Thursday, February 24, 2005

More for Less

What could be better than getting more of something for less money? Actually, there is something better and that is getting more of something for nothing -- but we know that isn't going to happen. I ran across a "more for less claim" today that reminded me of some old General Motors ads exclaiming that we could Get more car for less money. This was in a Hertz ad that went on to say, Get a one car class upgrade when you book online.

In my book, The Language of Television Advertising, I deconstructed the meanings of several "more for less" claims, investigated them, and found that they are typically ambiguous, having two possible literal interpretations and, what is more, they are typically false on both interpretations.

The first such ad I encountered was a "more car for less money" television promotion on behalf of the 1978 Chevy Chevette. The basic claim seems to have been that the 1978 Chevette was more car (had more features) than the 1977 Chevette and cost less money than did the 1977 car. What a deal! The kicker though was that a disclaimer appeared on screen, which was printed in three lines, each of which used 3.7% of the vertical height of the television screen and it appeared on screen for just 5 seconds, presupposing a reading speed of 228 words per minute. I showed it to five Ph. D.'s and they like I couldn't read it in the time allowed (partly, perhaps, because the voice-over announcer continued his pitch for the car). What this disclaimer said was that the comparison was between the standard 1978 Chevette and a comparably equipped 1977 Chevette.

There is a real problem with this disclaimer. As specified by the disclaimer, the price comparison was between two identical cars, so, at best, General Motors was offering the same car for less money if we concede, as I am happy to do, that the 1978 Chevette cost less than a 1977 Chevette equipped with exactly the same features. What about comparing the standard 1978 car with the standard 1977 car? That does make the "more car" part of the claim true. But was the standard 1978 Chevette less expensive than the 1977 Chevette? No, as it turns out, it was not less expensive. So we have a claim that admits of two interpretations and on both it is false: Get the same car for less money and Get more car for more money. The 1978 Chevette became the best selling car in America that year and one wonders what sort of role this deceptive commercial played in the success of the car. General Motors ran exactly the same promotion for two different cars the next year as one can see in my book.

I leave it to you to check out the Hertz promotion but I'm betting that it comes down to getting an "upgraded" car for the same amount of money as you would have had to pay for the lesser car, not a smaller amount of money.

I have been asked many times if those who create these "more for less" claims do so in an effort to deceive us. I don't think that this is necessarily true. It took me a weekend to sort out these two interpretations of the Chevette ad and to investigate what features the 1978 car had that the 1977 car didn't have and what the price of the "comparable 1977" car would have been, which wasn't easy. They are a bit tricky.

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Blogger Glen Whitman said...

"So we have a claim that admits of two interpretations and on both it is false: Get the same car for less money and Get more car for more money."

For the latter interpretation, did you mean to say "more car for *the same* money"? Because it sounds like the "more car for more money" is exactly what was being offered.

1:32 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Yes, the disclaimer made clear that the real offer was more car for more money.

11:09 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Language Guy, you are more kind than I would have thought. There is also another interprettion of the "more for less"proclamation.

"Last year, we overcharged you for this minimally acceptable vehicle, and some of our purchasers felt like suckers when they found out what their friends and neighbors paid for their better equipped Toyota or Nissan. So, this year, we'll keep the vehicle as it was, but throw in a few bells and whistles, while pricing it maybe with a less obscene profit margin."

In my experience, "more for less" is roughly the fear that the consumer will recognize that he or she has been taken for a ride, so the manufacturer will back off a little on price in order to win the consumer's confidence back. As you point out, it is never with any sense of altruism on the part of the producer. Good job!

5:09 PM


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