Of magically inflated breasts, astounding flat prices and the big bluff

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 May, 2005, 12:00am

I CANNOT DENY the appeal of the messages to which I am treated when I watch television. Drink this cognac and you too can be a French pseudo-nobleman. Wear this watch and you too can be an English country gent.

Most astonishing recently has been the selling pitch to women for an explosive breath lozenge, Fishermen's Friend. The starlet of the ad swallows one and, pop-pop, her breasts are instantly double their previous size. Hey presto, magic candy, no trip to the plastic surgeon required now.

I suppose it is really no more of an effrontery to viewers than the one that shows how to become as bony as Miss Photogenic by drinking the contents of a small bottle, or another that promises that a brief acquaintance with a slimy mask will make your face as white as the iceberg that sank the Titanic.

Few people are really taken in, you may say, but the evidence suggests otherwise. The rising intensity alone of this bombardment of nonsense strongly indicates that it has met with success.

So what shall we do about truth in advertising? Shall we make it mandatory that advertisers prove the ennobling virtues of cognac and watches if they sell these things on that basis? Shall we insist that Fishermen's Friend's implied claims of breast enlargement be backed up with documented proof of before and after use of a tape measure?

And what should I be told the next time that I play five-card poker and, with a hand that features only a pair of fours, confidently say to the Nervous Nelly across from me, 'see your ten and raise you ten', to watch him fold a full house and let me scoop the table?

How far do we tolerate bluff and when do we decide that it is no longer bluff but fraud and we must act against it? What limits do we set to the legal principle of caveat emptor and when do we decide that it must be caveat vendor?

I ask because of a fracas between the government and the Real Estate Developers' Association (Reda) over required disclosure by developers when selling new flats.

There is widespread suspicion that Sun Hung Kai Properties' claims of having sold a penthouse in its new Arch development for $168 million are not what they appear, that the buyer was given some quiet sweeteners to compensate him for a heavily publicised high price for that flat.

The temptation to any developer to do this sort of thing is a big one. A transaction at an unusually high price attracts enormous public attention and gives the impression that the property is much more desirable than people might otherwise think. It certainly has more impact than any advertisement could have.

There can be nothing new in my telling you that developers frequently do not resist this temptation. The question for us, however, is whether it constitutes normal market bluff or whether it is fraud.

I have not been privy to the discussions between the government and Reda on where the line should be drawn but it is apparent that the government wants much tighter restrictions than Reda is willing to accept.

I am all for it. If I buy a new flat, I want a choice from a firm price list for all the flats in that development and signed guarantees of the gross and net usable floor area of the flat I buy.

I want to buy property as I buy a brand-name watch, with same recourse open to me if that watch is not what it was billed to be.

But I do not expect the vendor of that watch to stop telling me that I will become an English country gent if I buy it, or that all the girls will ogle me if they see it on my wrist.

I do not know exactly where to draw the line between bluff and fraud in property sales, although I am quite happy to accept that such a line must be drawn, that some developers' claims can be fraudulent and they should be made to pay the full price for fraud if caught.

Equally, however, something in me says that when a developer tries to create illusions about the attractiveness of his latest offering and manages to fool a few people with them, well, fools will always be with us and few endeavours can be quite as fruitless as trying to stop fools and their money from being parted.

Did Sun Hung Kai Properties actually provide potential buyers with a signed and dated affidavit that it had sold that penthouse for $168 million in cash without hidden sweeteners?

No? Then buyer beware. It may have been an underhanded trick but I lean more to calling it bluff than fraud. If you consider this sort of thing a danger to the public, you may find one just as pressing in the public-health risk of some of the lotions and potions peddled on television every night.