Bad and Dangerous

I’m in the middle of reading Bad Science by Ben Goldacre.

It’s generally about how poor scientific method and the withholding or masking of key facts are used to sell useless tat to the public. I’ll do a proper review once I’ve finished reading it, but in the meantime it reminded me of one of my favourite examples of odd selling technique.

But first, if you don’t know what a “rabbit ears” TV aerial is, have a look at some of these pictures

Some of those odd mail order catalogues – you know, the ones that arrive every couple of months even though you can’t remember asking for them – have been running, for years, an ad for a set-top TV aerial. It looks a bit like a tiny satellite dish with two bent rods sticking out of the top. The description gushes “Works by “RF” technology…Picks signals right out of the air, just like ordinary ‘rabbit ears’…you don’t pay satellite charges because you don’t receive satellite signals…” – and my favourite “Not technical razzle-dazzle, but a marketing breakthrough!”.

What I love is the total ordinariness of the product, made up to look like something flash, combined with the scrupulous honesty of the description. What the product is, is a normal set-top aerial for receiving analogue terrestrial channels (BBC One and Two, ITV, Channel Four, and if you don’t live in Southampton, Channel Five). Electrically it’s a Marconi dipole, similar to “ordinary rabbit ears”, with the elements made of a thicker rod which will slightly improve the bandwidth. The “satellite dish” has no effect on signals at all.

So lets look again at those claims:
Works by “RF” technology…
The nearest thing to any dishonesty, the quotes around RF implies that “RF” technology is something exciting and new. RF stands for Radio Frequency. It’s an aerial. How else would it work?

Picks signals right out of the air…
Well yes, it’s an aerial, that’s what they do. From Jodrell Bank to the rusty coathanger jammed in a fifteen-year old Cortina, that’s what they do.

Just like ordinary ‘rabbit ears…
In other words, it works as well (or as badly) as the previous product it replaces.

…you don’t pay satellite charges because you don’t receive satellite signals…
…or any of the satellite channels, of course. It’s a limitation made to look like a selling point – Bill Gates would be proud of these guys. And saving the best for last…

Not technical razzle-dazzle…
…or in other words, this product is in no way technically different to the product that preceded it…

…but a marketing breakthrough!
…but we’ve found a great new way to sell it to you!

UPDATE – I found a picture of it on this blog

At least these are harmless – at the very worst people have spent a few quid on a product that’s no better than what they had before, but probably isn’t any worse. Some of the examples in Dr Goldacre’s book are dangerous or fatal, and a lot more cunningly disguised.

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