Revealed: con-tricks we are all falling for

From digitally-enhanced celebs to bad adverts, a new book exposes them all


By Monica Porter, November 12, 2009
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Keira Knightly, in front of the controversial poster which was digitally manipulated to boost her bust

Keira Knightly, in front of the controversial poster which was digitally manipulated to boost her bust

Lying politicians, misleading adverts, dodgy estate agents, cheating traffic wardens… which of us is not sick of the endless deceptions, both big and small, to which we are subjected nowadays? But mostly we just shrug our shoulders, or fume impotently.

Now two sharp-witted Jewish chaps are striking back. In their new book, authors Simon Rose and Steve Caplin not only reveal the outrageous falsehoods that we are fed by public bodies and private companies alike, they have found a new generic term for them — “zebu”, after the ugly South American mammal of that name, whose tough meat is often passed off in restaurants as “British steak”. Their book is titled Complete and Utter Zebu: The Shocking Lies We’re Told Every Day, and it will make you cross.

Over the past three years, Rose and Caplin, both in their early fifties, have amassed a catalogue of well-researched examples of how we are being misled and cheated.

“And the more we found, the angrier we got,” says Rose. “Almost everyone in a position of authority now feels it’s ok to deceive the public. A society functions on trust, but who really trusts MPs, or local councils, food manufacturers, the police, insurance companies or television programmes?”

Apparently you cannot trust supermarkets, either. “My local supermarket sold a ‘better value’ four-carton pack of orange juice, when it was actually cheaper to buy four individual cartons,” Rose says. “I pointed out this basic error in their maths, but months later nothing had changed.”

He was particularly incensed when his trusting teenage daughter Isabel bought a £12 pair of shoes at a famous high street boutique and was talked into signing up for a “10 per cent discount card”, which turned out to be a credit card. “The next thing she knew she got a bill for £36, for the shoes plus late payment charges. The store didn’t explain to her how the card worked. Yes, she was naïve, and it was all there in the small print, but teenagers shouldn’t have to go shopping with a lawyer in order not to get bamboozled.”

The book includes the tale of the fisherman’s cottage put on the market by an estate agent who omitted to mention that it was right beside the Sizewell nuclear plant. It also cites the con-tricks of modern photography, which made the curvy Kate Winslet look skinny and flat-chested Keira Knightly more buxom. (“We call Keira’s digitally-enhanced breasts ‘zeboobs’,” jokes Rose.) But there are shocking revelations, too — for example, how many of us knew that among the 50 or so additives which wine-makers can legally use to “enhance” their wines without telling us on the label are charcoal, fish-bladder extract and clay?

Rose grew up in Newcastle, Caplin is north London-bred, and both come from secular families. It is no surprise, then, that their favourite example of Jewish zebu is “the convoluted way in which observant Jews circumvent the Sabbath laws — such as using self-operating lifts that travel up and down continuously and stop on every floor, so you don’t need to push buttons”. And their word for somebody who keeps kosher at home but eats bacon sandwiches when they’re out? “Zebrew”, of course.

Caplin is a leading photo-montage artist whose work appears in newspapers and magazines, while the versatile Rose has been a financial journalist, film critic, scriptwriter and creator of the 2006 film The Flying Scotsman. He speaks self-deprecatingly about his capacity for bad timing in his career — leaving the City in disgust at poor salaries shortly before they went through the roof in the Big Bang of 1986; starting a magazine for investors on the eve of the 1987 stock market crash; and setting up an internet company just before the dot.com bubble burst in 2000.

But with this latest book his timing has been impeccable. He has clearly tapped into a general mood of anger and frustration, and there has been a growing buzz around the book, especially on the internet. He believes the situation is reaching a tipping point. “People feel disenfranchised,” he says. “We should be served by politicians, civil servants and companies, but in fact we’re being fleeced. And nothing will change unless we fight back — reject the lies, boycott the worst companies, vote out the politicians who treat us with contempt. We need to write angry letters, emails and blogs. Make our voices heard."

‘Complete and Utter Zebu’ is published by Old Street Publishing at £8.99. Monica Porter’s book, ‘The Paper Bridge: A Return to Budapest’, is published by Quartet at £12

    Last updated: 10:26am, November 12 2009