A couple of years ago, when we were still new to the country, we were driving across Michigan looking for a place to stay when we passed a big hoarding for a national motel chain advertising a very attractive special offer. I don't recall the details, but it included free lodging for the children and breakfast vouchers for all the family for a deeply gratifying all-in price of something like $35.
Naturally, by the time I had read all this I had sailed past the exit, and had to drive 15 miles on, then 15 miles back, then hunt around on slip roads for half an hour while everyone in the car pointed out vastly more accessible motels with better facilities. So the exasperation was considerable. But never mind. For $35 and a free cooked breakfast, you can exasperate me all you want.
So imagine my countenance, then, when I checked us in and the clerk slid me a bill that came to something like $149.95.
"What about the special offer?" I whinnied.
"Ah," he said suavely, "that only applies to a selected number of rooms."
"How many rooms?"
"And how many rooms are there in the motel?"
"One hundred and five."
"But that's fraud," I said.
"No, sir, that's America."
Actually, in truth I don't believe he said that, but he might as well have. And this was a large, well-known corporation whose executive officers, I am sure, would be hurt and dismayed to find themselves described as scoundrels and cheats. They were simply following the fluid moral rules of commerce in the United States.
I have just been reading a book called Tainted Truth: The Manipulation of Fact in America, which is full of arresting stories of misleading claims by advertisers, distorted scientific studies, skewed opinion polls and so on - what, anywhere else, would be called fraud.
Nearly all car advertisements, for instance, boast safety features, such as side impact bars, which are required by law anyway.
Chevrolet once advertised a car with "109 advantages designed to keep it from becoming old before its time". When looked into by an automotive journalist, these special advantages turned out to include rear-view mirrors, reversing lights, balanced wheels and other such features that were, in fact, standard on all cars.
What is astonishing to me is not that commercial enterprises try to spin the truth in their favour, but the extent to which they are allowed to get away with it. Food manufacturers can place nothing or next to nothing of a particular ingredient in a product and still pretend that it is there in abundance.
One large and well-known food company, to take a nearly random example, sells "blueberry waffles" which have never seen a blueberry. The blueberry- like chunks it contains are really just clumps of flavoured chemicals, entirely artificial, though you could spend half a day studying the packet without realising it.
If it isn't possible to cheat on the contents, then the manufacturers often distort the serving sizes. A popular type of low-fat chocolate cake boasts a modest 70 calories per portion. But the suggested portion is one ounce - a size that is physically almost impossible to cut.
The most irksome of deceits to me, because the most inescapable, is junk mail. Every person in America receives on average 34 pounds - 500 pieces - of unsolicited mail each year.
Because there is so much of it, senders resort to the basest tricks to get you to look inside. They design the envelopes to look as if they contain a prize cheque or vital government documents, or have been delivered by special courier, or could even get you in trouble if you don't give them your serious attention. Today, for instance, I received an envelope marked "Documents Enclosed For Addressee Only ... $2,000 Fine or 5 Years Imprisonment for Any Person Who Tampers or Obstructs Delivery; US Code title 18, Sec. 1702". This was something important, clearly. In fact, it contained an invitation to test-drive a car in the next town.
To my despair, even quite worthwhile organisations have taken to these ruses. I recently received an official-looking envelope bearing the message "Cheque Enclosed'. It turned out to be a letter from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, a leading charity, asking for a donation. There wasn't any cheque enclosed - just a piece of paper in the form of a facsimile cheque showing what a $10 donation made by me to the foundation would look like. When even decent, well-meaning charities feel compelled to lie to you to get your attention, you know there is something wrong with the system.
It begins to feel as if you can trust no one. Cynthia Crossen, author of the aforementioned Tainted Truth, points out in her book just how many supposedly scientific studies are, in fact, shams. She notes one study, widely reported in the nation's press, which claimed that eating white bread helps promote weight loss. The "study" on which this claim was based involved 118 subjects for two months and actually found no evidence to support the claim, but the researchers said they believed the assertions would have been corroborated "if the study had continued." The work was funded by the nation's largest manufacturer of white bread.
Another study - again faithfully and unquestioning reported in newspapers - asserted that eating chocolate actually reduces tooth decay. That study, you won't be surprised to hear, was deeply dubious and paid for by a leading maker of chocolate.
Even reports in the most respected medical journals may be suspect, it seems. Last year, according to the Boston Globe, two universities, Tufts and UCLA, looked into the financial interests of the authors of 789 articles in leading medical journals, and found that in 34 per cent of cases at least one of the authors had an undeclared financial interest in the success of the report.
In one typical case a researcher who had tested the efficacy of a new cold treatment owned several thousand shares in the company that manufactured it. Upon publication of the report, the shares soared and he sold them at a profit of $145,000. I'm not saying that the man performed bad science, but it must have crept through his mind that a negative report would have rendered the shares worthless.
The most striking example of this sort of thing came in 1986 when the New England Journal of Medicine simultaneously received two reports on a new type of antibiotic. One report claimed that the drug was effective, the other that it was not. The positive report, it turned out, came from a researcher whose lab had received $1.6m from the pharmaceutical industry, and who had personally received $75,000 a year from the companies involved. The negative report came from an independent researcher who had not been funded by the pharmaceutical companies.
So who can you trust and believe? Only me, I'm afraid, and then only up to a point.
`Notes from a Big Country' is published by Doubleday at pounds 16.99Reuse content