James Thompson
Sep 23, 2016

Polluted persuasion

Marketers have enjoyed a certain liberation from the truth since the profession’s earliest days, but the time has come to stop muting outrage and call out purveyors of outright falsehoods for the liars that they are.

Beyond spin: Stretching the truth comes with the territory, but the industry needs to make a positive contribution.
Beyond spin: Stretching the truth comes with the territory, but the industry needs to make a positive contribution.

True or not, I like the idea that the first ever marketer was a Viking called Erik the Red. Erik and his longships were off foraging and exploring in search of new lands to settle—and surely must have been a bit lost when they came across a vast area made almost entirely of ice. Erik couldn’t think of how to persuade people to settle there until his agency suggest he call it ‘Greenland.’ Genius.

What’s our modern day equivalent of marketing with such liberation from the truth? Perhaps trumpeting an inoperative app supposed to locate and therefore help distressed migrants—but the app is “in development” (note to anyone from Grey wanting to sue me over this piece—what you’re reading isn’t real, it is just “in development”). Perhaps it is the fundamentalist Christian developers luring people at some expense to see a massive (51 feet high, 510 feet long) “recreation” of Noah’s Ark in Kentucky, where “jaw-dropping exhibits” include learning about “how Noah might have cared for the animals” and wondering about “what Noah did for a living before he built the Ark”. Jaw-dropping indeed.

The sense of outrage at these lies is muted … we move on, numbly accustomed to the fact that our methods of public persuasion have become so polluted. 

Maybe the most enthusiastic disciples of Erik the Red nowadays are politicians. Those who told British voters that £350 million per week could be pumped into their health service if only they voted to leave the EU gave misinformation a bad name. Tony Blair spins that he is proud to have been found only to “exaggerate” facts to persuade a nation to invade Iraq rather than been found to directly “lie”. In the US, Donald Trump keeps an industry of “fact-checkers” fed and clothed; PoliticsUSA found that 91 percent of his public statements are false. And yet the sense of outrage at these lies is muted—after a sigh, a grit of teeth and a shrug of the shoulder we move on, numbly accustomed to the fact that our methods of public persuasion have become so polluted. 

Marketers, when challenged about sexism or racism in their work, have defended themselves by saying they are there to reflect society, not to change it. I believe that is unsustainable. It is time for companies and brands to lead a more positive and transparent atmosphere of persuasion and contribution. Many of us are trying to do this—I accept that this is transformative and sometimes open to teasing. But its purpose can never have been more necessary, which is why when there are episodes of egregious behaviour from our industry, its purveyors should be treated as pariahs.

James Thompson (@JamesThompson1) is global managing director of Diageo Reserve (Diageo’s luxury portfolio). 

 

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