Since the creation of sugar-substitute or ‘sugar-free’ chewing gum, the main selling point has focused on dental health benefits, with products commonly advertised as ‘tooth friendly’. The Wrigley’s Extra campaign is no different, consisting of a series of advertisements in which cute little food and drink characters are portrayed as ‘plaque-causing troublemakers’ until Extra gum swoops in to save the day.
This particular example uses the persuasive technique of misleading inference. This is when the advert information is phrased or structured in such a way that the consumer makes an assumption which is not necessarily correct; it implies something not explicitly stated. In this case, the viewer is presented with two phrases:
‘There are a lot of nasty plaque-causing troublemakers out there
That’s why every time you eat or drink, don’t forget to chew Extra’
The first is simply stating that food and drink items cause plaque, which is troublesome. The second informs the viewer that when they consume food or drink, they should chew Extra gum. Despite the fact that nowhere in this advert does it explicitly say that chewing gum after food gets rid of plaque, this is the assumption made. Although chewing gum has been proven to temporarily reduce plaque levels, it is recommended when difficult to perform proper oral hygiene, and not by any means in the place of brushing and flossing. However, the juxtaposition of the phrases in the advert implies a causal message that if you chew Extra gum after you eat, you will have no plaque.
Harris (1977) demonstrated the effectiveness of misleading inference. Participants were asked to listen to 20 commercials for fictional products, in which the critical claim was either directly asserted or pragmatically implied (see Table 1 for example). For each commercial, they provided a critical (paraphrased information) and a control (false or indeterminate) test statement which participants rated as true, false or indeterminate truth value. Subjects were divided into 3 groups; immediate (rated after each commercial), concurrent (immediate with a written transcript) and delayed (evaluated when all had been heard). Furthermore, half of each group received instructions explicitly warning them not to interpret implied claims as asserted.
Table 2 shows the results. A large proportion of both assertion and implication items were rated as true under all conditions, with all but two conditions having over 7/10 true responses. This shows a tendency to process and remember pragmatic implication similarly to direct assertions. The number of true responses to implications decreased when instructions were given, and more so for the immediate and concurrent groups. This shows that participants were better at distinguishing when pre-warned and asked directly afterwards. The non-instruction delayed group was considered closest to real-life, in which the mean number of true responses was virtually identical for implications (8.07) and assertions (8.13). There was also no significant difference found between instruction and claim type groups on whether the product was selected for purchase. This shows that implied claims are just as convincing as stated claims when considering a purchase.
The research highlights how during adverts using misleading inference, consumers often process implied information as assertion of fact, particularly after a delay and no instruction. In relation to the Extra commercial, the inferred message that chewing Extra gum after food and drink will get rid of plaque is interpreted as true and is therefore just as convincing as if it had been explicitly stated.
Harris, R. J. (1977). Comprehension of pragmatic implications in advertising. Journal of Applied Psychology, 62, 603-608.