Selling With Science: The Good, The Bad And How Things Change
As a communications agency that aligns itself with science-oriented companies, our ears always prick up when we hear marketing and advertising campaigns appropriating science concepts in an effort to sell more services or products.
In reality, it’s a time-tested gambit of advertisers, especially those promoting consumer products in the following industries:
- Cleaning and Detergents
Why Do Advertisers Use Science?
Every time consumers shop, they face a plethora of products of all types, even for the most mundane items. At first glance, most shampoos, light bulbs or televisions may seem the same or at least very similar. So advertisers are constantly looking for ways to differentiate their products and make them stand out.
Using science is one way to do that. When advertisers explain the science behind their products, it makes arguments to buy their product seem more persuasive. Consumers want to purchase products that work, and they’re more like to believe in a product doing what it is claimed to do if those claims are backed by science.
Science vs. Pseudoscience
Science itself is defined by Google as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”
Flash back to middle or high school science classes, and you may remember learning about the scientific method. But in case you forgot, here’s a quick reminder: a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.
The way it works is that a scientist makes an observation that prompts him or her to ask a question. The scientist then formulates a hypothesis and conducts rigorous experiments to test it. He or she then either accepts or rejects the hypothesis based on those experimental results. The scientific method is typically an iterative process — some experimentation often leads to more experimentation as more knowledge is incrementally gained and hypotheses are tested and refined, one at a time. (Learn more about the scientific method.)
Pseudoscience, on the other hand, is a false science. In advertising, it happens when advertisers inaccurately present or exaggerate scientific claims to sell a product, whether or not they have the intention to deceive. (Read more about selling pseudoscience.)
Wikipedia defines pseudoscience as a collection of “statements, beliefs, or practices that are claimed to be both scientific and factual, but are incompatible with the scientific method. Pseudoscience is often characterized by contradictory, exaggerated or unfalsifiable claims; reliance on confirmation bias rather than rigorous attempts at refutation; lack of openness to evaluation by other experts; and absence of systematic practices when developing theories, and continued adherence long after they have been experimentally discredited.”
Techniques For Incorporating Science Into Advertising
Some examples of this include using words like “cellular” or “molecular” or “genetic” or “gene therapy,” or using Greek or Latin terms in marketing materials. Less scrupulous advertisers may even concoct and use scientific-sounding terms for their own nefarious purposes.
Another way to make something seem more scientifically valid is to make quantitative claims which may or may not be valid. Think of how many medical advertising campaigns used to start with “Nine out of 10 doctors recommend…,” or how many weight loss ads have promised dieters that they would lose a specific number of pounds in a specific period of time, or how many products are promised to work “twice as long” or “twice as fast” as a competing product. Yes, some quantitative claims are true and can be proven, but many are unprovable statements intended to make something intangible or difficult to quantify seem more substantive.
Marketing with science isn’t just about words. Vivid imagery is another common tool deployed by advertisers incorporating science. Photographs, graphs and charts depicting the science behind a product or its effects may serve as “evidence” backing advertising claims. And with a picture worth a thousand words, well constructed images can quickly become an ad campaign’s most effective tool.
Yet still another way to use science to sell is to appoint a scientist as an expert spokesperson for a product or service. Sometimes the spokesperson is actually a scientist; other times it’s an actor portraying a scientist. Either way, the expert sells the product by explaining the science behind it, thus giving credibility to the product’s claims.
So What’s The Problem?
There’s nothing wrong with using science to truthfully market a product or service. Where it gets sketchy is when advertisers use false science or pseudoscience in their marketing. It’s like the advertising equivalent of fake news.
With the spread of standardized education, more consumers have attained a basic scientific literacy. We are more likely to be familiar with key scientific terms we learned in middle school or high school, but do we actually remember what all those terms mean?
Many of us know just enough science to be dangerous. That makes us perhaps more susceptible than ever to the use of scientific words, images and concepts in marketing to make products seem more legitimate. The reality is that even among us consumers who want to learn more about the science behind marketing claims, most are too busy to dive into what really is and isn’t true.
When It Works: Pharmaceuticals
Because the process of developing and selling new drugs is well regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), including both research and clinical trials, science plays a legitimate role in the marketing of many pharmaceuticals.
Let’s look at the cancer drug Iressa® by AstraZeneca as a positive example of the use of science in both product development and marketing. It’s a proven, targeted treatment, especially for people with metastatic, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) that has spread beyond the lungs, and who have certain types of abnormal epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) genes.
Iressa® works by slowing down the growth of the cancer cells for people with those certain genetic mutations. It may also reduce the size of their tumors. The drug was developed according to scientific processes and is intended to be administered only to patients who meet well-defined criteria. That increases the likelihood that the drug will be truly effective for its users.
An interesting trend with newer cancer medications like Iressa and others such as Imfinzi® is the use of biomarkers that enable doctors to identify special markers in a patient that make them more or less responsive to certain treatments. The science behind these drugs is facilitating the move toward truly personalized medicine.
When It Works: Technology
Let’s take a look at another positive example: noise-cancelling headphones. They help block out ambient noise that interferes with the experience of listening to whatever we’re trying to hear through our headphones. The classic case for noise-cancelling headphones is on airplanes because the ambient noise of a jet engine often interferes with passengers’ efforts to listen to music or podcasts.
Noise-canceling headphones by brands like Bose or Sony can be based on active and/or passive technology. Passive types use only materials to filter noises by absorbing unwanted frequencies of ambient noise. Active types also erase certain unwanted frequencies by intentionally creating their own sound waves that are similar in amplitude and frequency to, but 180 degrees out of phase with, those of the undesired noises. The result is destructive interference, where the produced sound waves cancel out the unwanted sound waves, enabling the user to hear only the wanted noises.
When It Doesn’t Work: False Advertising In Supplements And Foods
History is filled with product after product that falsely used science in advertising. Sometimes it was intentional, sometimes it wasn’t; sometimes the “science” wasn’t proven to be “wrong” until well after the advertising had ended.
Two industries where misusing science in advertising is common are supplements and food. Let’s consider two representative examples.
Herbal supplement maker Airborne settled a false advertising lawsuit for $23.3 million in 2008 after it could not prove its claims that it would prevent and cure colds by boosting the immune system of those who took it. Studies cited by Airborne in its marketing turned out not to have been real clinical trials but were instead conducted by laypeople. Although Airborne officially admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement, it did ultimately have to change its marketing.
Food producer Kellogg faced not one but two crises over how it used science to market two cereal products. In 2011, it settled a case by paying $2.5 million to consumers and donating $2.5 million of its products to charity after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) took issue with false advertising claiming its Rice Krispies cereal could improve a child’s immunity with "25 percent Daily Value of Antioxidants and Nutrients — Vitamins A, B, C and E.” Then in 2013, it agreed to pay $4 million to settle with the FTC over claims of false advertising that Mini-Wheats improved "children’s attentiveness, memory and other cognitive functions by nearly 20%” and for violating federal law.
Changing Times And Changing Science: Tobacco
The tricky thing about science is that by its very nature, what it teaches us can change as we learn more and more. So, let’s consider one final example of science in marketing: the tobacco industry. It first used science for its own advertising purposes before later having others use science against it.
In the early decades of the 20th century, cigarette companies used science to sell smoking, advertising it as a way to stay happy and healthy — for example, by promoting cigarettes for nerves and digestion as documented by Yale University Library. It recruited doctors as medical experts who would approve of smoking, on the record, even as evidence mounted about the dangers of smoking.
Tobacco industry marketing also later used science to claim the superiority of particular cigarette brands. It cited scientific studies and chemical analyses to “prove” that some brands were “healthier” than others.
It was a long journey from using science to support tobacco use to wielding science as a weapon against the tobacco industry. It took decades and mounting evidence to gradually change minds. An Atlantic Monthly article from 1956 depicts some of the churn along the way. It tried to use science to delve into exactly how unhealthy smoking was and whether there was any benefit to stop smoking after a long period of smoking. Take this excerpt:
The year 1950 saw the publication of four independent statistical studies, each of which established a significantly higher percentage of heavy cigarette smokers among lung cancer patients than among any other group. There have now been more than fourteen similar studies, and without exception they arrive at this same conclusion. But there are intrinsic weaknesses in the design of retrospective studies of this kind—weaknesses which made many, including ourselves, skeptical of the results.
The article shows how, like it or not, mindsets were starting to evolve about the dangers of smoking, but it would take still more time and more science until people widely changed their beliefs and better understood what seems today like a now obvious link between smoking and certain cancers. You can read more about the evolution of popular thinking about smoking benefits and dangers as influenced by science over time in this Popular Science article.
Fast forward to modern times, and public health campaigns now consistently use science to advocate vehemently against smoking. A quick look at the Tobacco-Free Kids’ current website, which aims to protect kids from second-hand smoke and the proliferation of e-cigarettes, shows just how much times have changed.
What Can YOU Do?
If you’re a consumer… remember these timeless words of wisdom: “Buyer Beware.” Don’t let yourself be intimidated by jargon, and don’t simply assume that scientific-sounding ads are true. Especially when buying goods or services that are expensive and/or could impact your health or your environment, it’s worth it to take some time to research product claims. Read the actual studies cited, don’t be afraid to ask the companies themselves to truly explain “why” and “how”, and talk to others with more relevant scientific backgrounds to gain context.
If you’re a marketer… this is a chance to practice ethical marketing and educate others. Don’t blindly cite studies or results claimed by your management team or advertising colleagues. Dive into the real research and development behind your product, understand it, then figure out how to truthfully represent its findings. Think about how you can accurately express the science or technology behind your products in layperson’s terms so that your consumers will better understand how your product works and why it really is their best choice. By investing such time and effort, your marketing will not only be more truthful, but it will also be more effective, so you’ll sell more.