Friday, August 14, 2009

Kathleen on Truth In Advertising

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." (Hamlet)

Now, there's food for a weekend worth of thought. Good food? Bad food? You decide.

But how about this?

There's nothing true or false, but advertising makes it so. (Kathleen Eagle. As far as I know.)

A headline on p. A4 of the July 23 Strib continues to bug me enough to bring it forth for your consideration: "Should TV ads for losing weight have to tell the truth?" Wow. Truth in advertising. I thought we'd settled that. But apparently not. The article explains that the FTC recently warned the Senate that weight-loss ads are often misleading and harmful to consumers, and that, yes, there are rules, but the agency has trouble enforcing them because there's no money for it. The response from a representative of the weight-loss industry basically amounted to: Truth is relative.

I just thought I'd bring this up because we're people to whom words matter, and we're interested in the way language is used. We Riders write fiction, and we joke about making a by living telling lies all day. But that's not at all what we do. There are other professionals who use words that way, and they make a better living misrepresenting, misleading, misquoting, misstating and otherwise lying than I do writing fiction containing none of the aforementioned distortions. Honestly.

Advertising is small potatoes. The real artistry is in PR. I ran across a book review recently called The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations by Larry Tye. Don't glaze over, eyes. I doubt if I'll get around to reading the book, but I had no idea there was actually a "father of spin." I thought the Devil spawned it and it just twirled through the cable channels like Topsy.

This is Edward in about 1920. He was Freud's nephew. He sold America on ideas, movements, all kinds of products, even ballet. He had a client list including some of the biggest movers and shakers in the 20th century (died in 1995 at the age of 103) and basically wrote the book on marketing strategy. He was all about manipulating public opinion, said it was the essence of democracy, the invisible government. Check out this man's story in Wikipedia. It's fascinating. And he wasn't the Devil--wasn't even Machiavelli. He simply understood herd mentality and the fact that, no matter how smart we are individually, any of us can find herself running with the lemmings. He told marketers how to use language and his insights into human nature to sell anything. He came up with the idea of using 3rd party authorities--group leaders--to endorse a product or an idea. He originated the "tie-in." But he warned that a public relations counsel "must never accept a retainer or assume a position that puts his duty to the groups he represents above his duty to society." Wow again. What a concept. I imagine him standing beside the barn doors he'd opened and watching the horses run away. A smart man like Edward, he knew better than to close the doors. What do you do? Take the doors off and hope some of the critters will come back on their own? (We write character-driven stories, and we think about these things.)

Now, I do not demean PR folks. In the final years of his military career, Daddy was Base Informations Officer, which was basically the PR man for the Air Force Base where he was last stationed. His job was to sell the Base to the local community. Not literally, of course, but civilians don't always support the troops in their own back yard. Daddy was an officer, a gentleman, and a diplomat. He was also a stickler for good grammar and precise word choice.

Speaking of tie-in, you may remember that I'm a "Mad Men" fan, and Season 3 is due to start soon, so if you're behind, you might want to rent 1 and 2. It's an AMC series, widely available on cable, and it's about the heyday of Madison Avenue and male chauvinism--late 50's, early 60's. Did I mention Jon Hamm? Yummy.

What is truth in advertising? What about other forms of media--journalism, talk, editorials, infotainment--what, if anything, do they owe the society they serve? Or do they/should they serve? What kinds of commercials drive you batty? Which ones sell you? Who do you believe?

"Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored." Aldous Huxley


Debra Dixon said...

Hey, I'm glad for the reminder about MAD MEN. I'm looking for new series to watch on DVD.

As for infomercials...I hate it when I'm up really late and the only thing to keep me company is infomercials! Hate them.

Except for the ones that suck me in and make me wish I had a phone handy. (g) And that occasionally does happen. But mostly I just migrate to the international news on CNN!

lois greiman said...

You go, Kathy. It's so sad what we can be made to believe, isn't it? And it's everywhere. What we eat, what we wear, how we look, what we think. In 100 years our progeny will wonder WHAT we were thinking. Well, we were thinking what we were told to think. Yikes.

Playground Monitor said...

I'm reminded of the joke that asks, "How can you tell when a politician is lying?" His/her lips are moving.

I stopped at an outlet mall on my drive home from Georgia yesterday and they had an "As Seen on TV" store. It was filled with all those miracle products in Deb's fave infomercials. ::grin:: I've bought a few of them in my time and absolutely none of them have performed as promised. And now we learn that cocaine contributed to the death of infomercial king Billy Mays. I guess that's why the health insurance company is pulling the ads he did for them. Well, duh.


Cindy Gerard said...

I guess I'm getting jaded - or I've finally wised up - but generally i don't believe the hype about anything anymore be it infomercials, political pundits, supposedly unbiased news reporters. Even the weatherman is suspect these days :o)

Just give me some straight talk - I'd even be willing to pay for it. :o)

Kathleen Eagle said...

Lois, this is what worries me: in 100 years will our progeny be thinking? (I have to worry about it now because in 100 years I won't be worrying.)

catslady said...

Whatever happened to truth in advertising - I know I heard that term somewhere! The political ads amaze me - they can tell outright lies. There may be freedom of speech but there should be some kind of accountability. And the late night ads...

Kylie said...

Apparently we aren't too jaded because we still believe there *should* be truth in advertising. I remember taking a high school course on propaganda and at that time ads couldn't directly talk about a competitor by name. That has gone out the window and it seems anything goes.

NL Gassert said...

Oh, I love the cartoon. Too funny. I had a job like that. I was good at it, too (I’m a writer of fiction after all).

Here’s the thing, the poor people in marketing and advertising and public relations don’t actually lie. They do tell the truth – someone somewhere did lose a remarkable amount of weight; someone somewhere actually looks good with those weird hair bumps – they just forget to mention how absolutely, totally, ridiculously extreme those results are. You know those sweepstakes disclaimers? “Many will enter, few will win.” Commercials should come with this: “Millions will buy/try, one or two might have a chance to see some results.”


By the way, when I went to college to study public relations, in my very first semester, I used the word “manipulate,” much like you did here. I only exaggerate a little bit when I say I was almost expelled from the program for it. PR people are very, very touchy when it comes to that kind of thing. Edward L. Bernays was a genius, but I think we’ve perverted his message … a bit.



Michele Hauf said...

I have become skeptical of everything nowadays. It seems no one tells the truth about any product. The 'natural' label you see popping up on all the brand names is a biggie for me. It merely means at least one of the ingredients inside is 'natural', while the rest are not. Sigh...

I don't watch those informercials or the shopping channels. I think some people are just wired to believe and others have learned to question.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Absolutely, Nadja. The problem with good ideas is that they can always be perverted. That's where ethics are supposed to come in. That's why we're in so much trouble. We're not using our noodles. Human nature has a down side, and geniuses of all stripes have always warned us to keep that in mind. People who don't recognize the need for standards and regulations are generally...naive. I was going to say kids--they strain against restrictions--but down deep most of them know it's for their own safety and protection.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Wow. Nadja almost got kicked out of school for telling it like it is. Manipulation is what it is. Hey, we all do it, but we don't always recognize it.

I almost got kicked out of a focus group once for not giving the answers they wanted. I've done those test market/focus group things a few times (great research for a writer!)and it's an eye-opening experience, let me tell you.

NL Gassert said...

You go, girl. Getting almost kicked out of a focus group.

Mechelle Fogelsong said...

Advertisers don’t just influence what we buy. They also influence what we don’t buy.

Have you seen that movie called, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” It’s about how GM managed to suck the life out of their own EV1 electric cars by using crappy promos. People who invested in the EV1 loved them. They ran purely on electricity, so they were great for the environment, cheap to run, user-friendly, and efficient. But they pulled the plug and are no longer producing them. I wonder how many big-wigs at GM have invested stock in petroleum products????

BTW, you can rent “Who Killed the Electric Car?” from Netflix.