Phishing in the ad world

Manasi Phadke | Updated on: Jan 19, 2022
Free markets not only produce goods about are also about producing wants

Free markets not only produce goods about are also about producing wants | Photo Credit: TarikVision

‘Phishermen’ do not act in the best interest of consumers

It is 8:30 pm, dinner time. You switch on the TV and have plans to watch your favourite serial whilst having dinner. You are just going to have a bite, when oops! That advertisement wherein this movie star visits people’s places just to peek into some really disgusting toilets suddenly appears on screen. And then the pitch that a particular toilet cleaner will not only do away with the stains but also kill 99.99 per cent of the germs in the toilets.

You are irritated and mildly wonder whether the Omicron might be found lurking in the loo and switch to another channel where they are showing you floor cleaners which also apparently kill 99.99 per cent of the germs. And then, of course there are sanitizers, detergents, air purifiers, even ACs, all of which have these tremendous success rates on all germs except that little wriggly little micron they show in that ad which I am sure is the Omicron.

And then, these really fake looking doctors appear on your screen to tell you about this food supplement that was missing in your diet so far which apparently is that exact thingy that kicks Omicron into action. It is a wonder that you are alive at all, you start hyperventilating. Oh God, where’s my oximeter, the one I purchased at 30 per cent discount on this online med portal after seeing the ad?

Hmm, what we are seeing here is what economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller call ‘Phishing for Phools’. In a book titled by that very name, Akerlof and Shiller explore how markets often reach what they call as ‘phishing’ equilibria. We all understand ‘phishing’ as getting deceived through a fraudulent communication, often received through email from an apparently legitimate source wherein the respondent is asked for some information on bank accounts, passwords, etc.

Akerlof and Shiller use the term ‘phishing’ more broadly to imply getting people to do what the ‘phisherman’ intends but is not in the best interest of the target. The ‘phool’ is of course the one who is phooled, errr, fooled, into getting phished. Phew! One of the central tenets of the books is that free markets do not only produce goods. Rather, free markets are also ‘about producing wants, so that we buy what they want to sell’.

Da Vinci, the champion of the Phools

So, all those prime-time ads that you see between your favourite serials are the products of these phishermen trying to make phools out of you. But don’t worry, I have some phantastic news for you! We have a champion within the world of ads, one who is trying to signal to you that someone is trying to phool you. I call this guy our very own Da Vinci, one of the Knights Templar in the holy grail of phishing.

Take the example of the toilet cleaner killing 99.99 per cent of the germs. The product might even be killing 99.99 per cent of a particular type of a bacterium carefully isolated on a petri-dish in perfect laboratory environments. But that is a far cry from those terrible toilets one sees in the advertisements, which must be hosting minimally 118 different types of bacteria. In fact, the advertisements themselves support the fact that there might be different type of bacteria. Remember how they show those mossy green, ochre yellow and dark brown specimens? This is the work of a Da Vinci within the advertisement world who is working on the dark side but actually supports the consumers through these deep codes. So dark the con of man!

Take another example. Why does one eat chewing gum? Adolescents do it to look more insolent and irritating than they already are. But not so in the world of phishing. Apparently, one chews gum in order to make the teeth look bright and fresh and white. So, there was this decidedly entertaining advertisement in which a cow chews the gum and gets bright white teeth and gives you a flashing smile to prove it. A great attempt by the phisherman lobby, except for one tiny thing. O Draconian Devil! Da Vinci has been hard at work. Cows do not have front teeth!

Well, one day, the phishermen found out about Leo in their midst. When confronted, Leo said in a scared tone worthy of a person having his Last Supper, “I fear to think I’m here!” Phishermen laughed mirthlessly and felt that now they can carry on with their ads to phool the public some more. Little do they know that Leo is a champ of anagrams. What he had just told them was, “I think, therefore I am”. Watch out for more codes at 8:30 pm tonight!

The writer is a brave economist trying to laugh against the odds

Published on January 19, 2022
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