Where the truth lies: advertising's role in the rise of fake news

Fake news isn’t just something that plagues politics and social media. Its poison has permeated communications, including design and advertising, for years – and may even have originated there.

The “golden age” of advertising and design in the in the 1950 and 60s produced a lot of sparkling, glittery falsehoods that turned heads and opened wallets. I’m not quashing the quality of work in that period – look at the brilliance of Saul Bass, Paul Rand and Robert Brownjohn – it’s just that, in the rush towards creativity, honesty was often left for dust.

Today’s trend towards “authenticity” marks a welcome u-turn on the long road towards showy, false marketing that the communications business was built on for so many years.

In the backlash against fake news, fake followers and the “Insta-sham” life, brands are starting to look back to the days when advertising was about communicating the benefits of a product, with maybe some information about provenance, and the ingredients it was made from. Packaging, too, was more functional; simply a way to store or transport a product and to label what was inside.

During the Mad Men era, we started using design and advertising to tell people that they needed a product to make them happy or make them fit in, and the theatre started to build, as consumers were sold empty dreams or brazen falsehoods. Cigarettes were good for you: Lucky Strike turned you into an athlete (really) and if you wanted to make like a doctor, you were advised to smoke a Camel.

Regulations have since been put in place to prevent outright lies, but the seeds of fake news had been planted, and the possibilities of duping people with unproven facts and figures began to infiltrate the mainstream.

Companies pushing honesty, integrity and innovation often they found themselves trampled by the peddlers of fraudulent dreams and artificial glamour.

It doesn’t take much of a leap to fast forward to fake news, fake maps, and falsehood’s nadir, the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Touching the void of fakery has made us all sharpen up, creating the awareness that forms a necessary step towards overcoming the power of fake.

Thanks to fake news, we’ve all turned on our bullshit detectors and started listening more to our instincts. While older generations might still have some investment in the golden era, younger ones have developed a higher skill set for filtering out lies, and will not be dazzled by the light.

One thing we know for sure about millennial consumers is that they can smell saccharine and sycophantic marketing a mile off, but they sometimes shy away from the issues around the environmental crisis and the dubious operations of corporations.

Generation Z, however, won’t stand fakery in any form, and this brings us back full circle to the power of authenticity and honesty, which is the best tool any marketer can employ right now.

Brands that want to survive have no choice but to get real. For our work celebrating 30 years of Canary Wharf, we analysed our client’s archive of articles and interviews, and built up a bank of words that had been used to describe the project over the last three decades.

We then developed an algorithm that generates three-word rallying cries from those words, delivering a campaign created only from truth. Design is Transformation, Freedom Inspires Commitment, and Depth Brings Progress are just three examples of the “unpredictive” text phrases that the algorithm has produced, and will continue to produce, on the screens around Canary Wharf. For a brand to do this in an industry which is grappling with uncertainty takes a boldness and courage which is commendable.

The “golden era” might have been necessary as a trailblazing period that pushed boundaries and unleashed creativity, but now that we have learned those lessons at the furthest reaches of shiny, shallow consumerism, we need to apply them with honesty and authenticity in the real world instead.

There’s a famous clip of Bill Hicks talking about advertising and it being the ‘ruiner of all things good’, filling the world with ‘bile and garbage’. The crowd cheers. Fast forward a decade or two and we have Donald Trump in the White House, telling people to not trust the mainstream media and talking about ‘fake news’. I’m not saying advertising is to blame for that but prioritising profits over honesty has created a world where lies wash over us and we are expected to sit back and take it… while getting our wallets out.

It has made ‘ad men’ about as liked as traffic wardens and trusted even less.

People are demanding change. They want brands that reflect their own morals. They want value, sustainability and truth. And they are only getting their wallets out for brands that deliver this.

In the words of Hicks himself, ‘quit putting a dollar sign above every person on the planet’.

David Johnston is founder of Accept & Proceed

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