I work in marketing and have my whole career. While ‘truth in advertising’ is usually uttered as a cynical joke, I have always believed that ultimately trying to do right by the customer will ultimately lead to greater success than trickery or dishonesty.
Lately a couple of things have come across my radar that are worrisome in this regard. It seems that truth may actually be a sucker’s play.
Check out this video of a kid pretending to be a celebrity. It was done as a practical joke and on that level it’s pretty amazing and funny. People actually attribute songs and movie roles to this kid simply because he surrounds himself with the trappings of fame. To the degree his video went viral, he even achieved fame by acting famous (a.k.a the ‘Paris Hilton Approach’).
Now think about what you saw a bit deeper. Think about how easy it is to manipulate opinion with misinformation, or worse, simple packaging. Then think about the stakes when the people doing it aren’t just practical jokers but corporations, news publications and politicians.
It becomes less funny and potentially dangerous.
That’s the main point behind the most disturbing book I’ve read in a while, Trust Me I’m Lying, Confessions of a Media Manipulator. Here author Ryan Holiday lays bare his own secrets to manipulating the blogosphere in a calculated effort to impact the ‘main stream’ news media on behalf of his clients. The very existence of the book begs whether or not it is just another manipulation by a master of the craft, but regardless of his intent, it is an interesting and worthwhile read.
My college mentor presented marketing to me as “pre-customer service”. Literally helping someone make the right decision for his/her situation. This has been the guiding mandate under which I have undertaken my career – a career I continue to be intrigued by even if marketers are often held is the same low esteem as used-car salesman and ambulance-chasing attorneys.
To see examples like the practical joke above, and read the more machiavellian ones in Holiday’s book has been troubling. It has me worried for my fundamental belief that marketing, in a world with too many choices, can be a service and not a scam. Well, not that is can be, or even should be, but that it in fact is. This darker side of marketing seems to be saying that the most rapid road to success in today’s marketing environment – which thrives on getting attention through digital media -happens through sensationalism and manipulation – truth be damned because most people don’t have or won’t spend the time to get to the truth.
Ultimately, I blame speed. I’ve blamed speed for undermining innovation too. I think we’d all blame speed for the general unpleasantness of the hurried and unhealthy aspects of our over-stressed lives as well. Keeping up in today’s fast-paced world puts strong pressure on us to cut corners, think shallow, go for the low hanging fruit and do what we’ve always done before because we know how to do it quicker and easier and we’re not given the time to do much else. This works on a feedback loop between producers and consumers. Here’s and example as to how:
- Content producers in the digital age are rewarded on quantitative measures (not surprising considering their measurement tools, computers, are really best at counting). An information/content provider (journalist, blogger, advertiser etc.) seeking fame needs to be noticed. To be noticed gets you clicks, pageviews, or traffic. For publishers these lead to higher advertising rates and revenue. For marketers they lead to more brand impressions and opportunities to sell. The pressure then is to be seen. If you have an average product (most are) you have to make it more interesting through dramatization. And in terms of news we know Kim Kardashian will always beat out world hunger or cancer research for clicks so celebrity gossip and scandal are gold for many publications.
- Content consumers are being buried in information. To ferret through it, we’ve learned to skim. When we skim we generate most of our knowledge from headlines and a few introductory sentences. Worse, we flit from topic to topic, rarely digging deep. Compounding this, our digital tools are highly habit forming. The habits they form, like skimming, lead to an appetite and expectation for ever more stimulus. “First” is a point of pride for people online. First to comment, first to pass a new meme along, first to discover whatever your friends haven’t seen yet. Many of us realize we can’t sit still for tool long without feeling the urge to check in with Facebook, Twitter, email, etc. so that we don’t miss anything and so that we might be lucky enough to find something to share ‘first’ with our networks.
You may say ‘that’s not me, I’m a deep thinker. I read the whole article. I seek out disconfirming insights.’ I would say the same about myself. Or I try to do that anyhow. But we all get swept up in speed, and when you walk around your town, do you think the majority of the people you see and meet take the time to do that? Me neither. Not because they’re dumb or lazy or ignorant but because we all have long to-do lists that don’t afford us a lot of time to take the time to seek truth.
The Slow Information Movement
Now, if we as consumers are getting most of our knowledge from skimming headlines and those headlines are being written not to communicate fact (booooring!) but to grab attention (and therefore clicks, impressions and revenue)… well, truth has been lost a little along way. Compound this with celebrity-gossip being more click- and share-worthy than articles on cancer research and we’re dining on a diet of junk information. Spin sells. Exaggeration gets eyeballs. Truth? A nice to have, not a need to have.
Interesting that fast-food (also junk) found its place as the pace of life accelerated and ‘cheap and quick’ became more valuable to us than a home-cooked meal at the table with family. Only now – decades into an obesity pandemic and with ample scientific testimony that maybe all this fast food is killing us early – are some people reassessing this lifestyle and choosing ‘slow food’. Yet even with decades of science saying Big Macs aren’t a good choice, many of us remain so swept up in the pace of life that the McDonald’s drive thru seems the only reasonable choice if we’re to make our next meeting on time.
I wonder then how long it will take us, gorging as we are on confectionary information that is cheap and quick, to realize it is also unhealthy in the long term. Perhaps one day we’ll return to a slow information movement too. Where unprocessed information (or at least less processed information) is considered healthy the way unprocessed food is.
I think we can begin to do this today, by making some simple lifestyle changes. This might mean foregoing the chance to ‘be first’ with a meme in order to read deeper on some other topic. It might mean turning off Facebook now and then and deliberately tuning into the political convention of the opposite party you’re going to vote for. It might mean picking up a publication you wouldn’t otherwise read or looking into the way a certain piece of research was conducted, and who sponsored it, before taking the ‘facts’ at face value.
All this takes work. It takes time. And that time has to come from somewhere. Finding it will be the challenge.