Who’s lying now? Advertising in a post-truth world

Paul Kitcatt is a consultant chief creative officer and was co-founder of the agency Kitcatt Nohr, where he spent 14 years.

Oxford Dictionaries have chosen ‘post-truth’ as their word of the year. Apparently, usage of the term was 2,000% higher in 2016 than last year. You may remember last year’s choice was an emoji – a face with tears of joy. What a long time ago last year seems.

The huge spike in usage of ‘post-truth’ needs no explanation, but just in case, Oxford says it’s ‘in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States’.

In short, Brexit and Trump. The definition given of the term is, "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief".

I love that great understatement – "less influential". They do go on to analyse the shift in the meaning of the prefix "post-" from simply "after" to "belonging to a time in which the specified concept has become unimportant or irrelevant". In other words, it’s not a case of appealing to emotion by selective use of facts. It’s quite simply making things up, knowing they will have an emotional effect. Otherwise known as lying.

One of the most repugnant moments of the referendum campaign came after the result was in, and a succession of Brexit campaigners denied having anything to do with the claimed £350m a week we ‘send to the EU’. ‘Nothing to do with me,’ they said, as if the figure had been painted on their bus in the night by some tearaway, and none of them had spotted it until it was too late.

This was a figure repeatedly shown during the campaign to be wrong, but still it stayed on the bus. It vanished from the Leave website straight after the vote, and has now vanished from all discussions.

There were many other ‘post-truth’ moments in the campaign, but of course, it’s all been put in the shade by Donald Trump. He is living proof that the idea of ‘digital natives’ versus ‘digital immigrants’ has nothing to do with age. At 70, he showed more proficiency in the manipulation of public sentiment through Twitter than anyone ever. It was a digital first, integrated campaign, with a minimal media spend.

The New York Times and others spent a huge amount of time and effort listing all the ‘post-truth’ tweets from Trump, and pointing out their relationship with objective facts (very little, mostly). But to no avail. Once tweeted, often repeated, his claims gave him an impact his rival could never match. It’s so much less interesting and less powerful to be constantly pointing out your opponent’s ‘post-truth’ statements. You’re lost once you’re debating on his ground.

And in any case, as one master of lying pointed out, if you’re going to lie, make it a big, colossal lie. "People would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously"; and even if they had it proved to them, "the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying." So wrote Adolf Hitler, in Mein Kampf.

Where does this leave advertising, in all its forms? A friend of mine, Chris Chalmers, a novelist and copywriter of repute, pointed out to me that we are bound by rules that seem not to apply to politicians any more. We are obliged to make sure our work is legal, decent, honest and truthful, and if we don’t, we get punished. Our work will be taken down, and we mustn’t repeat any false claims or whatever else was wrong in any future ads. Fines can be imposed.

Most agencies and advertisers follow the rules. The advertising equivalent of one of Trump’s tweets would be something like ‘Buy this car and have more sex,’ or ‘Free money here now’. If you ran those ads, you’d have to be able to prove they were true.

Maybe not any more. In the ‘post-truth’ era, are ad agencies going to just carry on being law-abiding citizens while the Trumps and Farages say what they please, and not only get away with it, but win? Or will we decide the truth’s for wimps, and a slap from the ASA is a fair price to pay for influencing more people than your competitors?

Mark Zuckerberg may have unintentionally shown the way. He claimed the fake news stories on Facebook didn’t affect the election. Many pointed out he was trying to have it both ways, therefore, as he wants us to believe advertising on Facebook is effective. In fact, his statement unintentionally highlighted the truth: fake news and advertising are both effective, but fake news is far more effective than advertising, because it has no rules. It is the ‘grossly impudent lie’ that Hitler wrote about.

This lesson won’t be lost on advertisers and agencies. We’re all competing for the same attention, and not just with other ads, but with everything else going on. In a flattened media landscape, where everyone can attempt to make themselves heard, Trump, Farage and the other purveyors of ‘post-truth’ and fake news have shown us how it’s done most effectively.

Zuckerberg has now changed his tune, and acknowledged what has become obvious to us all: fake news and real news are indistinguishable in social media. As are truth and post-truth, or, as we used to call it, lying.

Zuckerberg says he’s going to do something about it, too. Good luck with that.

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