Creating a Problem Where None Exists

Recently, I was in a doctor’s office waiting for an appointment with my youngest son (who had a strange rash that he apparently contracted during a hike in the woods). As he sat at the kid’s table and played with a few toys, I flipped through a magazine.

While browsing, I came across a brief article about toothpaste. This article lauded some new toothpaste that contained a new cleansing agent and was incredibly gentle on the teeth while getting “astounding” cleaning results. The catch was at the end of the article – it cost something like $15 per tube.

Now, for my own toothpaste, I use the tubes I get for free during dental visits plus whatever tubes I can get on sale or with a coupon. Most toothpastes on the market do a good job of keeping your teeth clean – I haven’t had a cavity in more than a decade. (I don’t know exactly how long it’s been since I’ve had a cavity, but I’ve gone to my current dentist for more than ten years and he’s yet to do anything other than give me checkups.)

Still, that article left me thinking. Does my current toothpaste really do the job? Is this new cleaning agent really going to make my teeth notably cleaner?

Can I really afford to let my teeth go?

Those thoughts are basically irrational. My dentist has looked at my teeth every six months for years and hasn’t seen any problem. I don’t eat toothpaste, so I’m not really worried about the fluoride, either. My teeth are sufficiently white; I’m not a public presenter, so they don’t need to be bleached white, but they’re pretty good.

In other words, there’s no compelling reason for me to actually buy a more expensive toothpaste.

Yet this article made me think that there might be a compelling reason. It tried to invent a need – or at least a strong want – that didn’t exist before and has no reason to exist.

The method here is a smart one. It tries to wiggle in under the cover of a genuine need (or strong want) – the need for healthy teeth so that I can continue to eat food without pain.

Many, many products try to do the same thing. They try to alter your perception of a genuine need so you’ll buy a more expensive product. Here, I just need my teeth cleaned. In other cases, I might just want to not smell during the day (deodorant) or minimize my chances of getting sick (hand soaps) or countless other things.

Whenever a product wants you to pay more to go beyond meeting your needs, be careful. It’s very easy to slide a false “need” (like a special natural cleaning agent) in with a genuine need (like cleaning your teeth well) and charge a higher price for it. Marketers know this and use it all the time. It eats at your wallet.

When you’re about to buy a product, consider your actual need first. Don’t get distracted by a “better” version, particularly if the regular version already does the job for you. It’s worthwhile to keep an eye on things like Consumer Reports to see if there really are strong improvements in products that don’t add to your cost, but if a product meets your needs, don’t pay more for a product that meets those same needs but with some bonus features that aren’t useful to you.

This philosophy will save you money in the toothpaste aisle – and everywhere else.

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