Lies, damned lies and advertising

In his book Lying, Sam Harris says, “By lying, we deny others a view of the world as it is. Our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make—and in ways we cannot always predict. Every lie is a direct assault upon the autonomy of those we lie to.” 

The most fundamental problem with advertising is the very essence of its existence: the communication of something other than the truth. When we are paid to present information on behalf of a person or entity we are almost always duty bound to present that information in its best light. So we end up accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative, creating those shampoo or fast food images that fall disappointingly short of reality. Or we use meaningless words such as ‘special’, ‘super’ and ‘natural’. Are Frosties really Grrreat? Is Happiness actually a cigar called Hamlet? Did Sony TVs truly offer colour like no other?

Then there’s the age-old advertising conceit of taking a product attribute and exaggerating it, something that has underpinned many classic executions for Lynx/Axe (smell better=smell so good you’ll be irresistible to models), The Economist (be better informed=be so well informed you’ll be a very successful genius) and Stella Artois (good and slightly expensive=so good it’s worth risking your life for). 

So far, so what? After all, why on earth would you pay to present yourself at your shoddiest? And why can’t we have a bit of fun taking things so far that it becomes obvious hyperbole? Well, I’m not normally one to get my wisdom from Game of Thrones, but as John Snow once said, ‘When enough people make false promises words stop meaning anything. Then there are no more answers, only better and better lies, and lies won’t help us in this fight.’ Indeed…

For decades, if not centuries, advertising has been one long demonstration of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. We’ve spent so long building an entire industry on a lack of truth that no one even expects veracity anymore. People will say that the lies are fine because people know they’re lies, so they’ll never take them seriously enough to be fooled by them. They understand what exaggeration is, therefore they take it into account automatically. So that’s fine, right? Sure, but only if you want to make everything you say literally unbelievable. Imagine you have a friend who always lies or exaggerates. How do you listen to what he says? You might take things seriously the first few times, even the first few hundred if you’re credulous or charitable, but eventually you’ll stop believing anything that comes out of his mouth. You might still listen because his stories are so entertainingly told, but you give these stories no credibility because 100 times bitten, 101 times shy.

And yet we want to believe what we’re told. The idea that corporations deliberately expend time and effort to pull the wool over our eyes is a little odd, not to say depressing. And watching messages you’re not supposed to take seriously is ultimately a waste of time. A quote often attributed to George Orwell suggests that in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act, and any ad campaign that actually did so would be unusual (see the recent FCK apology ad for KFC). The problem is that we are now conditioned to believe that all ads are simply versions of lies, so the truth will no longer be accepted without skepticism.

Where does this leave us? Is advertising incapable of having an effect on our highly-tuned bullshit detectors? Of course not. Ad campaigns still work simply by letting us know things exist or reminding us of things we might have forgotten: “Oh yeah, oven chips. I haven’t had them in a while.” Or “Maybe I should also consider an Audi when I compare that BMW and that Mercedes.” Do we actually ‘feel’ Money Supermarket? Of course not, but we might recall the name when we’re next online. 

But if the ads contribute to the sale of goods and services, is any of this problematic? After all, they’re just doing their job. Well, the problem is they’re also contribute to a general expectation of lying in other forms of public information. If advertising is the most sophisticated form of mass communication, anyone seeking to replicate its effectiveness would be mad not to lie. Can you think of any other areas of life where you are constantly exposed to lies? Would those areas be improved by the use of truth instead? 

Misinformation is a tool often employed to keep people confused and subordinate, because if you don’t know what’s true, you also don’t know what’s false (for an in-depth study of this effect watch the excellent Adam Curtis documentary, Hypernormalisation). Is that really the effect we want to have on people (including ourselves, and our loved ones)? What would happen if we started telling the truth for a change? Although a small amount of truth would be indistinguishable from a sea of lies, a large amount of it might change the way we relate to advertising and, by extension, other forms of communication.

When Bill Bernbach insisted on addressing people with intelligence he caused a revolution whose effects improved the world. Perhaps now is the time for another revolution: the insistence on truth. It has the ability to turn the tide of discontent, it will zig through the zagging of subterfuge and it might just set you free, along with the rest of us.

As Nadine Gordimer said ‘The truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.’