I was reading about some controversy surrounding the launch of the film “The Cure for Wellness,” which featured a number of “fake news-style” clips, and it occurred to me just how much things had changed in our industry regarding our relationship with the truth. Back in 1999, I worked on the U.K. launch of “The Blair Witch Project” and am reminded of a briefing from the head of marketing for Pathé that we could “do or say whatever the hell we wanted—as long as it WASN’T the truth.” So we made a bunch of stuff up and won a ton of awards for being “creative,” while now “The Cure for Wellness” folk are being shunned everywhere for being insensitive.
For argument’s sake, let’s say we are entering a golden age of truth in marketing. Hard to believe, I know. Truth and marketing are not words you tend to associate with each other. I would go so far as to say that, to the general population, marketeers are right up there with real estate agents and recruitment consultants in terms of not having a strong relationship with the truth.
So what changed? How did an industry that serves to obfuscate and idealise to increase affinity, intent, and purchase become such an apparent paragon of virtue?
Frankly, we were forced.
From Brand Values To Product Truth
The product used to be a footnote on a creative brief but is all important these days. Regardless of what you, as marketers, say about it, online reviews have more sway on buying, so you’d better make it good. In our customer-centric times, where the product development process should, hopefully, involve the potential customers, it’s not surprising that the product itself becomes the message. If the product is sub-par, then no amount of marketing will save it in the long run. As a result, with marketing more closely involved in the product development process, the necessity to lie is diminished and the likelihood of being caught out in a lie increases substantially. So why take the risk?
From Carpet Bombing To Sniping
We are Big Brother these days, and we are watching you. We know what you like, we know where you go, we know how often you buy. Contextual marketing has shifted our communication from “we are great” to “you, just you, really need this.” A side effect is that there are now no reasons to overclaim or try to appeal to everyone. “This product is good FOR YOU because IT DOES THIS.” Mapping product attributes to people means the recipient is substantially happier with a purchase because it does what it was supposed to. That’s the theory anyway.
From Big And Important To Quick And Relevant
With attention spans waning due to the tyranny of the feed, the term “media choice” seems slightly oxymoronic. This focus means creative executions are heavily limited by platform, and, if you only have X characters to play with, it’s an awful lot more difficult to tell big porkies. With this kind of reductionism, many of those stepping stones on your path to purchase have been dug up to the point that calling it a path at all might be false advertising these days.
From One To Many
When somebody has a problem with a product, or a message for that matter, it’s no longer a one-to-one irate conversation over the phone. It’s broadcast and amplified. Any work you may have done building individual relationships can be undone with the right tweet to the right followers. How you treat the least of us is as important as any global campaign these days, so being honest and direct is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s a necessity.
Silence Is Dangerous, Delays Can Be Deadly
Regardless of whether it knew why batteries of its Galaxy Note 7 phone were exploding, Samsung took a very old-world view to the incident, leaving a large number of people concerned that their most used device might spontaneously combust. A hasty recall would have put a lot of minds at ease and, probably, saved them more in the long term than the ensuing chaos that followed.
Even the new world isn’t safe—just look at Uber, which is right bang in the middle of yet another controversy of its own making, this time surrounding one of its autonomous vehicles running a red light. The company said this was down to “human error,” but, when the truth came out, it was not. Had they just admitted earlier on that “Yes, we are in Beta, we are really sorry, and we’ll address the problem,” they wouldn’t be in the news now—at least not for that particular gem.
Fool Me Once ...
You could argue the flip side that consumers aren’t that diligent and do simply click on the first link, buy the first brand they recognise, or choose the cheapest option. There is certainly plenty of data out there to support that. But that apathy turns very quickly to anger if they discover they’ve been cheated and, over time, it erodes trust across the board and makes it harder for anyone to sell to them.
Buying Their Silence
There was, and with certain types of business still is, a trend to censor negative brand. This is often achieved by having insane clauses in terms and conditions (“No bad reviews or we’ll sue!”); putting out bogus copyright takedown notices on sites they don’t like (“We are big, and if you don’t stop fairly using our name to complain—we’ll sue!”); and many other weird and wonderful attempts at legal incursion. It usually ends badly. Trying to censor something tends to shine a light on it. There is even a phrase for that now—it’s called “The Streisand effect.” Thankfully, many businesses are realising those aren’t great tactics, and that maybe even fixing the problem, improving customer service, or whatever will offer a better outcome.
Truth Is Back In Style
Do I really believe that we will spontaneously stop misselling and overhyping in marketing? No, not really. I do, however, believe that the relative merit of lying in marketing has decreased. Our stock and trade is about building trust, and right now, there has never been a better time to be clear about what it is you are selling, find the people who might need the product, and simply tell the truth. It’s the path of least resistance, really.