Tag Archives: marketing

Spam call deterrence

Time-wasting marketing calls to my cellphone are a bit of a problem. I have developed the habit of checking any new number against online spam call reporting websites, and if the number turns out to be a spammer, then saving it under “Spam call” in my phone. Then in the future, any call from the same number shows up on the phone as Spam call. There are probably apps for blocking numbers, but as an economist, I would prefer a tax to a ban. I would like to make callers pay me for calling me, to compensate for my time spent answering or blocking, and also to deter spam calls. In principle, charging a fee for receiving a call is possible, because there are already 1-800 numbers and others that are pricier to call than an ordinary phone.
If it was costlier to call me than most numbers, then I would refund the extra calling fee to my friends and other legitimate callers, so they would not be deterred from calling me. This is easy, because I can see the list of calls, their durations and numbers online, so can calculate how much extra each caller paid to call me. Spammers of course would not get a refund.

Sugar-free, fat-free and low-salt claims

The three main ingredients of unhealthy food are sugar, salt and fat. The packaging of junk food often has claims of sugar-free, fat-free or low-salt in big colourful letters on the front. The trick is that the absence of one of the three ingredients is compensated by a larger amount of the other two, as can be checked from the nutrition information label.
Sometimes the claims on the front of the pack directly contradict the nutrition label, so are downright lies. I have seen packaging with the claim “sugar-free” on the front, with sugars listed in significant quantity on the nutrition label. There are some legal sanctions for falsifying the nutrition information label, but almost no restrictions on what can be claimed elsewhere on the pack, so any contradictions should almost always be resolved in favour of the nutrition label.
I have seen a sugar-free claim on a pack on which the ingredient list included brown sugar. This suggests the existence of a legal loophole (brown sugar not equalling sugar somehow) that the manufacturer wanted to use.
If the manufacturer does not want to outright lie, then a trick I have seen is to claim “no added sugar” or “no sugar or artificial sweeteners” on the pack, but add other sweeteners, e.g. sugarcane juice, molasses, high fructose corn syrup. Similarly, “no added salt” can be bypassed by adding salty ingredients, for example dried salted meat or bacon to a snack mix.
Another trick is to create the sugar in the food during the manufacturing process. For example, heating starch for a long time or adding the enzyme amylase breaks the starch into smaller-molecule sugars. So a manufacturer can claim “no added sweeteners” and yet produce sugars in the food by processing the starch in it.
A similar trick for salt is to add sodium and chloride in other ingredients and let them combine into NaCl in the food.

Joining together detached houses saves energy

Suburbs in many countries consist of detached houses that very close to each other – I have seen neighbours’ walls half a metre apart. Both houses could save energy by joining their adjacent walls together, which reduces heat loss in cold weather and heat entry (thus the need for air conditioning) in hot temperatures. Ideally, the joining should happen at the construction stage, but it is not difficult to do after the houses are built. Just enclose the space between the sides of two houses by extending the front and back wall and the roof of each house. It is not a load-bearing construction, it just has to keep the wind out from the space between the houses and provide some insulation to the space.
An added bonus is the creation of a covered storage area (a door to the space between houses should be created if the houses don’t already have a door on that side). A possible downside is that to get from the front of the house to the back, now one has to pass through the house or the storage area. But given the narrowness of the typical walkway between suburban detached houses, passing through the house may be the best route anyway. Also, when enclosing the walkway, a door can be made in each end to keep it open for passage.
Another downside is that windows on the side of the house now look into a covered storage area, not outside. But if the houses are so close together, then the only view from the window is the wall or window of the neighbour. After enclosing the side, this view becomes darker, but that does not seem a great loss. If it is, then energy-efficient lights can be installed in the enclosed area and kept on during waking hours, so people can admire their neighbour’s wall or window. Really, windows with such views can be replaced by a poster-size print-out of a photo of the view, because if the window looks into the neighbour’s window, then the neighbour probably keeps the curtains closed to prevent spying. And a wall through a window looks pretty similar to a photo of the wall stuck over the window.
The real reason to not join the houses is probably marketing and the desire to show off that it targets. People want to boast of owning a detached house, even if it is less than two metres from the neighbour’s. Knowing this, property developers construct such dwellings and market them as detached (“own your own house”, really owned by the mortgage issuer for 25 years). This is similar to the reason why McMansions are built, only the income of the buyers differs. Also similar are the pride and marketing that make people buy large SUVs, pickups and all-terrain vehicles for driving solely on paved roads.

Silly sunglasses

Most sunglasses do not cover the eye fully. For example, any design where the lenses are close to flat (aviator, retro) or small does not protect the eye from rays coming from above or the side. Sunlight commonly comes from above, so these sunglass designs do not block a significant part of it. If the lenses are tinted (not clear), then they worsen the outcome for the eyes, because the dark glass in the centre of the visual field makes the pupils expand. When that happens, the pupils let in more light from any direction, including sunlight from the unprotected top and side directions.
In comparison, the polycarbonate safety glasses that currently cost 2 AUD in a construction shop have a wrap-around design and large lenses that leave only a small gap between the forehead and the glasses. Light from the side and nearly all other directions has to pass through the glasses before reaching the eye. The material for the safety glasses is polycarbonate, which block 99.9% of UV light. In order for sunglasses to provide better UV protection than the safety glasses, they have to block a larger percentage of UV light or cover more ray paths into the eye.
Suppose that sunglasses were made from a material that blocks 100% of UV. Then to improve on the safety glasses, the sunglasses would have to cover at least 99.9% of the ray paths into the eye that safety glasses cover. In other words, the sunglasses would have to have the same wrap-around design and as large or larger lenses.
An improved design for both safety glasses and sunglasses would take the wrap-around design one step further: cover the eyes from top to bottom as well as from side to side. One way to achieve such cover is a half-dome over each eye that touches the forehead above the eye and the cheek below, as well as the bridge of the nose and the temple.
A brimmed hat that blocks light coming from above compensates to some extent for flat-lensed or small sunglasses. The hat does not protect the eyes from light coming from the side and below the brim, so the classic sunglass designs are still inferior to wrap-arounds even combined with a hat.

Vacation is a break from the routine

Marketing tries to create the perception that vacation consists of consuming goods and services. In my experience, some of the most interesting vacation activities are those that constitute work for some other people. In other words, production, not consumption, is restful. For example, I find fixing bicycles interesting, because the problems encountered are quite different from each other. If the fixes only consisted of patching flat tires, then that would get boring quickly. Similarly, if I had to fix bikes all day long, it would be onerous. But as an occasional break from my usual work (sitting behind a computer), bike repair is interesting and actually restful. Another example is planting trees and removing invasive plants from a woodland – this would get boring and tiring after half a day, but 2-3 hours every few months provides variety. Growing vegetables and fruit is a productive activity that many people do for fun in their garden. Cooking for others is also productive and often done for fun.
I would pay to operate a tractor, an excavator or a crane for a few hours, because I think it would be very interesting. Unfortunately, safety regulations probably forbid an amateur from operating heavy machinery. For the same reason, I cannot drive a truck or weld a ship for fun. Neither can I be an assistant at surgery, handing tools to surgeons, because the job requires training and probably some kind of licence. If it didn’t, I would be interested in observing a surgery first hand. Underground mining would also be interesting to try.
Some work is legal for (mostly) untrained people to undertake, but requires a long-term commitment, for example being a deckhand on a commercial fishing ship. After the first day, the work would get boring, so would not constitute vacation any more. The same may happen after a few days as a field research assistant of biologists, archaeologists or anthropologists in remote areas. The remote area may have its own discomforts and dangers, which are mostly not adrenaline-rich experiences that extreme sports fans would pay for. An example of a boring danger is catching a disease, getting heatstroke or frostbite.
A person who does the abovementioned activities for work would not find them restful. But quite possibly, such a person would find parts of my work fun and would be willing to do them briefly during vacation, for example drawing graphs on a computer or solving a math puzzle.
In summary, a vacation is a break from the routine. Because people’s routines differ, one person’s usual work is another’s interesting vacation activity.


Bullshido is a term used for martial arts that make false claims about themselves, for example that the art helps a much smaller person defeat a larger one, or defend against a knife barehanded, or defeat multiple opponents. Such claims are marketing, but believing them puts people in danger, because instead of screaming and running, the believers may try to fight against hopeless odds and get injured. There are websites dedicated to exposing and ridiculing bullshido.
In addition, one should distinguish fighting and self-defense, and thus also unarmed combat training from self-defense classes. Detailed explanations are e.g. on the website NoNonsenseSelfDefense.com. Briefly, self-defense is about (1) avoiding crime (specific times, places, people), (2) noticing dangerous situations developing, (3) escaping them, (4) negotiating if escape is impossible (giving away your wallet and phone to avoid a beating), and (5) only as a last resort, fighting. Just like a castle has multiple concentric walls, self-defense has multiple concentric layers. Just like war happens when diplomacy and sanctions have failed, fighting happens when all other layers of self-defense have failed.
Returning to bullshido, one should apply the general principle that the burden of proof is on the maker of a claim. Some claims are hard to test without substantial danger, for example defending against a knife barehanded. But fighting larger people or many of them can be done with reasonable safety using boxing gloves, shin pads, soft helmets and similar protective equipment. The test should be scientifically rigorous, not like the demonstrations of martial arts clubs where the attackers and defenders have agreed on the moves beforehand. Such demonstrations are just theatre. In a real test, the attackers and defenders should not know each other, should not have the opportunity to collude, and each should be motivated to succeed, e.g. by a significant monetary prize for the winner. All moves should be made with maximal speed, without unrealistic „winding-up” movements calling attention to when and where the punch or kick will come.
Tests of this sort have been conducted for bare-handed fighting, namely in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in the 1990s. There were several matches between traditional martial artists (karate, sumo) and more modern martial artists (Brazilian jiu jitsu, kickboxing). Traditional martial arts did not fare well. The evolutionary process in UFC and similar competitions, e.g. Pride, has led to the development of mixed martial arts (MMA) that is actually effective in bare-handed one-on-one fighting.
In general, martial arts that permit a wide range of full-speed, full-strength moves in competitions encourage more realistic training and improve fighting ability. Some traditional martial arts are included in this category, e.g. judo, wrestling.
Knife-defense can be tested with some realism using imitation knives. Even a rubber knife or marker pen can penetrate an eye or throat, so when using these, safety goggles and neck protection should be worn. A better fake knife is made of foam rubber and lightly coated in paint. The paint makes it very obvious when the knife has connected with the body. Without such an objective marking of a „cut”, the bullshido artist subject to the test can claim that the fake knife did not connect with them. A shortcoming of such a test is that the knife usually connects with a hand or forearm first, in which case many types of cuts from a real knife would make the arm useless and let the attacker get to the torso. Examples are cutting a nerve, tendon or muscle needed to move the arm. A safe fake knife does not make a hand useless, so the defender can continue using it in defense. There should be a referee competent to evaluate the damage to the hand or other part of the body that would have resulted from the „cut” (paint stripe) that the fake knife made. The referee should order the defender not to use a limb if that limb would be useless had the cut been real. One way to make a fake knife more realistic, but slightly more dangerous, is to add an electroshock ability to the fake knife. This can make a contacted limb go numb and become less useful for defense.
The idea of the knife measuring contact in some way has been used in fencing. The foils used sometimes have a pressure sensor in the tip that detects a touch on the opponent.
Training with an imitation knife and a motivated opponent who does not collaborate in his or her defeat will quickly cure the illusion of being able to defend against a knife barehanded. The same applies to most weapons, e.g. sticks, chains.
I have two stories about my experience with bullshido. In my early teens I took karate classes for a couple of years. Among other things, the classes taught how to twist an opponent’s arm or hand in various ways (and catching their punching hand prior to doing so). In training, I managed quite well to catch a punch and put the opponent on the ground with an arm twist. This is because the training was theatre and the opponent collaborated.
Upon hearing that I had learned martial arts, an adult construction worker offered to let me practise on him in the following way. He held his hand steady in front of him and I could try to twist it in any way I liked, using two hands against his one. He did not interfere with me in any way, just held the hand steady against any force. He was a physically average man, not some weightlifter or giant. I was about 15 years old, above average in size (about his height) and in good physical shape, but I could not twist his arm in any way I tried, using all my strength. The claim that non-full-contact martial arts can teach a weaker person to defeat a much stronger one is false. Even realistic training in modern martial arts is limited in how much it can improve a person’s chances of winning a fight.
Do unrealistic martial arts still help a little, e.g. enable a practitioner to win against a slightly stronger, or equal person? This is where the next story comes in.
After a year or two training karate twice or more per week, over 1.5 hours per session, I participated in a competition internal to the karate school (only members of that school took part). I was matched against a slightly smaller and weaker opponent who had only taken karate classes intermittently for a few months. In karate class, we had practised punches that ended an inch short of the opponent, to avoid hurting our training partners. I was a good student, as it turned out, because during the competition, all my punches ended an inch short of my opponent. I tried to overcome this in-trained behaviour, but could not. My opponent, on the other hand, had not been trained much and used the most common street-fighting overhand punches (called haymakers). These mostly landed on me and were moderately effective when they did. I lost badly.
The lesson from this is that bullshido actually reduces a person’s fighting effectiveness, unlike for example ballet or yoga, which train some aspects useful for fighting (strength, stamina, balance) and don’t ingrain ineffective moves. Unrealistic martial arts „help” a person lose against a smaller, weaker opponent, while falsely convincing the person of his or her fighting ability.

Silly balconies

Everywhere in Australia, I have seen buildings with balconies that overlook busy roads. The view from the balcony often only includes other buildings. These balconies seem useless, because not many people want to sit in the street noise and car exhaust. I have rarely seen anyone on these balconies, and then only moving around for a practical purpose, not enjoying the air and view. Mostly the balconies are used for storing unwanted furniture and sports equipment, or growing potted plants. This makes sense, because even drying laundry over a busy road is problematic – everything gets covered in fine black soot. What does not make sense is adding these balconies to the buildings in the first place. A more practical use of the space would be to close the open parts of the balcony and thus add an extra room to the apartment. It is used as a storage room anyway.

In some cases, the building might have been constructed before the street became too busy or the views blocked by other buildings, but most of the buildings with balconies are new, so this explanation does not apply.

The reason the developers add balconies to their buildings is probably to market the apartments to impractical people. An included balcony makes the apartment sound more luxurious, and usually the view and relaxation opportunities of the balcony are touted in the advertisement. But people inspect the apartment before buying, so they should see the uselessness of the balcony for anything but storage. Inspections are usually scheduled on Saturdays when there is less traffic, and the inspecting buyers don’t sit on the balcony for long enough to become annoyed by the noise and the car exhaust.

There may be rules against the owner of an apartment closing up the balcony to create a room, because this makes the building facade uneven. Coordination problems between apartment owners may prevent them from closing up all the balconies of the building simultaneously.

Local and organic food is wasteful

The easiest measure of any good’s environmental impact is its price. It is not a perfect measure. Subsidies for the inputs of a product can lower its price below more environmentally friendly alternatives that are not favoured by the government. Taxes, market power, externalities and incomplete information can similarly distort relative prices, as introductory economics courses explain. However, absent additional data, a more expensive good likely requires more resources and causes more environmental damage. Remembering this saves time on debating whether local non-organic is better than non-local organic fair trade, etc.

Local and organic are marketing terms, one suggesting helping local farmers and a lower environmental impact from transport, the other claiming health benefits and a lower environmental impact from fertilizers. Organic food may use less of some category of chemicals, but this must have a tradeoff in lower yield (more land used per unit produced) or greater use of some other input, because its higher price shows more resource use overall. From the (limited) research I have read, there is no difference in the health effects of organic and non-organic food. To measure this difference, a selection bias must be taken into account – the people using organic are more health-conscious, so may be healthier to start with. On the other hand, those buying organic and local may be more manipulable, which has unknown health effects. Local food may use less resources for transport, but its higher price shows it uses more resources in total. One resource is the more expensive labour of rich countries (the people providing this labour consume more, thus have a greater environmental impact).

If one wants to help “local farmers” (usually large agribusinesses, not the family farms their lobbying suggests), one can give them money directly. No need to buy their goods, just make them a bank transfer and then buy whichever product is the least wasteful.

There are economies of scale in farming, so the more efficient large agricultural companies tend to outcompete family farms. The greater efficiency is also more environmentally friendly: more production for the same resources, or the same production with less. Helping the small farms avoid takeover is bad for the environment.

Fair trade and sustainable sourcing may be good things, if the rules for obtaining this classification are reasonable and enforced. But who buying fair trade or sustainable has actually checked what the meaning behind the labels is (the “fine print”), or verified with independent auditors whether the nice-sounding principles are put into practice? When a term is used in marketing, I suspect business as usual behind it.