Despite our high-minded aspirations, we’ve been making stuff up for decades
Recently, Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as 2016's international Word of the Year. They define the term as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
To me, that sure sounds like a description of advertising.
If we can’t agree on any facts for news or current events, how can we determine whether any message in advertising or marketing is true? Should brands really concern themselves with truth telling if it clashes with their idea of storytelling? Does anyone really believe what advertisers or marketers say anymore?
Advertising has always had an on-again, off-again relationship with the truth.
Go back through early 20th century ads and you’ll see hucksterism of the finest kind. “More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette” read one headline from 1946, trading on the trustworthy reputations of physicians to sell smokes. This fabricated charade lasted for decades in spite of actual research to the contrary. Don’t forget, in 1994 (not that long ago, really) a group of tobacco company executives marched into Congress, testified as to whether they believed nicotine was addictive — and lied their asses off. How many ad careers were they bankrolling all that time? So yes, before there was a “Truth” campaign against tobacco, there certainly was some post-truth advertising on behalf of it.
But harping on the tawdriness of old cigarette ads is like shooting camels in a barrel. What about now, and the products we use every day? Are marketers willing to bend or ignore the truth to suit their needs? Of course.
I recently worked on some marketing projects for a global brand that sent along an Excel spreadsheet of product superiority claims they insisted upon using. Some were attributed to one mysteriously-funded scientific study or another, and some were designated outright “puffery.” And while all of these claims were designed to capture some territory of truth, very little of it sounded convincing to a 2016 mindset.
Here’s the actual truth: There is little, if any, “transparency” in advertising and marketing. In the U.S., we have a Federal Trade Commission that, on occasion, punishes marketers for false or deceptive advertising. But that’s basically limited to things such as: Brand X can’t say, “Using Brand Y will give you hives and Chlamydia.” The enforcement is fairly toothless.
It’s primarily up to marketers, their advertising agencies, and their PR firms to police themselves to ensure the messages they send out are aboveboard. But when the quest for more profits and market share is at the center of it all, that’s when the post-truth world rears its head.
This is why, contrary to what some so-called gurus think, brands need to remain in control as much as possible. We saw recently in post-election controversies involving New Balance and Pepsi, where they struggled against a stream of negative sentiment to reiterate the truth about their businesses and their viewpoints. Which is why you don’t want consumers co-opting a brand or a company’s product or message. They might take it in a fatal direction.
What consumers can do is decide for themselves whether they want to believe what a brand says or not. So an argument can be made that in the long run, it’s best for a brand to be entertaining, empathetic, forthright, and honest about what it does and doesn’t do. A little exaggeration and facetiousness in our creative work can be highly amusing and effective, but only when everyone’s in on the joke.
But even that may not work well. Social media makes it difficult to discern the truth from fiction for even the savviest people. Native advertising and branded content intentionally blur the lines between editorial and advertising. We have ad fraud that’s pervading an ever-growing digital media business. And we have people who give presentations and write articles insisting, for example, that no one watches shows on live TV anymore because it FEELS true.
So the reality is that we’re all in for a bumpy ride. Remember, we’re in the business of changing minds and perceptions. And that requires taking what people know to be currently true about their lives and taking it for a spin. If we do it properly, advertising and marketing could be the one part of the media that people actually have more trust in.
Because the truth is, we’re making it up as we go along. We always have been.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
Visit his copywriting website, see his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.
And please, buy his book for 99 cents.
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