At some point when I was fairly young, I was excited to learn about the concept of "truth in advertising" - the notion that it actually matters whether what you say in a public announcement or description of products or services is true or not. I was even more excited to learn that there was an official government entity (in the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission) empowered to enforce truth in advertising standards, and punish those who would dare publish falsehoods. It totally knocked my socks off to further learn that ordinary citizens could submit claims of false advertising and compel advertisers to change or withdraw their deceptive advertising pieces.
What a world of pure and unflinching justice we could then live in! To walk around knowing that the slogans and invitations on billboards, newspaper ads and television were all required by law to be true, and that onerous fines and the shame of the public eye awaited the occasional miscreant who would stray from this noble code. No need to worry about being deceived or misled as a consumer; we could always have confidence that advertisers would stand by their claims.
Like I said, I was young.
But at the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I do think there's been a notable shift in the standards we hold marketers and public figures to when it comes to truth in advertising. Seems like somewhere around the mid 1990's, we kind of gave up on it.
Was it when the Coke vs. Pepsi wars heated up? Or maybe it was when product manufacturing was being outsourced to other countries and business owners became disconnected from quality controls in their production processes? Or maybe it was when we stopped expecting politicians to tell the truth and started betting on just how outrageous their lies were. Or maybe The Internet made it so much more difficult to police advertising claims that no one even bothers anymore unless it's a particularly egregious case.
But there are more important things to worry about, right? Caveat emptor and everybody for themselves, and let's focus on the national debt or poverty or obesity, right?
I'm not so sure. I think deceptive marketing practices deserve more of the blame for the state of the world than they get. I'm glad to hear that some high schools and colleges are teaching young people to be more aware of how marketing influences their buying choices, but the majority of us are still very much subject to the power of the marketing machine. And when that machine is telling us to do things that are against our own best interests, it matters.
A few recent examples I've heard or seen just driving around town:
"Fast and fresh!"
Many fast food restaurants caught on long ago that fast food was associated with unhealthy eating, and that dietary advice was shifting toward recommendations of freshly prepared food with more natural ingredients. The end result is the self-contradiction that you can have mass-produced food from a restaurant that is both "fast" (because it was pre-prepared halfway across the country in a warehouse and trucked to you frozen or full of preservatives) and "fresh" (because it has a piece of lettuce or tomato on it that was recently washed). Or, "we have a salad on our menu, so we offer healthy eating options for everyone!" This undermines people who are trying to make healthier eating choices for themselves and their children by convincing them they can have it both ways, and it undermines local/regional food producers who actually ARE bringing you fresh food that you could prepare within a few days for a healthy meal.
"Hurry in to our store to save!"
I heard this one on the radio this morning. "Be the hero of your household's budget," the ad proclaimed. They want you to come in to the store and spend money so that you can "save" money. Buy things you might not have bought otherwise and might not need, so that you can feel good you're getting them at a slightly lower price than...someone else somewhere else might or might not be selling them for. This approach twists the notion that "saving money is good" into the idea that you have to spend money to save money. No wonder we have unprecedented levels of personal debt and bankruptcy.
"For a limited time only!"
This one is tried and true: the idea that a time pressure will almost always result in consumers making different choices than they would make given time to think through the value of what they're getting. "I might not have bought a case of gummy bears THIS week, but surely I'll need a case in the coming year or two, and this sale ends TODAY!" Marketers are telling us that rational responses are not to be trusted and that our gut instincts are what we should go with. Instant gratification is okay because...then you'll be gratified, and that's all that matters, right!?
There are many, many more. And I'm sure none of them are all that surprising to you, because again, we've come to accept that marketers are trying to mess with our sense of reality, and that we should just deal with it the best we can.
But why do we accept that? Why are we willing to subject ourselves to that dance of pain when all we get out of it is some cheap plastic crap, stomach aches and buyer's remorse? I'm accepting comments for a limited time only.
I try not to give my my money to companies that practice false or misleading advertising most blatantly. But for me, one of the long-term solutions is to be very, VERY intentional about how I market myself and the products or services I'm associated with.
When I market my own business and our technical services, I try to make sure we speak plainly and clearly about what we can and cannot do, so that no one is misled and no end result is hyped up.
When I tell people who I am and what I stand for, I'm careful to note complexity and messiness where it exists.
When I talk about my qualifications for being voted into elected office, I'm careful not to spin or inflate my experience and accomplishments beyond what's real, and to give other people credit where it's due.
When I mess up or say something that might be misleading, I try to go back to correct it as soon as I can.
Sometimes it's harder to be accurate and honest than it is to be catchy and broadly appealing. Maybe it's that younger version of myself still wandering around in oblivion waiting for the FTC to make it all better, but I still hope for a world where we all practice - and expect - truth in advertising at every level.