Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Idiot tiger in the tank

Those of us with any sort of scientific bent have groaned for years over the misuse of sciencey words in  cosmetic adverts. Practically any cosmetic ad seems to try to do two things:

  1. To use emotional trigger words like 'natural' to make us think the product was practically squeezed out of a fruit or leaf, rather than blended in a vast industrial complex. Also words like 'nourish' however ridiculous this is when talking about something like (dead) hair.
  2. To use words that have real meaning in science, but removed from their context. So, for instance, putting 'DNA' into the description of your product, or some wonderfully obscure compound name like pro-boswellox-retinox-B.
Now an oil company has got on the bandwagon (not an entirely strange jump, since most cosmetics contain a fair amount of processed oil of one sort or another). When selling petrol, the oil companies have a real problem, because petrol is a commodity. We don't really care what brand it is, just how cheap it is. Esso's answer to this is to resort to the cosmetic world's plan B.

In recent ads, Esso makes a big thing of the fact that their new fuel (ok, petrol with a tiny bit of additive) works at a molecular level (specifically to help remove deposits). Now unlike many of the cosmetic adverts, this isn't just a use of magic words. The fuel does work at a molecular level... but then so does pretty well every chemical compound that isn't part of a larger structure. Okay there will be sub-molecular activity - hydrogen bonds, for example. And I suppose it's possible they could produce a fuel that undergoes nuclear decay and so works at the nuclear level. But otherwise how else is it going to work?

I am now going to drink my coffee. It works at the molecular level, you know. I might watch myself a classic Esso ad as I do so:

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