5 Marketing Phrases That Should Make You Instantly Skeptical

Every day we’re bombarded with advertisements for food, clothes, cleaning products, and TV shows. Some studies suggest we all see thousands of commercial messages a day.

The United States is the largest consumer market in the world, with all of us consumers combined spending about $13 trillion last year. So all that advertising is paying off in one way or another.

Developing a thick skin to advertising is a crucial part of becoming a better critical thinker and and a more informed consumer. So I made this video to try and point people toward a handful of marketing phrases that should set of alarm bells in your mind whenever you hear them. Here’s a quick rundown:

Sketchy Marketing Phrase #1: “Natural”

Legally speaking in the US, the word “natural” has no meaning at all in a marketing context. The phrase USDA organic has a regulated meaning, the US Department of Agriculture helpfully reminds us:

Any organic operation violating the USDA organic regulations faces enforcement actions, which can include financial penalties or suspension/revocation of their organic certificate.

But the word “natural” is just a marketing term that carries no weight. In the lexicon of advertisers, it’s pure puffery.

Sketchy Marketing Phrase #2: “Toxins/Cleanse/Detox”

If somebody is trying to sell you the new hottest “detox” diet or a “cleanse” to clean your body of “toxins,” you should be immediately skeptical. What are those toxins exactly? Well, nobody can really tell you because they don’t actually exist. According to the New York Times, modern detoxes like juice “cleanses” are ethically speaking pretty close to the leeches that doctors used to suck people’s blood with back in 19th Century. In other words, they do more harm than good.

Sketchy Marketing Trick #3: Free or Discounted Products

Generally speaking, corporations don’t make money by giving things away for free or at a deep discount. But they can and do make money when they’re able to convince you that a deal is too good to pass up. It’s true that products are occasionally sold for a loss to clear out old inventory, but that’s far from the norm. Usually when things are advertised as free or at a discount, there’s something else going on.

For instance, right before Black Friday when lots of products are on sale for Christmas, retailers will sometimes mark up the prices on their products just so they can say that they’re putting them “on sale” a few days later. Pricing psychology also lets marketers trick us into getting a good deal if a price ends in 99 cents. As the old expression says, there’s no such thing as a truly free lunch.

Sketchy Marketing Phrase #4: “Ancient” or “Secret”

Unless you’re taking a tour of an ancient pyramid or going to a museum with ancient artifacts, hearing the word ancient in a commercial should make you pretty skeptical. If some company is telling you they have an ancient secret, ask yourself what the chances are that there actually is some really old wisdom that’s somehow remained secret to everybody except this one corporation that just happens to be willing to sell it to you. More likely they just want to profit from people’s reverence for old things, or add air of of mystique to whatever they’re trying to sell you.

Sketchy Marketing Phrase #5: Miracle

Unicorns don’t exist. Neither do miracles.

If somebody ever offers to take your money in exchange for performing a some type of miracle for you — whether it’s a giving you a miracle cure for an ailment or a miracle way to grow your income without much effort on your part, or a miracle weight loss remedy, you should hang up the phone or close the web browser window or run in the opposite direction immediately. Nothing screams scam like advertisers promising you a “miracle.”

It pays to be skeptical

Marketers use these words like miracle, or ancient or natural because they know that they work to manipulate us. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Being skeptical when it comes to advertising can save you money.


I’m making a series of 12 video essays this year, one for each month. You can subscribe to my YouTube channel to get updates or watch the earlier videos below:

What caused the Great Recession?

How to Make $1 Million (If You’re Young)

Why I changed my mind about illegal immigration

Shouldn’t we ban this type of commercial?