Honestly now

28. September 2017, Editorial

A brave new world: in the future only those prepared to speak the truth will be successful. Really?


brand loyalty
Fake News
Social Media
unadorned truth
VW Beatle


© Lord Jim

The whole truth, or is a little bit of lying still ok?

Who wants to be lied to all the time? But then again: who actually wants to be confronted with the truth all the time? Even if deep down we know what’s true, being willing to actually hear it is another thing all together. A good lie can be pretty entertaining. Provided that no one is hurt by it. Film and literature provide no end of examples.


The tall tales of Baron Munchhausen’s exploits are only so well-known because he wasn’t afraid to play fast and loose with the truth. And the same goes for Pippi Longstocking. Known for her outlandish stories, she paints a picture of the world as she imagines it. Felix Krull wraps men and women around his little finger by pretending to be a Marquis, pulling back the curtain on the real goings-on in high society and laying bare their preoccupation with appearances. In Catch Me If You Can, Leonardo di Caprio played the modern version of a hugely successful confidence trickster.


Well-crafted lies trigger the imagination, amuse, entertain and impress us. And sometimes they save us from the unpleasant truth. “Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economise it!” Mark Twain once said. The art of lying, in his view, was something to be cultivated. In the days of fake news this mindset is hardly popular. But the question remains: aren’t we overdoing it a little with our relentless pursuit of the truth?

Fake, fake, fake

Lies are a complicated and exhausting thing. Officially taboo and contemptible, even though they are ever-present in our daily lives. Anyone that gets themselves tangled up in a web of deceit of their own making will quickly be exposed and shunned by society. Others manage to make it as far as the White House despite (or because of) the most incredible lies, so that they can go on accusing others of bending the truth.
Are we all just pretending to care about the truth?

Researchers believe that everyone twists the facts around twice a day.

Linguists have observed that lies are a component of natural communications, taking on the role of a kind of social lubricant. At the age of around four, we develop a feel for what the people around us want to hear in certain situations and are able to see things from another person’s perspective. And with this theory of mind comes the ability to lie. Or, to give it a more charming spin: we pick up the art of storytelling, as the advertising industry would put it. Claims such as “triple protection” and “anti-ageing” are no longer enough to catch a customer’s eye and nudge them towards a certain product. In response, many companies and marketing departments are now coming up with stories for their products and services that wouldn’t look out of place in Hollywood. People love stories that make them laugh, cry or root for the protagonists. Stories that touch our hearts and we don’t immediately forget. Emotions are the order of the day. The idea behind it is straightforward enough: if a company can reach out to customers on an emotional level, loyalty to the brand duly follows.

These days, all smartphones are capable of doing more or less the same things. A decision in favour of one or the other is rarely taken based on technical details. Instead, the special story or brand world that I identify with or want to belong to tends to be the overriding factor. And it has to be one that I trust. The challenge is to create stories that appear so authentic that they are rooted in real life. Only purportedly believable stories have any chance of being accepted and passed on around the digital camp fire. All the others face being hauled over the coals. Minor, endearing exaggerations are tolerated, as there is only so much reality that the community can bear.

Sweet lies, the bitter truth?

So are sweet lies more palatable than the bitter truth? What is clear is that we are not always happy to look cold hard reality in the eye. Particularly when it does not suit us. Die-hard Actimel fans are still standing by their drinking yoghurt, even though consumers named the probiotic fairy tale the most flagrant advertising lie of the year some eight years ago. Although in today’s marketing world, outright falsehoods are not going to get you very far at all. A carefully constructed reality or putting a positive spin on things will, however. Good advertising is about good stage management. Food stylists use little tricks to make their subject matter look as palatable as possible on packaging and advertising materials. To a certain extent we tolerate the half truths peddled by advertising, in part consciously and in part unconsciously. It is not as if we follow strictly rational criteria when we go shopping. But, that said, the gap between reality and make-believe should not be too big. Customers are no longer prepared to put up with deceptive packaging and other disappointments as they perhaps once were. They are better informed, more aware and more likely to question what brands stand for and put corporate behaviour under the microscope.


The times when Nutella was able to pass itself off as a healthy spread bursting with five essential elements are long gone. And Claudia Bertani, the woman allegedly responsible for checking the quality of the Piemont cherries at the end of each summer, is at best a source of amusement for the nostalgically inclined. Since the 2008 financial crisis, people’s faith in governments and banks has been shaken, with business and advertising also hit. Dodgy claims and false advertising are seized upon and can spread on social media like wildfire, and satirical counter campaigns can cause lasting damage to the image of a brand.

It’s true: people like me and you

So why not use the unadorned truth in advertising: “We’re number two. We try harder.” was a self-deprecating campaign by Avis. Launched in 1963, it still has cult status today. Celebrating their own failures could still be a recipe for success for many to this day. In another legendary 1960s campaign, VW of all people openly addressed what the majority of American’s thought about the Beetle: that it was ugly. “Ugly is only skin-deep.” The success story that followed is part of the collective consciousness (the Beetle ran and ran), and the same goes for the group’s current stumble. Triggered by? That’s right: lies.

It is difficult to learn from history. Understandably, customers are left asking themselves who exactly they can believe. Most likely the answer is going to be people like me and you. The amount of faith placed in recommendations by regular people is growing. Hotel guests award stars on Tripadvisor, write reviews supported by their photos and help to decide whether the business is a success or not. Teens post content showing what a great time they are having with their favourite soft drink #loveit. Bloggers test restaurants, baby slings and running shoes. And it goes without saying that it is all totally authentic. On the website Popularium “real” storytellers share anecdotes centring on their experiences with a product. Or, even more excitingly, that they only experienced because of that particular product. The slogan “We are all significant” poses the question of whether this isn’t actually about creating yet another platform for self-promotion.

And if a company’s own employees give testimonials in a customer campaign designed to engender a sense of trust, you soon get the feeling that they have failed to grasp the whole truth thing somehow. And maybe leaving us secretly hoping for the return of Claudia Bertani.

Honestly now.

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