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The Power of Words and Perception

By: Jeff Falk
Posted: February 1, 2012, from the January 2012 issue of GCI Magazine.

I have the OTR Stream app on my iPhone. It’s a library of radio shows from the 1930s–1950s that you can then stream, and I fall asleep to old Westerns and listen to comedies to keep my sanity as I rehab my 60-year-old home.

As I was cursing my way through yet another touch-up coat of paint to crown molding late last fall, a program called Duffy’s Tavern played in my ear buds, specifically the “Most Popular Bartender on 3rd Avenue” episode (originally aired on May 18, 1949). On many of these radio programs, commercials were live, and the attempts by Archie, Duffy’s bartender, to scam votes for most popular bartender was interrupted by the announcer hawking a deodorant that was “safe.” My flow of invectives momentarily ceased. I thought marketing with claims like “safe” in personal care were a relatively new phenomenon, but it turns out that’s been done since before the damnable crown molding was hung.

It’s an innocuous word, and I’m not arguing a brand should or should not use it as part of its claims, but I do note that innocent statements can be easily appropriated, used to refute the claim itself and provide fuel for those looking to stoke the fires of an agenda.

About the same time as my battle with the crown molding, an NGO-released PR with a headline that stated a well-known baby care brand owner promised to remove carcinogens from its products, and the carefully crafted inflammatory headline was followed with a note that health groups applauded the move. In response, a non-beauty industry Facebook friend of mine posted: “Not the first time I heard this but always amazing. This famous baby shampoo has always contained toxic chemicals,” with a link to a story that focused on the hyperbole and shock of the story value while neglecting to provide any depth on the topic so that reasonable people could be actually well-informed about the products and not simply freaked out.

I commented on the post with background and a little bit of the science GCI and sister publications Cosmetics & Toiletries and Perfumer & Flavorist have reported. I found out discussing the topic on Facebook is akin to discussing religion or politics at a cocktail party. It’s an ugly conversation that gets heated because, when someone fervently believes or wants to believe something, there’s no interest in understanding anything beyond what’s already been chosen to believe.