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6 Cases of Shamelessly False Advertising

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Sometimes false advertising is easy to spot. Statements like "Lose 20 pounds in 5 days" or "Make $1 million a month while sitting at home" seem to choke on their own incredulity, but sometimes marketers employ a little more finesse to bamboozle you. Here are six examples of shamelessly false advertising campaigns that weren't just implicitly misleading—they were blatant lies.

1. Listerine as a Cure-All

Listerine was the first over-the-counter mouthwash sold in the United States in 1914 and by 1921 it was already falsely marketing its product. Declaring itself a cure-all for common cold ailments like sore throats and coughs, a dandruff preventative, an anti-shave tonic, and a safe way to protect yourself from cuts, bruises, wounds, and stings, Listerine was slapped with numerous false advertisement lawsuits. In 1975, the Federal Trade Commission ordered the company to spend $10 million in corrective advertising, seeing as their product was no more effective in treating colds than gargling warm water. Even then, the mouthwash giant didn't really learn their lesson. In 2005, the company was slapped with another lawsuit. This time because Listerine claimed it was as "effective as floss" after rigging clinical trials.

2. Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound (Great for boozy housewives!)

Picture 176.pngTouted as one of the world's first successful businesswomen, Lydia Pinkham exploited her reputation as a local medicine woman to propel her herbal remedy into a commercial success, eventually grossing almost $400,000 yearly. The remedy claimed to cure all womanly ailments and weaknesses and sold for $1 a bottle. What was in the herbal remedy? Turns out, it contained less than 1% solid substance from vegetable extracts and almost 20% alcohol. If a woman took the suggested 1 tablespoon every 2-4 hours, she will have consumed 5 ounces of 13.5% or higher alcohol by the end of the day "“ more than enough for a healthy buzz that made life seem a bit more cheery to boozy housewives. When the Federal Trade Commission tightened its laws on claims made by medicines, Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound had to swallow the restrictions with a spoonful of sugar.

3. Crystal Clear Amoco Gasoline: Good, Clean Fun

Picture 193.pngIn 1996, the Amoco Oil Company agreed to settle a Federal Trade Commission charge that its "Crystal Clear Amoco Ultimate" advertised unsubstantiated claims. The premium gasoline, because of its clear color, boasted superior engine performance and environmental benefits. The fact is, at the time the country was going through a clear revolution. Pepsi had gone clear (Crystal clear, in fact!). Clearly Canadian was dominating shelves. And Amoco, which had for years made a clear colored fuel, decided to capitalize on the trend. Unfortunately, they had no factual evidence to substantiate their "better for the environment and your engine" claims, and the company was forced to curb their campaign.

4. Dr. Koch's Cure All

Picture 202.pngStarting in 1919, Dr. William Frederick Koch bottled and marketed a cancer, infection, and allergy cure-all with the help of his brother Louis. His drug glyoxylide, which he claimed cured "practically all human ills, including . . . tuberculosis" sold for $25 (1948 price) in local drug stores. The FDA had always been suspicious of the doctor, but not until they tested the drug in 1948 and found it contained nothing more than distilled water were their suspicions confirmed. And what proved to be more appalling, they discovered that Dr. Koch had been treating cancer patients by telling them to detox with the aid of enemas and fresh fruit and vegetable juices, taking only the smallest doses of painkillers. Unfortunately, despite all of his patients dying enough evidence was never found to present a viable case against him, and Dr. Koch moved to Rio de Janeiro in the late 1940s.

5. Airborne Gets a Flunking Grade

Picture 214.png"It's the one designed by the school teacher!" Airborne, which entered the market 10 years ago first claimed to prevent colds, then claimed to boost your immune system, and is now claiming a federal lawsuit. In March of this year, Airborne settled a lawsuit in which it agreed to pay over $23 million in fines for false advertising. David Schardt, who spearheaded the lawsuit against Airborne says there is no factual evidence to back the companies claims, likening Airborne to a placebo and advising people fighting colds to simply take a Vitamin C pill.

6. The Trick Wedding straight from Mickey Blue Eyes

We know this one isn't a product, but the story was so good we had to include it. In September 1990, a group of drug crime suspects in Corunna, Michigan, received an invitation to a wedding from a well"“known drug dealer in the area. Attendees were asked to check their guns at the entrance, apparently a common occurrence at these events. As part of a five-month undercover investigation, the police staged and advertised a wedding on a Friday night, figuring it was easier to make drug suspects come to them than to round them up. The groom was an undercover investigator, the bride a Flint police officer, and the bride's father (and reputed crime boss) was the police chief. That evening, after the vows, the toasts, and the dancing, the band, called SPOC, or COPS spelled backward, played "Fought the Law," setting off the cue for the evening's real agenda. All the police officers were then asked to stand, and those who remained seated were arrested. A dozen suspects were booked and, by Saturday afternoon, 16 were in custody.

Portions of this story were excerpted from Forbidden Knowledge, which is available from our store.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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