OPINION: DELANEY ON ... TELLING THE TRUTH

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’.)

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

scepticism?



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

deceptions.



Telling the truth. It’s an old trick but it might just work.



Greg Delaney is chairman and creative director of Delaney Fletcher

Bozell.



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