The Business of Lying

Bill Bryson’s remarkable book, Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United State (William Morrow, 2001), chronicles the history of the English language in the US.  His chapters on travel, cooking, shopping, and advertising are particularly compelling.

A key element of Bryson’s story concerns how we are convinced to value, for example, cars, meals, and clothes as well as how advertising motivates us to buy into such stories.  Is this due to our being deceived or is there a deeper explanation?  First of all, proponents of a product or service can legally claim almost anything – marketing has been characterized as inherently lying.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In the history of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has never ruled that false statements are totally without protection under the Constitution.  In United States constitutional law, false statements of fact are statements of fact (as opposed to points of law), that are false. Such statements are not always protected (or prevented) by the First Amendment.

When consumers see or hear an advertisement, whether it’s on the Internet, radio or television, or anywhere else, federal law says that ad must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence.  False advertising is described as the crime or misconduct of advertisements that contain false, misleading, or deceptive statements to promote the sale of property, goods, or services to the public.

So, what happens when an advertisement lies?  One needs to file suit to block the advertisement.  This suit will wind its way through various courts until perhaps one wins, many years and many dollars later.  Thus, the risk of publishing a false advertisement is rather small, particularly if one has deep pockets.  Consumers have a right to know what they’re purchasing and its full price, but the costs of pursuing this right are steep.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates advertisements. The FTC operates by prevention over punishment. This means that if an advertiser is caught trying to publicize deceptive advertisements, the FTC will simply ask that they revise the advertisement.  However, false advertising claims can be filed in civil court if you have the patience and resources to prevail.

False advertising law says that if the plaintiff can prove their case if they can show that the advertising was false or misleading, the advertisers lied about something of importance, the consumer saw the false advertisement; and the consumer purchased the service or product because of the advertisement.  This seems straightforward but in practice can be quite difficult.

More broadly, marketing is often thought to be synonymous with lying.  Marketing, to many people, automatically means manipulation, lying, and corporate greed. “Ethical marketing” might as well be a joke. And marketing “gurus,” in particular, are suspected of habitually using marketing lies to manipulate potential customers.

However, consider what marketeers think about this.  They lie to consumers because consumers demand it. Marketers tell the stories consumers want to hear, and consumers believe them. Some marketers do it well.  Marketing is about taking data, facts, research and creating a story that people want to hear. Sure, it might be about selling something, but it is still a story based on perceived facts.

People want to believe that rugged pickup trucks and sleek sportscars increase one’s attractiveness.  They want to believe that beauty and attractiveness will result in successful relationships.  They want to believe that matriculation at particular colleges will guarantee lifelong success.  They want to believe such things and marketeers are all too happy to create stories that portray these “truths.”

Storytelling is only one part of marketing. Marketing also involves social conversations, via tools, technology, data, people, products, non-profits, donations, etc.  This is much larger than a simple statement of marketing is lying.  It is telling stories that people want to hear, e.g., a particular purchase will make you a more appealing person.  People want to believe that it is all that simple.

Marketeers argue that people can make decisions for themselves and are in control of the actions they take. Part of those actions or inactions is realizing the truth around them, that they do not need the latest gadget or that they can make a cheaper healthier meal for themselves if they spend 30 minutes cooking rather than opting for chips and cheese dip. They don’t need to give into the social pressures around them.

But the truth is, marketeers argue, people are lazy. They are unwilling to put in the effort to think for themselves. They don’t want to figure out what food is best. They don’t want to make an effort to take care of themselves.  Otherwise, self-inflicted heart disease would not be the top killer in the US. Or people would not want to smoke or do drugs to be cool. 

It is easier for people to not think, to let other people tell them what to do. And that lack of consumer initiative is what gives marketing a bad name. Typically, people after they make a bad decision blame everyone including marketing, but not themselves. “Oh, I didn’t realize that the hot cup of coffee I ordered was hot”.  Marketing gives people choices and how people want to choose or not, is their freedom and their responsibility.

The argument continues.  We also live in an age of transparency where anyone can spend five minutes searching for the truth about something before buying or being influenced.  With unprecedented access to information the only excuse for being “lied to” is a person’s lack of caring about themselves.  The majority of marketing efforts are based on data and research not someone thinking about how to make up a false claim to sell products.  It is about telling believable stories that people want to hear.

There appears to be a big distinction between public relations (PR) and marketing.  PR, marketing claims, communicates lies more often for the direct benefit of the brand.  Of course, there are brands that are created specifically to con people out of money, but there are outliers in every industry and should not be considered the rule.  It seems to me that this is an example of the pot demeaning the kettle.

I have summarized the gist of marketeers’ defense.  Where does that leave us?  We could just rely on caveat emptor, Latin for “let the buyer beware”, the principle that the buyer purchases at his own risk in the absence of an express warranty.  An ultimate example is a current TV ad for a prescription drug that ends with “May lead to severe depression and suicidal tendencies.  If this is not normal for you, contact your physician.”

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech.  It does guarantee the veracity of what is said.  Consequently, political campaigns, in particular, often involve falsehoods that can border on slander.  These can be addressed with civil suits, that will be resolved years after the elections.  Facebook and Twitter have tried to curb the more outrageous of these tendencies, but new outlets quickly spring up to support the business of lying.  As Bryson aptly points out, we have been doing this for many centuries.

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