Would I Lie To You?

With one child still left in the nest with a chance to go to Oxford, an article in the Telegraph about Oxford interview questions caught my eye. David Leal at Brasenose uses this question for aspiring philosophy students – “Lie, deceive and mislead seem to mean a similar thing but not exactly. Help me sort them out from each other”. Great question. Even if you had a dictionary it wouldn’t help you. What Mr. Leal wants to see is how you tackle the question for which there is no real answer other than “You can’t, without a context”. As a failed Cambridge applicant (Economics) I am tempted to provide an answer that I might have given in the context of a university interview just to show the opportunity they missed. I applied to Selwyn, a college, I was told, was so poor no-one with half a brain could fail to get accepted. My humiliation upon receiving a firm rejection was thus all the worse, slightly eased by discovering that the friend I made in my first week at Bristol had also tried the same strategy and had also been refused by Selwyn. No names, no pack drill, but you know who you are Charlie K (still one of my best friends).

No, I shall attempt to answer the question in the context of marketing. I will seek to prove that only one of them is unacceptable in the promotion of a brand. In the Oxford question, had one said the answer lay in the context, one would have had to go on to show that who was doing the lying, deceiving, misleading, to whom and with what motivation might indicate nuances of meaning. In marketing we can answer that straight away. It is the brand, they might be lying, deceiving or misleading “consumers”  (people) for the purpose of making profits by gaining an unfair advantage over their competitors. I will argue that in which case, there is really only a difference in acceptability.

It’s OK to deceive your “consumer”, brands do it all the time. We spend millions of $ and engage the brightest and most creative minds to deceive people into believing that our brands are better and will improve their lives. It is not just part of what we do, it is what we do. We seek to persuade them that the smallest of performance difference will actually make any difference, that our brand will make you more of a man or woman, a more attractive and confident person, that it will earn you the respect of your peers and the attention of the opposite sex. Oh yes we do.

We mislead people into thinking that our brands are terribly popular among people who, according to our research, our target consumers will find credible and motivating. You don’t think so? So how many Irish people drink Baileys or Magners, how many Aussies drink Fosters? Did Michael Schumacher really help develop that premium petrol, does he deliberately drive out of his way to find the gas station that sells it to put it in his own car? Do all those starlets actually use that shampoo and derive their self-esteem from it? Do they ‘ecky thump. Are our shoes hand crafted in grottos by little elves, is our whisky lovingly scraped from the wings of angels by men in kilts? Or are they, respectively, knocked out in Chinese sweat shops and distilled as a chemical in something the size and appeal of a school science lab?

These days we twitter and post to create ‘a human face for the brand and to engage our consumers’. A slight deception as there rarely is one human guiding the brand, rather a large cumbersome team acting on behalf of shareholders. You are being misled if you believe we really want to engage with ‘you’ because we care about ‘you’. We only care if there are millions of “you” buying our brand. We engage because we have to not because we want to. The old didactic days of marketing were far easier.

Yes we both deceive and mislead people and revel in the focus group findings and Nielsen results that show we have succeeded.

We are magicians, we simply but cleverly misdirect. We use sleight of hand, theatricality, the set-up (is there any difference between planting someone in the audience or paying George Clooney to flog your coffee?).

But we don’t lie and if we do we get caught, which is probably why we don’t lie. You think this is harsh? I imagine if you had been born 100 years ago you would have been convinced Guinness was good for you and Marlboro cigarettes were part of a healthy outdoor lifestyle too. (I still believe both).

I did not get into the easiest college in Cambridge let alone the philosophy department of Oxford. I ended up a murketeer and in the context of murketing, “deceive” and “mislead” mean pretty much the same thing. They are not just acceptable, they are aspirational. A lie is not acceptable and it’s bad for business. That’s the difference.

Or put another way – great advertising is “truth, well told”  not a pack of lies. (Did I pass?)

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