My local supermarket was offering frozen vegetables—French fries actually—with the sign “Buy two—get one free.” I was shopping for frozen peas, but on impulse I also grabbed two bags of fries and tossed them in my cart. When I got to the checkout stand, the cashier charged me for both bags of French fries. “I thought the second one was free,” I said.
“You have to buy two,” the cashier replied, emphasizing the words buy two, “and the next one is free.” I misread the sign, went back for a third bag, and ended up with more frozen potatoes than I wanted.
My friends and family had little sympathy for my mistake. After all, “Buy one—get one free” has been around for so long it has its own abbreviation BOGOF. The word free got my attention, but my mistake was thinking that “get one free” referred to one of the two bags in my cart rather than to a third one. I should have thought it through. After all, if “Buy two, get one free” meant the same thing as “Buy one, get one free,” then two meant one.
But I was tempted by the promise of salty carbs. I’m probably not the only person misled by this discount language. The next time I went the store, I noticed that the sign read: “Buy two. Third one free.”
When we are moving briskly though a supermarket, skimming ads, or focusing on a big purchase, it’s easy to be a less-than-careful reader.
“PROVEN TO SAVE UP TO 47% ON YOUR HEATING AND COOLING BILLS!” That sounds good, but if doesn’t meant that YOU will save 47%. Yet a Federal Trade Commission study conducted by Manoj Hastak and Dennis Murphy found that 36% of subjects misread that as saying they would save the maximum. Another research study on a sample home equity loans with interest “as low as 5.1% APR” found that almost 29% of respondents thought the ad meant everyone would get the 5.1% rate.
Modal verbs like could are also easily misread. If a weight loss program claims you could lose ten pounds in a week, that might be true of some people, but not everyone and not necessarily you. They are counting on careless reading and wishful thinking.
And look out for products with asterisked footnotes to their bold claims. A 40-ounce container of dish soap announces “33% MORE SOAP*.” The footnote clarifies that it is “compared to the 30-ounce size.” Well, okay. Thanks for the math refresher.
My favorite was the bag of flavored pretzel nuggets saying “50% LESS FAT PRETZEL PIECES” followed by the footnote “Than the Leading Brand of Regular Potato Chips.”
Reading a supermarket sign, an ad, a bottle of soap, or a bag of pretzels, we do not always ponder language as carefully as we might. A sign catches our attention and we make assumptions about its meaning. Sometimes those assumptions don’t match what is being actually said.
As scholars, it’s important to read texts charitably. But as consumers, we should read skeptically, and on a full stomach.
Featured image: “Clark’s Super Market, Jacksonville, Florida” by John Margolies. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.