When an American was asked recently what he thought of Bill
Clinton’s performance as President, he reportedly said, ’I think the
lying, cheating bastard is doing a great job.’ Which I think, though
probably apocryphal, aptly sums up most people’s declining view of the
honesty and integrity of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.
(Whatever the media hysteria about ministerial resignations in recent
years, most ordinary folk just shrug their shoulders and think, ’there
goes another one’.)
But if you thought that no other activity could rival politics in the
public’s mind for blatant untruthfulness, you’d be wrong.
Advertising beats politics into second place every time. According to a
Henley Centre study, 92 per cent of people touchingly listed their loved
ones as trustworthy, whereas government scored a measly 17 per cent on
the trustometer. But seen as even more economical with the truth were
advertisers, who only managed to convince 15 per cent of people that
they were trustworthy. Newspapers, by the way, scored a rather healthy
36 per cent, which shows that a lot of people do believe what they read
in the papers - provided they aren’t ads.
The Henley Centre study also showed that the public’s belief in the
truthfulness of advertising has declined dramatically over the past 25
years. In 1968, 50 per cent of people believed ’standards of honesty in
advertising had declined recently’. By 1996 the figure had risen to 74
per cent. So three quarters of our audience reckon we’re more likely to
be lying than ever before. Should we care about this worrying decline in
credibility? Should we worry that ads, far from being seen as ’legal,
decent and honest’, are more and more likely to be greeted with massive
One marketing academic, Dr Kent Grayson, doesn’t think it matters, at
least not for consumers. He thinks they can see through our deceptions,
exaggerations and hyperbole. They know we’re over-egging it but they’re
happy to forgive us because, he says, they’d rather be entertained with
’useful stories’ than ’true stories’.
This seems to point to a strange hyperbolic world where we tell ever
bigger and more extravagant lies in order to get through to a heavily
self-aware, post-modern audience. Who, in turn, allow us more and more
latitude to weave our fantastic fictions. Like the mark in the Weimar
Republic, the currency of advertising will devalue, so that eventually
we’ll be carrying suitcases of promises to our consumers where a single
promise would once have done the job.
I think there’s a simple and effective remedy for this sorry situation
and it doesn’t involve giving the IPA the power to burst into your room
in the small hours of the morning and pull your toenails out for
deliberately misleading the public.
It does, however, involve doing a bit more of what the best ad people
have always done: look for the small truth in a brand rather than the
big lie. By which I mean finding a real (not invented) brand benefit and
matching it to some real (not concocted) audience insight; having the
confidence to let the true brand voice come through unsullied; and
generally trying to make sure we don’t get seduced by our own elegant
Telling the truth. It’s an old trick but it might just work.
Greg Delaney is chairman and creative director of Delaney Fletcher