Full disclosure: this post was inspired by this article in the Guardian, written by Will Davies, who is a political economist at Goldsmiths, where I’m studying for my MA in Promotional Media.
Davis proposes that statistics are a double-edged sword when it comes to using them in today’s market. They are meant to represent fact, truth, and evidence. But what happens when suddenly everyone around you is starting to doubt the truth? What happens when experts are rejected as puppets being used to propagate or repudiate a certain position? Are statistics useful anymore? I think we can expand that questioning to facts in general: what use do they have anymore?
So, we have entered into what many have been calling a ‘post-truth’ era (which was the 2016 word of the year), where we can’t always believe what we read because someone out there has decided to manipulate reality in order to get us to do something to further their agenda (click on an article, spread propaganda, vote Britain out of the EU…).
It’s scary that Donald Trump is gaslighting the entire United States of America. It’s scary that someone like him is in so much power that he can tell others their experience of reality is wrong, and his cronies will back him up. Truth means nothing to him if it contradicts the way he thinks or what he wants.
I think this leaves advertising and marketing in a lurch: the promotional professions are supposed to shape culture through narrative, symbolism, and creativity. How are we supposed to do our jobs when the truth is elusive, facts are irrelevant, and no one believes anything to be verifiable? How are you supposed to get consumers to trust your brand?
Accusations of false advertising are somewhat common (think of Ribena advertising it had Vitamin C in its drinks when it didn’t in 2007, or more recently in 2016, when Australian officials cracked down on Unilever and another food company for misleading consumers about ice creams being approved by school canteens). But most people are willing to rely on the authorities to provide guidance and be the final answer on when advertisements are lying or being misleading.
The problem is, when the authorities are the ones blatantly misleading, who can we turn to that can be the last legitimate force of the truth? Who can we trust? Can we be creative and truthful at the same time? (spoiler alert: we can)
But maybe we’re all too cynical anyway. I know every time I see a model in a magazine, I know that some creative lighting and a lot of makeup goes a long way to make people look better in photos than they do in real life, let alone airbrushing and photoshop. I think it’s hard for people to trust brands and marketers and advertisements when most of us know what the goal is: to earn our dollars.
I don’t want to think that we can’t trust any ads to tell us the truth about the products out there, which is where creativity comes in. I think it’s up the promotional professions to use creativity as a way to earn trust. No one will listen if you just throw a bunch of statistics their way; humans respond to stories and emotions, so why can’t a brand use the latter to present the former in a way that people will trust? Creatively using facts builds up attention which builds up reputation. That’s where we should head in our ‘post-truth’ world.