Caveat emptor is Latin for “Let the buyer beware”. According to the Oxford dictionary, it describes the principle that the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before making a purchase. So, for example, a potential used car buyer may look at a Carfax report to see if the vehicle has been wrecked or has any hidden problems. In other words, you’re doing your homework, and you should. But what about that pill that allows you to eat anything you want and lose weight? How about that water that prevents cancer?
Doing your homework should involve using credible, objective, third party sources. Let’s take a look at a real life example. (Names and products have been changed to protect the guilty.)
A friend of mine, “Constance”, wants to lose 30 pounds. She heard about a pill that is made from a newly discovered plant from the Amazon and allows you to eat anything and lose as much weight as you want. When I asked Constance why she believed this magic pill would work, she replied that Dr. So-and-So, an MD, had conducted research to verify the legitimacy of the pill. His research determined that it did, indeed, work, therefore Constance believed she could now consume anything while watching the numbers on the scale drop. Upon my investigation, yes, Dr. So-and-So was a real doctor with real credentials, BUT the good doctor was also heavily invested in the company that made the product and was one of the founding members. While he may possibly be credible, he surely isn’t objective because he has a significant financial investment in this product AND he’s not a third party. Of course he’s going to say the pill works! To verify the legitimacy of this pill, another MD or research company that has no ties whatsoever with the manufacturer needs to test it, using accepted protocols, and come to the conclusion it works. Let me stress the no-ties requirement…no sister company, no paid-for-testing money, nada. Without this independent verification, all I can say is “Try working out and eating less. You’ll get better results.”
But what if you can’t do any homework? Take my friend “Rae Ann”, who is now drinking a special water that supposedly helps to prevent cancer. This marketing angle works on the Fear Factor. The claim is irrefutable, it’s impossible to disprove, but it plants a seed in your mind. Do you want to be in the group that is actively trying to not get cancer (ie, the water drinkers), or do you want to be in the group that’s taking its chances as is? The answer is obvious as to which group into which you want to be, so let’s use a little common sense. The National Cancer Institute was established in 1937 as the principal agency in the U.S. for cancer research. While I don’t have the historical budget stream, just note that over the last 6 years the agency’s budget has been approximately $4.9 billion per year. Considering the longevity of the agency and the size of the budget, I personally am pretty confident that if treated water could cure cancer, the NCI would have figured it out by now.
So now you have some insight on what I call the darker side of marketing, and you’re also probably saying “that’s great info but I don’t have time to do all that research”. Then let me suggest this. The next time you’re approached with a miracle product, or your Facebook friend swears by some fabulous mecca rendering whatever, visit Snopes.com. They do this sort of research as well as other myth busting so you don’t have to do it and they explain their findings in easy to read monologue. This way you can change “caveat emptor” to “caveat venditor”, or “let the SELLER beware”.