Post Truth: Fact vs fiction in marketing
by Marguerite de Villiers. Today’s consumers are bombarded with facts, falsehoods and fabrications; they have to filter through fake news to decipher what is factual and what is false, and avoiding click bait that uses sensationalist techniques to get them emotionally invested to read further. In a post-truth era, facts become questionable, consumers grow sceptical, and brands draw inspiration from a multiplicity of perspectives.
A fact is something that is assumed to be true; it is presented as a statement of truth. This kind of statement is told in somewhat of an authoritative narrative, with a confident use of tone and wording. It seems to be convincing, unopposed and true in its entirety.
American cable network, A&E, released a Brave Storytellers campaign in August 2017 as an attempt to rebrand the network as a platform for “serious storytelling”. It wants to be viewed as the home to “fearless and factual storytellers”. The campaign features personalities from different shows on the network, each with a tagline that captures — in a factual tone — what each show is about: we are not victims, we are not limited, we are not afraid. Making statements of what they are not, the overall campaign concludes that they all represent the network; they are A&E. The campaign leaves little room for debate or challenge.
Evidence is traditionally used to determine whether a statement is true or valid. What, then, of a post-truth world where validity is determined through a process of psychological factors, rather than knowledge-based ones? It is common practice for those operating in a post-truth context to judge the truthfulness of something based on how that information makes them feel. If something feels right, correct or true, then it must be so.
We see fiction and fabrication play out in an interesting manner when it comes to false advertising — whether justifiably questionable, or assumed to be. While some are often content to accept what is advertised to them or are even aware that some advertisers fabricate truths in order to convince them to buy into a product or service, there are others who demand evidence.
In August, Africology, a cosmetics and spa company originating from Johannesburg, was ordered by Advertising Standards Authority to withdraw its advertising claiming that it did not test its products on animals, as there was no evidence provided to prove it. Its rabbit logo is placed on products that contain ingredients tested on animals; it’s apparently not meant to validate its anti-animal testing policy but some feel that this is false advertising.
And somewhere in between
What does this mean for brands? Advertising is an art. Sometimes art imitates life, and sometimes life imitates art. Be clear about what message you want to communicate: are you depicting an imagined ideal (life imitating art) that consumers are aware is fictional but strive towards, or are you painting a picture of your brand’s truth (art imitating life) that is a reflection of the consumer’s lived reality? Be confident in your statements and communications, but be wary of sounding authoritative and elite.