x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Who needs honest advertising? Gullible consumers will do

Two white-collar professionals recently visited my office after arranging a meeting through a mutual friend.

Two white-collar professionals recently visited my office after arranging a meeting through a mutual friend. One of them, who radiated an experienced demeanor, talked about how beautiful my country was, and then suddenly launched into an explanation about why I should invest in his company's product. The second guy, the techie, was introduced as a top business school whiz kid who had seen it all. He too went on and on, mentioning all sorts of technical terms and statistical trends.

None of it interested me or was relevant to my business. Not once did they stop to ask what it was that I wanted. @body arnhem:Throughout the region, this indifferent attitude towards clients is strong and institutional. In fact, it seems to grow with the strength of an institution. One of my favourite examples has always been banks. They often advertise how you could win a fortune if you make a deposit with them.

A lottery jackpot isn't exactly the most appropriate incentive to do business. Why can't they advertise good service and cheap rates? But even if these giant companies advertised such commonsense messages, would you believe them? Consider telecoms. Isn't it amazing that after slashing prices by 50 per cent in the last few decades, some regional telecoms firms continue to be among the most expensive service providers in the world? What exactly does it say to the consumer when we find out that they can still rake in huge profits after halving prices? The giant firms, of course, have clients flooding in anyway and salesmanship is never really tested, or needed.

Salesmen of more ordinary products tend to be slightly more talented, but not necessarily any truer to their clients. They marshal the power of advertising to play on our aspirations. Increasingly, however, there is a gap between what the ad promises and what the products offer. Sadly, many of us fall for these messages even after they have insulted our intelligence. Consider the prevailing themes of beauty and fitness. On the one hand, prophets of doom harass us about our intake of sugar and fat. On the other, the biggest and most powerful advertisers and retailers are soft drink makers and food chains. If you believe the ads, buying their products is all you need to do to transform yourself into someone else - much better looking and popular, of course.

Here is a list of ingredients found on a leading cola maker's website: "Kola nuts, vanilla beans, flavour oils, citrus, sweeteners and the purest waters we can distil. Then we add the best technology and all the care we can muster to blend our ingredients." Picture this dreamy concoction for a moment, and then check back into reality. Colas are made up mostly of water. The next most important ingredient is sugar, and then carbonic acid (which makes carbon dioxide, the "fizz"). Other acids, including phosphoric acid, are added for extra bite. How was the word "soft" ever associated with these drinks?

Then there are the skin whitening creams that will make you look like a television star, mood-altering drinks that blatantly advertise massive doses of caffeine, and the slimming drinks that encourage you to eat more as long as you remember an elixir that accelerates digestion. And here is my favourite: the ever-recurring new and improved washing detergent of the season. Does that mean the previous products were inferior, and that we were duped into buying them? Were we wrong to trust the previous ads? But of course we can trust the new one.

The best salesmen and women I meet these days are in retail clothing stores. They immediately ask you if there is something specific you are looking for. The really good ones allow you to look around on your own after letting you know they're available. These few remaining professional salespeople will have done their homework beforehand, displayed their wares tastefully, and may even ask you to try the product before buying: no nonsense, no hidden costs. And, no coincidence, they stand to lose their jobs if they don't listen to the customer.

You wonder how some of these other guys keep their jobs. Did those two salesman in my office actually expect to sell me anything? Maybe it was all just an excuse to visit my beautiful country. Anees Sultan is a writer and businessman based in Oman