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Analyzing Dishonest Ads

I've been paying more attention to marketing messages because Critical Fallibilism (CF) could use better marketing. Keeping things short is really important. Unfortunately, one of the common tactics I've seen for short, snappy marketing is dishonesty.

For example, I saw two ads from Aimchess. They're short and small. They each communicate a feature that a chess video viewer might want. But are they true?


That sounds nice. But it's kind of vague. Enough for what? Also, is it actually true that every other chess trainer requires more than 10 minutes per day? What makes Aimchess so much faster? (Or just slightly faster? Do some competitors require 11 minutes per day?)

Enough of something means you're satisfied. It means your goals are achieved. The dictionary says "as much or as many of something as required" which leaves open the question: required for what? For some goal. Typically that's either your goal or a goal specified in the sentence. Like "I don't have enough gas to get home" specifies the goal within the sentence. "Enough" is often modified with a prepositional phrase to tell us enough "for" what or enough "to" what.

So what goals is 10 minutes a day with Aimchess trainer claiming to be enough for? Your chess goals. They have to be reasonable, realistic goals. If you want to be the world's best player tomorrow, that isn't Aimchess' problem. But the advertised claim should work for people who are being reasonable.

What is a reasonable chess goal? One reasonable goal is something you could achieve using a different trainer, self-study or playing online practice games. If you can get a result using one of those other methods for an hour a day for a month, you should be able to get a similar result with Aimchess.

How fast should Aimchess deliver the same result? If they could do it in two months instead of one, they're still 3x faster in terms of total time spent. That's pretty good and seems reasonable.

If Aimchess needs six months instead of one, for the same total time spent, then I'd say they failed at their marketing promise. They were implying that you'd save time and reach your goal without waiting unreasonably long.

Where's the cutoff? That's hard to say precisely. If Aimchess needs three months instead of one, and half the total time spent training, that's actually a good product, but the ad would seem misleading to me.

Does Aimchess live up to their promise? No way. Tons of people have reasonable, achievable chess goals that they will not achieve using Aimchess for 10 minutes a day (plus playing chess however much you normally do, but no other training or study, and no extra practice games).

Is Aimchess fundamentally better than other trainers so you learn way faster? No. Is saying so fraud? Probably not. You're allowed to exaggerate in ads, like saying you have the "world's best burger". I'm not saying it's illegal false advertising or anything like that. But it's still somewhat dishonest. Or put another way, it's not maximizing honesty. They could be more honest if they tried.

And I'm not actually sure the ad is or should be legal. If you advertised that you were "the only burger joint with a value menu" you'd probably get sued by McDonalds. If you delete the word "only" from the ad then it'd be more normal exaggeration. With "only" it seems like it's lying about competitors (who do in fact make products that you can use for just 10 minutes a day to improve at chess).

Aimchess isn't being dishonest enough to stand out to most people. It's pretty normal. But I think people ought to improve their skill at noticing dishonesty. I think people would benefit from more critical thinking, more skepticism, more analysis of marketing messages, and more attention to what is honest or not. I wrote an article on lying and this article is also meant to help educate people about honesty.

That sort of exaggeration or relatively mild dishonesty is unsuitable for marketing CF philosophy because CF values getting details right and being extremely honest (much more than is typical). Most companies have no particular connection to honesty, so being mildly dishonest doesn't make them hypocrites. CF strongly advocates honesty so its marketing needs to very honest. CF's marketing shouldn't contradict its ideas.


I saw this second ad from Aimchess later in the same video. Is this true? I don't think so. I think I know what feature they're talking about and how it works. If I'm right, it's misleading to call it personalized lessons.

Chess software (called "engines") is significantly better at chess than humans are. After you play a game, you can put it into an engine and find out what better moves you and your opponent missed. You can go to a hard position and find out what you should have done. It's really useful (despite basically being the sort of predictive oracle criticized in The Fabric of Reality – chess engines do not provide conceptual explanations of why moves are good, they only say moves and numeric evaluations of who is winning by how much in a chess position).

This is great but it's readily available without paying for a chess trainer, and I doubt Aimchess is offering something subtantively more personalized than this. They might offer some extra features like finding patterns in your mistakes across multiple games (e.g. you make the most mistakes in the opening), but I wouldn't consider summary statistics a "lesson".

I think they're trying to make it sound similar to getting personal attention from a human teacher who teaches you lessons. But the product is actually just an impersonal algorithm.

Again this is pretty normal but there is some dishonesty here. Or in other words, they could definitely make it more accurate, non-misleading and honest if they tried. There's clearly some room to be more scrupulously honest.

I wrote the above without visiting Aimchess' website. Now I've checked the website. The website confirms that the product works how I thought it did. They're selling software, not attention from coaches. They say their software is better than studying with a chess engine because they have an algorithm that looks at summary statistics over multiple games. Their website has some more statements that are pretty similar to the ads, and some other statements that are clearer, but nothing super clear. They don't come out and directly say things like "you're buying software; no human will review your games" but there is some information that lets me be more confident it's just sofware. They say "we do X" or "Aimchess does Y" but they avoid saying "our software does X". Both "we" and "Aimchess" are terms that sound like they refer to people not software.

I also saw this which particularly stood out to me:

Why isn’t Aimchess Premium free?

Downloading all of your games and analyzing them with a high-depth engine isn’t cheap, so we have to charge you to pay for our costs. You can always use our standard free service to get lower-depth 40-game reports for free.

They're claiming the reason their service isn't free is because the compute power needed for it is expensive. They're trying to sound like they're a non-profit that's just charging enough to break even. They're lying. They look like a typical SaaS website (software as a service) charging a monthly subscription fee that's very high relative to the price of computing power. They're charging this money because they (reasonably) want to get paid for their work. What's expensive isn't the computations. It's having programmers write the software, as well as making the website, marketing the product, and doing customer service.

If they were charging to cover their costs, they wouldn't be able to give you a 40% discount for an annual subscription. Either the annual subscription is too low to cover their costs, or the monthly subscription is way higher than their costs. Realistically, the annual subscription price is way above their computing costs.

Also, if they were just trying to cover their cost from people's actual usage, why would they try to lock you into a year long contract? They're setting this up like gym memberships (and like other SaaSes) to try to make money from people who stop using their product but already paid in advance for many more months of service. In other words, they're trying to get paid by people when their cost of serving those people is zero since those people are not using the service anymore. If their goal was merely to pay for computing costs, they'd charge for actual usage or they'd let you cancel anytime.

I've seen this before where for-profit companies lie and try to sound like non-profits. They're doing it because non-profits and anti-capitalism are trendy. It's ironic because it exemplifies some of the common complaints against for-profit businesses: that they're short-sighted and dishonest. People hate X, so they lie and claim to be Y instead, but they're actually acting even more like X by doing that.

Hopefully this has been helpful for showing people an example of analyzing something from everyday life. I hope to inspire people to learn to notice and think about things like this routinely. I'd like people to go about life more thoughtfully and I try to teach skills to enable that. If you want to learn more from me, check out my Critical Fallibilism articles and videos.

Elliot Temple on May 26, 2022


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