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To Tell The Truth

CMO Within Reach

Truth and the legality of truth have been in the news a great deal lately. It applies to all aspects of life, from personal relationships, to government, advertising and marketing. The defense of consumers against sellers of misinformation have created a self-perpetuating industry.

In the early 1990s, I embarked on the pursuit of a PhD in Consumer Law to further contribute to the consumer rights and consumer protection movement. I got side-tracked by the lure of corporate marketing and communications at the time, but my passion for consumer protection was unwavering. The movement had its public awakening via the work of Ralph Nader, who first came to prominence in 1965 with the publication of the book Unsafe at Any Speed, a critique of the safety record of American automobile manufacturers. Following that publication, Nader led a group of law students (known as "Nader's Raiders") in a groundbreaking investigation of the Federal Trade Commission, leading to the agency's reform. Those efforts were taught in my college lectures as an example of the power of consumer protection.

Times have changed. Though the principles of consumer protection have been institutionalized in some industries (credit cards, banking, mortgage lending, advertising, etc.), the tenets of consumer protection seem to have been diluted in a world of mass access to misinformation and "truth telling". In an age when politicians and advertisers alike can falsely claim fake news and misinformation (note the intentional double negative), and every child and adult alike has access to social media as a soap box for their own "truth", it is hard to distinguish truth from fiction. Social media seemingly adds credibility to messages that previously wouldn't have seen the light of day. For professional marketers and journalists, there is a lure to step away from ethical, truthful communications and stoop down to the level of "what everyone else does".

Truth is defined as that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality. Truth happened or can be proven to likely happen. It is not only true when you squint your eyes, or imagine it to be true. It is not relative.

Without blatantly lying, marketers and advertisers can discreetly tell a tale that implies truth. In advertising (and life), there's a big difference between pushing the truth and making false claims. If you tell someone that your widget is better than your competitor's widget, "better" cannot always be proven. If a politician tells you that their opponent's message is "fake", it implies that his/her message must be true. Marketers have long appealed to consumers' senses (images, smells, sound) to imply "truth" in messaging, but the message used to be more limited and controlled. The tricks of the trade have been around for ages, but there seems to be less enforcement of consumer laws that protect consumers against puffery, false advertising, etc. Sure, there have been some recent mainstream victories in consumer protection (e.g., Volkswagen's emissions cheating, Takata airbag recalls, Activia yogurt false advertising, etc.), especially in the realm of consumer safety, but a lot still goes unchecked.

The disclaimer of "Caveat Emptor" (from the Latin for "let the buyer beware"), has always been taught as the foundation of consumer protection. When it's hard to distinguish truth from fiction, it is ultimately the consumer's responsibility to protect themselves.

I openly encourage my peers and fellow marketers, advertisers, business owners, et al to remain vigilant and focus on the truth. In the past year, I had to turn away clients and even fired a client of my marketing consulting business because I could no longer in good conscience represent the client's preference for "spin" over substance.

Companies have invested billions in programs and institutions in the form of legal departments, lobbyists, public relations firms and the like to avoid liability from deceptive practices. Perhaps if more time and money was spent on creating products and services that marketers can easily sell using truth, the consumer marketplace might be a less confusing place for all.

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