Let’s Be Honest

Posted by Viktoria Michaelis on May 24, 2012 in News & Opinion |

Honesty is not a strong point with some people, although they probably don’t consider it being exactly dishonest, maybe just a little bit sparing with the truth, or telling white lies, protecting sources, forgetting to mention, but not lying.

I remember seeing a photograph taken, I think, in New York a few years ago. It showed a handwritten sign for a flower shop and said, for anyone reading at a distance or going by quickly in a car: a dozen roses, $4.00.

Anyone going a little bit closer, or actually trying to buy a dozen roses, would have discovered that there was a touch of small print there too: half and .95.

Put the whole together and you could buy half a dozen roses for $4.95. I’m sure quite a few customers decided to take their business elsewhere afterward, if they bothered shopping there at all.

Not that advertising isn’t simply a massive factory of people who put together carefully worded falsehoods. Sometimes they get away with it, sometimes they pay the price

and sometimes it is clear that they really just don’t give a damn about it all, business will continue as usual and there is a sucker born every minute so, why worry? I seem to remember that a British jeweller thought this much too and, at a general meeting of his shareholders, admitted that the bulk of the jewellery his stores offered the public was merely ‘shit’, but they bought it and that was good. A few weeks later, after it had hit the news, he was out of a job and the jewellery chain was writing rather worse turnover figures than ever before.

But what else can the advertising industry do? If they were honest about Old Mother Hubbard’s cakes and biscuits – you know, those delightful treat Mother Hubbard prepares herself in her small cottage – no one would want to buy them. If more people really appreciated how chickens are ‘farmed’ through to slaughter and the chemicals which are pumped into all animals prior to them being marketed for our dinner tables there would be considerably more vegetarians in the world.

And anyone who falls for such things is a mere fool, we all know that. We all say it. Even as we click on that link in a mail we’re not too sure about, not too sure who sent it, and then watch our computer go downhill. Or as we read about another person who has bought London Bridge, or agreed to help that poor Mrs Whatever-Her-name-Is, you know, wife of the ambassador from Nigeria who died the other day and left one hundred and fifty million dollars in the bank which needs to be brought out with your help…

Let’s be honest, who reads the small print? Sometimes it is simply too dangerous.

  • Viktoria Michaelis.
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  • Francois says:

    Not that advertising isn’t simply a massive factory of people who put together carefully worded falsehoods.

    Taking this personally.

    • viki says:

      Why personally? I do justify my words and I did think long and hard before writing. But the advertising industry is there to convince people of something – be it to buy or to believe – and the twisting of words into something that the people wish to read, which grabs and holds their attention, which convinces them, is part and parcel of the job. It’s just that some are less honest than others but all, because of the nature of the job and because they cannot know all the details intimately, must, in effect, tell little white lies.

  • Francois says:

    Dear Viktoria, do you have examples from “the advertising industry”?

    A hand-written sign in a flower shop window probably did not come out of J. Walter Thomson or Publicis.

    A pub dos not hire an advertising agency (they do ads in-house or hire a freelancer) and the other two illustrated examples are not advertising. Mother Hubbard (whatever that is) is about packaging, not advertising and what chicken are fed (up to 35% their own output, legally) is about production.

    The fundamental honesty of advertising is that the first thing it does is scream “I am and ad! I have a very obvious agenda!”

    As of here “you” is a generic you, meaning the generic reader.

    If you can draw or write, you might be offered a job in the creative department of an advertising agency. Especially if you can write: that skill is becoming incredibly rare. I would take this offer for a year or two. Where else would you learn the inner workings of 50 different industries or types of businesses? While being paid a lot more than any of your classmates?

    If you do it, you will demonstrate ignorance in the first two weeks. First, by asking about subliminal advertising. When the old farts (25 year-olds)are done laughing, they will explain it does not and cannot exist. I will leave you to enjoy the experience in real life.

    Second, you will knowingly write an outright lie in an ad. Out of your drive to persuade.

    If you are lucky, it gets caught inside the agency and earns you a short but memorable conversation with the really senile, demented fart: the 40 year-old managing director. I will sum up here what she will say:

    “If you ever do that again, not only will I fire you instantly but I will also make sure every agency in this country knows why.”

    She has good reasons:

    1- She does not want to pay a 250 000 euros fine out of her personal pocket and go to jail for up to three years. Standard in the EU.

    2- She is not paid to kill her clients’ brands overnight and nothing does it better, faster than lying to the consumer.

    3- Everything that comes out of her agency is scrutinised under a microscope by her clients’ competitors. Any opportunity to sue the campaign into oblivion is immediately seized, even a potentially slightly misleading claim. Flushing several millions worth of production and media space purchases does not endear her to clients.

    Yes, advertising presents a brand’s best face. Similarly, a single woman who goes out dancing often wears sexy clothes. The difference is that brands are always out for a long-term, meaningful relationship: earn trust. The woman? You’re on your own for motives.

    Think back to the day you decided you needed cucumber night cream, despite the fact it does nothing more than rainwater, generic reader. This “need”, based on your belief, did not come from an ad. Advertising just tells you which creams have cucumber. The most cucumber, the ones not tested on animals (except you), the organic cucumbers, the ones that come from sustainable cucumber fields (because you started believing in sustainability three years ago)… All of it true. The only falsehood in there: “cucumbers have magic properties”, comes from you and please notice it is nowhere in the ad.

    Advertising is not simply anything and it certainly is not a gigantic falsehood factory. It is a very complex, always frustrating, sometimes rewarding business.

    It makes mirrors.

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