Caveat Emptor: A Lesson Plan for Consumer Smarts

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Am I smarter than a fifth grader? Depends on how you measure smarts. If you’re going to quiz me on which of the original colonies voted against ratification of the Constitution, then NO. Just hand me my pride in a box and I’ll see myself out. But some of the everyday wisdom that gives me a leg up on an eleven-year-old comes directly from my own time in fifth grade X³ years ago.  Hands down, the most memorable and applicable lesson of my elementary school years came from caveat emptor.

Caveat emptor was a multi-disciplinary unit that asked us to carefully parse advertising not necessarily as cynics, but as rational thinkers. In the course of this work, all our math, science, art and language skills were called into service. The sum total of our classroom learning seamlessly blended together for the duration of this unit. We had to erase the implied borderlines between, say, math and writing that typically perforated the day into discreet segments. Without the distractions of those borders, we were able to dive deep into an intellectual endeavor that demanded interdisciplinary thought —the kind of thinking we need every day.

This was holistic learning via holistic thinking, and so a great preparation for applying our skills in a real-life scenario. Translating “schooling” into “education” means releasing our knowledge from separate compartments and asking it to all work together. Everyday decisions demand that we toggle back and forth between different screens of our intellect, and this course of study was our introduction to this practice.

The idea was this: break down an ad, product or a promotional offer into its elemental parts, and then use your noodle to make an educated decision about its value. Buyer beware, indeed.

On its most obvious level, I use the lessons of this unit every day in the grocery aisles. When the 14-ounce shampoo is on sale for $2.99 and the 22-ounce bottle is priced at $4.09, I think of Mrs. Pilchman. The hand impulsively reaches for the eye-catching SALE! sticker next to the smaller bottle, which helps draw attention to an attractive lower price. ($2.99! Regular price: $3.49! You save .50!) “Ooh!,” we’re being told to think. “I’m saving!”

But I know better, because I’ve already calculated that the per-ounce price of the shampoo is dramatically lower in the larger quantity. I’m falling for neither the sale-sticker hysteria nor the contrast between the 2 and the 4 in the dollar place. On the green level, I’m also eyeballing the size of the bottles and recognizing the better environmental selection of the larger bottle. So even if only for mundane understanding of unit pricing, caveat emptor will pay lifelong dividends.

But Mrs. P took it several steps further, and for that I thank her. I remember she had torn an ad from a magazine. Something like, “NEW AND IMPROVED COTTONY COTTON PUFFS! NOW 50% SOFTER! SOFTER PUFFS = CLEANER YOU!” The first task was simple: just read this aloud. Again. Once more. The second task: What does this even mean? We started group-thinking aloud. “Fifty percent softer than what?” “How do we measure softness?” “Under what number system does softer puffs equal a cleaner me?”

This is the purest form of reading comprehension. Read the ad copy. Parse each word. Now the whole shebang. Pause to evaluate. What does this mean? Can it be true? Is there evidence of hyperbole, simile, alliteration? For what purpose? And for the love of cotton, what’s new and improved about cotton balls except for the package touting its novelty and improvedness?!

Another problem set in this unit involved selecting a new car for the Jones family. In order to choose wisely, we asked questions about the family’s habits, needs and financial commitments. We went to the car ads, suppressing the temptation to choose the coolest ride. We soon discovered that we had to consider mileage, warrantee terms and the size and operating costs of the vehicle to make sure it suited our fictional neighbors.  If Ms. Jones were to lease the car, she’d face a surcharge for every mile over her lease’s allotment. Would leasing work? We had to estimate how many miles she typically drove in a year by looking at the age and mileage of her current car. Which warrantee terms were most beneficial given the Jones’ driving habits? Some ads touted “free routine maintenance”: what did that mean? And how could we put a value on that? What would the Jones’ fuel costs be?

Everyday consumer decisions are made at the intersection of math, logic, estimation, and critical reading. Life is more  word problems than equations. We first have to take in the whole presentation, then decide 1.) what we’re being asked; 2.) what information is relevant; and, 3.) how can we find what we’re looking for. In fifth grade, we were simultaneously drawing upon our critical reading skills while decoding which information was relevant for our math work. At the same time, we were plotting a real life set of coordinates on the axes of budget, practicality and durability. These are thinking skills I refer back to all the time, and never without hearing Mrs. P’s rueful delivery of “caveat emptor” in my noggin.