your fantasy will come true.” In the case of Stouffer’s ad, maybe they think SAHMs fancy themselves having more important things to do, or better yet, feel that if they had this time-saving solution, they would become the type of person who would have more important things to do.

  • 11 Dave // Apr 14, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    @Dan L

    “Reasonable” is a sliding scale that changes with the education of the population. We’re in a democratic republic – if we choose to only report things to the percentage of the population that instantly groks all math, we’re pretty much sacrificing the ability to influence decision-making, and leaving it up to screaming heads and churches to tell people what to think.

    I do think that statistics needs to be a standard high school class. Most curricula are set up to lead up to calculus, but realistically calculus is unnecessary for 99% of grads – and those that need generally need statistics as well. In terms of courseswork that makes you a better citizen, statistics is probably ahead of everything except for US government/civics.

  • 12 econgirl // Apr 14, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    Perhaps everything except US government/civics and economics. 🙂 It’s shocking how little of what you would consider actual economics is required at the high school level, and that should change. Luckily people like Greg Mankiw agree with me. See for example:

    http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2009/04/defining-high-school-economics.html

  • 13 GeekTeacherMom // Apr 15, 2009 at 7:22 am

    oh but the lasagna in 20 mins does appeal to the late home from a date get dinner on the table before my husband gets in crowd…like that awful Glade commercial where she burns something instead of cleaning. Working on my Doctoral program and teaching online…use the tv for white noise and like you get sucked in by ridiculous commercials that I wonder-where’s the data for that coming from (MBA Marketing makes for a curious girl)

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