How the Advertising Industry Perpetrated One of the Greatest Pranks Upon Unsuspecting Consumers

Awhile back there was a commercial about one of those home diabetes testing kits. As I stated before, if I’m not in a position to flip the channel when a commercial comes on, my preference is to create a mental firewall so that only those products that directly interest me worm their way into my consciousness. I don’t have diabetes and so this should have been one of those occasions, but I wasn’t quite able to zone it out entirely. What really captured my attention–to the point that maybe a year later I felt compelled to write about it–is a phrase that was used that has become nearly as ubiquitous in its wrongheaded usage as the word ironically. (I kid you not; I actually heard a reporter describe a situation in which a girl who wanted to grow up and become a dancer actually growing up and becoming a dancer as “ironic.” So it’s come to this: irony now means doing exactly what you had hoped to do.) The phrase that caught my attention in that diabetes testing kit commercial was the description of it as “virtually painless.”

Take a minute to mull over the actual, not the virtual, meaning of that phrase. Yes, it’s true; another way to describe something that is virtual painless is to do this: “You will suffer some degree of pain.” There is a word that is not virtually synonymous with “virtually painless” but completely synonymous. Know what that word is?


Allow me, if you will, to rewrite that advertisement so that it accurately describes what can be expected by patients who use it: It will cause you pain, maybe not a lot, but enough so that we cannot honestly sell this device by calling it painless. Virtual reality-which, come to think of it, is much more accurately applied to reality shows than most video game technology-is mostly responsible for the increase in the descriptions of something as virtually this or that. The whole sneaky trend will almost certainly go down in history as one the advertising industry’s greatest successes in selling lies. A virtual guarantee means there really isn’t a guarantee. Virtually problem-free means, well, there are going to be problems. As a consumer, there may be no better advice you can receive than when you come across an advertise or commercial that uses virtual in the description to do the following: Remove the “virtually” from the advertisement, get a thesaurus if you must, and look up a antonym for the word that immediately follows.

In other words, if you receive an e-mail ad that is trying to sell you software that promises to make your computer run virtually problem-free that what that means is that your computer will run problematically.

The adjective “virtually” isn’t a good thing, you see. If you’re thinking about buying something or believing something when “virtually” is used to describe it, you should seriously think again. Painless and “virtually painless” aren’t synonymous; they are antonymous. (If that isn’t a real word, it should be)

Thank you for reading and I open the experience was not a virtually painless one.