Consumer Screwgie of the Day

There are a lot of things companies do to fool consumers, some more meaningful than others. They pack items in large boxes to make them look bigger, they offer questionable claims about their products' effectiveness, they weave absurd tales about how your life will be changed if you buy their thing. Navigating your way through that thicket of baloney is part of being a smart consumer, and to a degree we accept it as part of the price of having free commercial speech. Short of outright fraud or practices that do substantial harm to consumers, we understand that people who are selling things can say almost anything they want, and we accept that being a consumer means that manufacturers and retailers are going to try to fool you. In the immortal words of Morty Seinfeld, "Cheap fabric and dim lighting. That's how you move merchandise."

But there are some kinds of deception that are beyond the pale. It's one thing to sell you something that might not be up to your expectations; perhaps your expectations were just too high. It's something else to fool you into buying one thing, when you actually wanted to buy something else. I give you the modern American gas pump:


You see, here in the West we read from left to right. As a consequence, when we array things, we usually array them from smallest to largest, from left to right. Gas pumps offer three kinds of gas at three different prices. So the owners of gas stations, knowing that we always assume the lowest-priced option will be on the left, move the lowest-priced option to the middle, with the second-lowest-priced on the left. They know that most people go into the station and want the cheapest gas (particularly when gas is expensive). And they know that a certain number of people won't look too closely, and will pick the more expensive option when they actually wanted the cheaper option, thereby paying a few more dollars than they had intended. Suckers!

Gas stations are generally owned by independent businesspeople, not the oil companies themselves. But this practice, which has become universal as far as I can tell, makes me feel about the same way toward those small business owners as I feel toward ExxonMobil or BP. There is simply no reason to array the pumps that way, except in the hope that they'll trick people into buying something they didn't want. It's a scam, nothing more, nothing less.

Could my complaint have anything to do with the fact that the other day in a moment of inattention I myself got fooled by this very scam? Heavens, no.

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