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March 23, 2020

Sometimes No Disclosure Is Better

Filed under: Food/Groceries,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:06 am

Who would think that Mouse Print* would ever say that less disclosure can sometimes be better than more disclosure? There aren’t too many cases where this is true, but here is one of them.

In preparation for St. Patrick’s Day two weeks ago, MrConsumer checked out the bargains on corned beef at various local supermarkets. Point cut corned beef was on sale for between $1.47 and $1.69 a pound at the low end. As we have shown before, the name of the game when buying cheap corned beef is to check how much water (“solution”) is injected into the beef.

Here are a couple of brands that have 35% water. In other words, you are paying $1.49 a pound for packages that are one-third water and only two-thirds beef.

corned beef

corned beef

MrConsumer did not want to be burned again by those brands, so he hightailed it over to another store offering corned beef for $1.69 a pound. When he looked to see how much water was injected into the brands they carried, the information was conspicuously missing.

*MOUSE PRINT:

corned beef packages

Where was the percentage disclosure like the other brands had? It was nowhere on these packages. I asked the meat man if he knew (he didn’t) and whether he could check the carton. There was no disclosure there either. So, what would you do? Buy one of the unmarked packages and take a chance or take a pass? I left the store corned beef-less.

Since one of the brands was made in Massachusetts, I called headquarters to ask the million dollar question. After about 10 minutes of the receptionist presumably trying to find someone who knew the answer, she finally came back on the line and said “20-percent.”

Why didn’t the company put this on the label? It is a big selling point compared to the competition.

The answer is they don’t have to when the product complies with the federal standard of identity for corned beef which allows, by definition, for there to be up to 20% water in raw corned beef.

*MOUSE PRINT:

§ 319.101 Corned beef brisket.
In preparing “Corned Beef Brisket,” the application of curing solution to the beef brisket shall not result in an increase in the weight of the finished cured product of more than 20 percent over the weight of the fresh uncured brisket.

Only if a product like corned beef does not meet the standard of identity (20% or less of water) does there have to be a clear disclosure on the principal display panel as part of the name stating the percentage of water/solution in the product, as the top group of products shows. [See 9 CFR § 317.2 (e)(2)(i)]

So there you have it. Because the two unlabeled brands above did not exceed the amount of water allowed, they didn’t have to tell consumers how much was actually in it (although it really would have been smart to do so). In this case then, buying raw corned beef with no disclosure is a smarter move than purchasing the ones that tell you how much water has been injected.

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• • •

March 16, 2020

Is it a News Story or an Advertisement?

Filed under: Business,Finance,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:00 am

More and more online news sites seem to be blurring the line between bona fide news and stories that seem more like advertisements.

Last fall, we demonstrated how some Tribune newspapers published product reviews naming the “best” products in a particular but sometimes obscure category, while the publisher quietly earned a commission on the sale of each one shown. Making money may have been a big motivation behind the columns.

Now Business Insider, a popular online site featuring business news stories, is publishing some articles that seem more like promotions than news features.

For example, last week they published this story:

Ally -10 more accounts

Starting in the second paragraph, the reporter touts Ally Bank and the 11 high-yield savings accounts that she has opened there:

I earn interest on the money that’s sitting in that account, and it feels like I won a prize every time I check it.

My husband and I have 11 high-yield savings accounts with Ally, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ally’s online interface makes it easy to see how much I have saved for each goal, and how much I’ve earned in interest this year — currently $44.31.

Say what? You have 11 accounts at Ally and all you’ve made is a measily $44? (We wrote to the reporter to ask if all that was really true, but she did not respond.)

In the story, not a negative word is said about Ally. The reporter mainly extols the virtues of high-yield savings accounts and the one at Ally Bank, but ignores the fact that more than three dozen other banks tracked by DepositAccounts.com pay higher rates of interest on savings accounts than Ally does.

Toward the end of the story, there is an embedded advertisement. Can you guess what bank is being advertised there?

*MOUSE PRINT:

Ally ad

That fine print says that a company called SmartAsset has placed this ad and earns revenue from it, as one might expect.

Business Insider then posts a disclaimer but only after the end of the story:

*MOUSE PRINT:

disclaimer

So Business Insider gets a cut of the commissions when readers open an Ally Bank account. Or perhaps 11 of them.

What is surprising is that back in October, Business Insider published two other similar pieces about Ally Bank where different reporters each touted their experiences with the same bank (and did not include criticism, nor any comparisons to other banks with high-yield accounts):

“I opened a high-yield savings account with online bank Ally to earn 20 times more on my money, and it’s safe to say I’m obsessed”

and

“I ditched my bank when I got married to earn 200 times more with an Ally high-yield savings account, and now I’d tell anyone to try it”

Exactly how many first person testimonial articles touting Ally Bank is Business Insider planning to publish? Could all these stories really be more about making money for Business Insider, Smart Asset, and Ally Bank rather than serving readers with a useful, objective analysis of high-yield savings accounts and the pros and cons of various providers?

Apparently a marketing theory gaining traction suggests that publishers can increase their their income by filling webpages with more “commerce content” — product-centric stories rather than traditional news stories or sponsored stories or ads. When viewers read these positive stories and if tracking reveals they bought the product or service, the publisher is compensated. According to one company in this business, Skimlinks, the most advanced publishers can derive 25-percent of their revenue this way.

The problem for readers is poor disclosure. Publishers should be upfront and disclose financial ties right at the top of stories, so we can better distinguish articles designed to sell us stuff from conventional editorial content.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has two sets of guidelines that call for clear and conspicuous disclosure — one when commercial content is made to look like conventional editorial content (Native Advertising Guidelines) and the other when there is a financial connection between a presenter of information and the subject of that information (Endorsement and Testimonial Guidelines).

We asked all the parties involved (Business Insider, Ally Bank, and Smart Asset) to explain what’s going on here. Are these bona fide news stories or advertisements? Who provided the story and who is paying whom? And do any of them think that readers are being put on clear notice of the underlying commercial nature of them?

Business Insider did not respond directly, but through SmartAsset provided this statement:

Business Insider’s personal finance reporters covered Ally as a product they would recommend, which is their standard practice. In lieu of affiliate links – which are common when it comes to “commerce content” – SmartAsset was used to sell ads against these stories. Any ad revenue generated by such coverage occurred independently of and only after the reporters’ decision to write about Ally.

For its part, SmartAsset (the company which placed the Ally ad), said it did not write the stories, nor pay Business Insider to write them. It only shares revenue with them.

Lastly, Ally Bank said it was not aware of the three stories above before they were published. It says it neither paid Business Insider nor SmartAsset to run them. It does pay SmartAsset to list its deposit rates on various websites.

So, what’s a savvy reader to do? Look more closely at content (stories, blog posts, etc.) even on respected news websites. Ask yourself why is this being posted? Is it truly conveying objective information, including both pros and cons? Are other competing products or services compared? Is there an ad or link within the content directly related to the subject of the story? Are there any disclosures that might reveal a hidden financial connection?

For our part, we will be bringing the concepts and issues related to “commerce content” to the attention of the FTC as they explore what changes should be made to their testimonial guidelines. You can participate in their process here.

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• • •

March 9, 2020

Here We Downsize Again – Winter 2020

Filed under: Downsizing,Food/Groceries,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:59 am

We start the new decade with an old trick — inconspicuously reducing the package size of products as a sneaky way to raise prices. You pay the same price but get less for your money. Here are our latest discoveries. (If you find a product that has been downsized, please take a clear picture of both the old and new size packages and submit it here. )

 

Charmin

The folks at P&G are doing it again on supermarket shelves right now. Newly designed packages of Charmin toilet tissue are sitting next to the current version.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Charmin

The difference is that each “mega” roll now has 20 fewer sheets. And just a reminder… the Charmin of 50 years ago in the Mr. Whipple days had 600-650 single-ply sheets per roll. Thanks to our ace downsizing detective Richard Ginn for spotting this change.

 

Powerade

Another item right in the midst of being downsized now is Powerade. The Coca-Cola Company is reducing the size of its 32-ounce bottles of this sports drink to just 28 ounces. Thanks to consumer reporter John Matarese of WCPO-TV for this tip.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Powerade

 

Puffs

Paper products continue to be downsized regularly. The makers of Puffs tissues reduced the size of its cube-shaped boxes from 56 tissues to 48.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Puffs

Thanks to Liz B. for pointing out how this product changed.

 

Hershey’s Kisses

One of the nasty tricks that some product makers do sometimes when downsizing an item is to make the package size bigger than the old one, but now contain less. In this case, a number of Hershey’s chocolate products sold in large bags lost two ounces last fall. Here, even though it is still called “family size,” these bags of Hershey’s kisses went down from 18 ounces to 16. 1. And their 12-ounce “classic size” bags went from 12 ounces to just 10. But that size got renamed “share size.”

*MOUSE PRINT:

Hershey's Kisses

 

Angel Soft Toilet Tissue

Finally, the downsizing angels pulled a double-whammy on your fanny.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Angel Soft

Not only did they trim 30 sheets off of each roll of their toilet paper, Angel Soft made each sheet more narrow. The four-inch square tissues are now only 3.8-inches wide. Thanks to Richard Ginn for finding this change last fall.

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• • •

March 2, 2020

Do These Products Really Give You 40-50% More?

Filed under: Food/Groceries,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:56 am

Grocery product manufacturers love to hide when they are giving you less for your money, but proclaim loudly when they are giving you more even if they really are providing nothing extra.

Example 1:

Clorox Clean-up spray bottles are adorned with a new claim that the product “cleans 40% more per spray*.”

Clorox 40% more

It took a while to find where that asterisked claim was explained, but there it was in tiny print on the back of the bottle.

*MOUSE PRINT:

Clorox fine print

Well that explains everything… NOT. What in the world does that claim mean? Has the product been reformulated so it is 40% stronger than before and thus cleans 40% better?

We asked the company’s PR folks multiple times for an explanation, but they did not respond. Our guess is that the spray nozzle and feeder tube have been redesigned and now 40% more cleaner comes out with every spritz. That’s sort of like making the hole bigger on the toothpaste tube so you’ll use more.

Examples 2 and 3:

The most common type of “percent more” claim is designed to catch your eye and make you think you are getting a bonus — some extra amount free — because you picked up this particular promotional package.

French's Mustard - Mrs. Butterworth's

When you look more closely at these two bottles, they are not giving you anything extra free. They are merely providing a mathematics lesson.

*MOUSE PRINT:

mustard and syrup disclosures

Both products are just larger size bottles than smaller ones. A 20-ounce bottle is (approx.) 40% more than a 14-ounce bottle, and a 36-ounce is 50% more than 24-ounces. Nothing more. Nothing free.

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• • •

February 24, 2020

Are CVS Customers Better Than Most at Taking Their Pills?

Filed under: Health,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:42 am

Prescription adherence, as it is called, is a real problem. About half of prescriptions issued each year are either not filled or the medicine is not taken correctly. (See report.) So if someone has come up with a more effective method to ensure that patients take their drugs properly, that would be good news.

Along these lines, a curious new claim has recently adorned CVS circulars that asserts that “CVS customers are better than most at staying on their prescriptions*.”

CVS better than most

That asterisk goes to a small footnote on the front page of their advertisement.

*MOUSE PRINT:

“Based on 2019 study of national retain chain customer prescription adherence for diabetes, hypertension and hyperlipidemia medications.”

Checking the CVS website for further details, the following is displayed:

CVS better reasons

So, out of curiosity, we asked the CVS PR folks for a copy of the study, who did it and paid for it, how competitors fared, and whether the study explicitly cited the three elements above as reasons for CVS customers’ superior adherence record. The company only responded with this statement:

CVS Pharmacy worked with an independent third-party firm to study data for the top dispensed prescriptions in the U.S. across different pharmacy competitors. That data was used to create a campaign educating our customers on the benefits of filling prescriptions at CVS Pharmacy.

All this seems to say is that CVS paid for the study. We are left guessing as to which competitors did better than CVS, and which did worse. But without seeing the actual study, we simply don’t know if the conclusions that CVS drew are substantiated by it.

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