The Washington Times - September 15, 2008, 03:13PM

Remember Phineas T. Barnum? The famous showman and huckster is incorrectly credited with saying, “there’s a sucker born every minute,” but the statement itself is quite true. Those annoying “as seen on TV” commercials make a strong case for that statement, because blatherscapes Billy Mays, Ronald Popeil and Anthony Sullivan - and now that Vince character selling the Shamwow - are making millions selling cheap, gimmicky, unnecessary junk products over the airwaves.

I have a simple rule about buying things. If it’s sold on TV or over the phone by a solicitor, I don’t buy it. I strongly urge you readers to adopt the same rule, but if you feel compelled to buy the stuff then go ahead - but please don’t buy oil/cooling/fuel additives!

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Oil, cooling system and fuel additives have been marketed for nearly a century. In the old days some of these products actually performed minimal service because automotive machinery was fairly primitive. By the 1960s engines, cooling and fuel systems became efficient enough that few, if any, additives were effective. Today, the only effective additives sold on the market are those that absorb water (condensation) in fuel tanks. All the rest are worthless, including the now-popular “engine flush” procedure offered by hundreds of repair shops. All of these are “marketing breakthroughs,” not technical breakthroughs.

All oil additives advertise reduced friction, cooler running, greater fuel economy and, occasionally, quieter operation. The compounds in these additives generally fall into three categories: chlorinated parafins; synthetic oils and PTFE (Teflon) suspensions. All, in the exact conditions in which they function, can reduce friction, etc., but here’s the thing: these conditions don’t occur in normal engines! They only occur seconds before failure, so an additive might in the best case, keep the engine running a few seconds longer.

I have talked with hundreds of automotive engineers - the people who design the engines and transmissions and fuel and cooling systems - over the past 20 years or so and I can assure you that none of them would recommend any aftermarket additive. Most would tell you that oil additives have the potential to upset the delicate chemical properties of lubricants and could harm your engines and transmissions rather than help them.

The same goes for cooling and fuel system additives, especially those that “clean fuel injectors.” Steer clear of magnetic fuel enhancers, turbo air directors and most anything that uses the word “tech” in their brand names. At the risk of being repetitive, if it’s hawked on TV infomercials, don’t buy it.

So why, you might ask, do a number of legitimate, well-known spokespersons and race drivers and fleet managers endorse these products? The simple answer to that question is that they are being handsomely paid for their endorsements. They aren’t too concerned about their credibility because they know how short the attention span of the average consumer tends to be and don’t care much about negative press.

I would be embarrassed to say how modest my income is, and I’ve been offered substantial (read: a heck of a lot!) amounts of money to endorse some of these products in print and on my radio show. Like everyone else I need the money, but I have this conscience-thing about taking advantage of people’s trust and seeing them throw away their hard-earned cash for nothing. I don’t consider myself noble or saintly or more ethical than the average guy. I just want to go to sleep at night knowing I haven’t duped someone out of his/her money.

By the way, you’ll probably meet a number of people who swear by some of the additives and will tell you how much better their cars run (smoother, better mileage, etc.) They are actually seeing an effect, but it’s not due to the additives. It’s due to the Hawthorne Effect. Look it up.