One Easy Way to Spot When News is Actually Advertising

Was it long absence that made something so subtle appear so obvious? It’s been a long time since I’ve watched TV news. Is that why a blink-and-you-miss it segment jumped up, slapped me in the face, and yelled, “I’m not a real news piece! I’m trying to sell you something!”?

I don’t know, but it did teach me one good lesson about how to cut through the crap. Here’s one easy trick for spotting when news is more than mere news – look for the unnecessary element.

Look for that bit which adds nothing to your understanding of the story. The bit that seems chosen arbitrarily. The meaningless trifle. The thing which, when added, completely changes the meaning of the entire piece.

See if you can spot it in the news I saw. The story ran something like this:

It is the anniversary of a long-ago big change in our currency system.

An elderly man is interviewed. He worked at a particular bank in his youth and had to keep a close eye on the change.

Background info is given. Why we changed – it was a simpler system. The challenges – people thought it would be confusing. Why it worked – it had a good PR campaign. A few black and white cartoons drive home the point.

A young woman from the same bank as the old man is interviewed. “Most of our customers now use internet banking,” she says. The news presenter closes the story, “…and that goes to show that people are just as adaptable as they’ve ever been.”

Did you spot it?

Think for a moment.

Why that particular bank? Twice. And why mention internet banking? That currency change – a massive abrupt government rearrangement of the system – was in no way similar to the general private trend towards internet banking. Why bring it up? And besides… doesn’t everyone already know this?

At face value they are trying to tie the past to the present. Make it relevant. We changed then, we change now. But it still is a strange choice. We’ve had other top-down abrupt changes to our currency system in recent times – phasing out small coins, redesigning notes etc. Surely these are the obvious examples to turn to.

So why talk about internet banking? Surely this is an unnecessary element. Yet it completely changes the meaning of the story.

Maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe the media can’t help but churn this stuff out. Maybe the entire story was written by that bank. But the meaning of the story is clear:

Hi there old folks!

Are you old enough that you still watch TV news? Are you old enough that you remember that big old currency change? Are you old enough that you don’t already know that everybody uses internet banking these days?

Well, then you’ll remember that even though the currency change looked big and scary it turned out to be both easy and so much simpler than the old way… just like internet banking.

Most of our customers already use it. You’ve made a big change before. You can make a big change again.

Internet banking. It’s for you!




Tooth Fairy, What Have You Been Teaching Us?

A case can be made that all the mythical figures of childhood exist to teach children how the world works. The Easter Bunny teaches us the supreme goal of life (chocolate). Santa Claus teaches us morality (good deeds receive material rewards – the prosperity gospel for children). And the Tooth Fairy? She teaches us economics. Her lesson: everything is for sale. Today your teeth. Tomorrow your kidneys.


Think about it.

We encourage our children to sell their teeth to a mysterious stranger who only agrees to meet at night, and only agrees to carry out the exchange on the condition that they can never be identified. Why? Are we prepping our kids for the dark realities of the illegal organ trade? No sane parent would want to teach their children that body parts have a monetary value, yet the Tooth Fairy tradition seems to teach exactly that. What is going on here?

“Oh come on,” you might say. “It’s all just a bit of fun, isn’t it? No one is really doing this to teach their kids about capitalism, are they?”

Are we?

I think we are.

The logic of market exchange runs deep in the Tooth Fairy ritual. If it were just about fun, then the Tooth Fairy could leave anything – toys, a toothbrush, a piece of fruit. But the Tooth Fairy leaves cash. She pays for the tooth.

And it gets weirder.

Many people seem to see this as an explicitly market exchange. Advocates of dental hygiene suggest that the Tooth Fairy ought to leave hygiene evaluations letting children know that good quality teeth fetch higher prices. Some parents seem to have taken this advice. The message to the kids: keep healthy, your body parts will sell better.

Not weird enough?

Tooth prices are subject to inflation. If the money aspect was just for fun, why does it track the consumer price index? We could have all given our kids the same amount of money we got when we were kids. Yet everyone seems to have felt compelled to match the going market rate. You wouldn’t want your kid to feel underpaid would you? Indeed, figuring out what to pay your child can be sufficiently confusing that you might even want help from a financial analyst…


That’s right.

The multinational financial services corporation, VISA, has created what only a finance company could: an app to help you figure out the exchange rate for teeth. How did we get here?

Every culture has some ritual around baby teeth. The first inklings of the modern Tooth Fairy lurk obscurely in the 1900s. She likely grew out of an older European custom of giving baby teeth to mice. The kid would take their tooth, crawl behind the oven, and stick it into that mouse hole you’ve been meaning to patch up. Then they would ask the resident mouse to take the tooth and magically help them grow a strong new tooth. No capitalism here. This was very clearly about fun, and magic, and growing up, and rodents.

Then something weird happened. Magic gifts morphed into market transaction. The Tooth Fairy was born. Considering her values it’s no surprise when and where she comes from: 1950s USA – roll on the consumer society, the Cold War, and the Tooth Fairy. Just why she became so popular so fast is unclear. Could it be because she fitted the cultural zeitgeist so much better than feeding your teeth to a rat? You can’t fight the Commies with a magic mouse.

Do children actually pick up on all these ultra-capitalist overtones? Is it all just fun? Good clean capitalist fun? Who knows? I lived through the Tooth Fairy as a child, and I haven’t sold my kidneys. Not yet I haven’t, not yet.


Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:

VISA have an online version of their app for Canada here

The Tooth Fairy: Perspectives on Money and Magic. Tad Tuleja (1989) AFS Conference Papers, in Children’s Folklore Review (Spring 1991). Here.