Like anything else, it begins with oral hygiene
Please forgive me for the world's most boring introduction. It has a point. I promise.

So I'm unloading groceries this weekend, and I go to put away a tube of toothpaste. (Told ya. Just stay with me.)

There on the box is one of those splashy starburst graphics, the ones they use to draw your attention to some great new product improvement. In the split second before this hygienic breakthrough registers with my brain, my imagination reels. Will I have even whiter teeth? Breath so fresh it will make the aroma of a Minnesota pine seem like so smog from Gary, Ind.? Could I handle that much improvement in one mouthful of "micro-active foaming action" and "whitening mint experience"?

Here's what was actually new about this toothpaste: "New Packaging!"

I kid you not.

What does this have to do with investing? Plenty, because the slicksters out there don't contain themselves to marketing toothpaste. They work in the stock field, too, and some of them are trying to sell you decades-old dreams, repacked as New and Improved. You're mostly likely to find them wherever fear, greed, and ignorance get together for lunch. These days, the fields of nanotech, alternative energy, gold, telecommunications, and homeland security are full of companies promising the future but delivering the same stale results of the past.

Learning to recognize New and Improved
It's not too tough to spot them. Copious press releases in the absence of profits, as from a company such as Altair Nanotechnologies (NASDAQ:ALTI), are one strong indication that what's being sold ain't the company's product, but a stock.

Fuel cell firms like Ballard Power (NASDAQ:BLDP) offer another great place to buy yourself a lot more bun than burger. Post-Katrina, it was other so-called energy plays. You have one of these in Capstone Turbine, a company hyped by Cramer despite the fact that it sells a product that works the wrong direction of economies of scale, as detailed for us by a Fool colleague who just happens to have designed gas turbines at General Electric. Host America was yet another great example of a way to lose money in the energy space. How'd you like to jump onto a bandwagon cruising downhill from $16 a share to $1.40? It's easy to do when you believe the packaging -- not the fine print.

And then there are telecoms. People still can't seem to get enough of these, even though overcapacity ruined many people's savings way back in 2000. And although there are some pretty obvious-looking values in this space because of their cash-generating capabilities -- perhaps Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) or foreigner and Motley Fool Inside Value pick Vodafone (NYSE:VOD) -- people are still willing to gamble their money on unproven upstarts. On Yahoo! last week, I found a banner ad that took me directly to the investor relations page of a $28 million, billboard-traded "telecom" that draws only $0.32 per share. There was a nice little graphic link to a stock chart, and that graphic showed a big arrow pointing upward. What a sham!

The truth of this "leading provider of wireless and portable communication devices" is that its stock has dropped from $3 to $0.32 over less than two years, wiping out 90% of the investment of anyone unlucky enough to have believed in this serial money loser, whose red ink is getting worse, not better.

How's that for New and Improved?

Beware the cash eaters
Why would people keep promising investors New and Improved when what they've really got is old and unprofitable? The usual reason is that New and Improved isn't profitable, and hasn't been for some time. Therefore, those who produce New and Improved are under a constant need to raise capital, and there are few better ways to do that than to issue press releases, and to then issue stock.

Here's the tragedy. Contrary to what the growth-chasers out there will have you believe, you don't have to invest in New and Improved in order to get three-digit returns. In fact, since so much of New and Improved doesn't work out, a lifetime of betting the bad odds will guarantee your savings are not improved.

Boring is better
Want big returns? Master investors like Warren Buffett have proved that boring, underappreciated, and profitable companies can put you way ahead of the market with far less risk. This year, big wins came from old-school companies like mining equipment maker Joy Global (NASDAQ:JOYG) -- a miss that particularly stung me because I had friends and colleagues telling me to pay close attention. I missed similar gains, under similar circumstances, with $40 billion tech giant Corning (NYSE:GLW). Then there was $6 billion health-care firm Omnicare (NYSE:OCR), which delivered 100% returns to subscribers of Inside Value.

Being an investor means investing. In other words, buying something for less than it's worth and waiting for the market to realize what you've seen before anybody else. It does not mean hoping some hype-meisters' New and Improved lives up to its billing.

Fool value guru Philip Durell and his team focus on finding Buffett-worthy investment opportunities. You can view all of their research and stock recommendations with a free trial of 30 days. Click here for more information.

Seth Jayson wonders if fuel cell investors know how old those fuel cell promises are. At the time of publication, he had no position in any company mentioned here. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.