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Faking bad: why marketers need to maintain standards in a post-truth world

Ben Bush

When was the last time you realised someone had lied to you?

It’s a horrible, sickening feeling, that dawning reality that someone you rewarded with your trust felt able to betray it. They may have felt they had good reason – maybe they even thought they were doing you a favour by sparing you an uncomfortable truth – but it’s hard to recover from the erosion of trust that a lie will bring.

Sadly, we live in a world where lies are increasingly a way of life. Certainly there’s a host of politicians and commentators who feel they can say basically whatever they want without any repercussions.

Take Donald Trump, regularly in the news because he has lied (or is defending previous lies) or because others are bringing his lies to light. Recently, Liz Cheney attributed her defeat in the Republican congressional primary to her unwillingness to support Trump's false claims of election fraud in 2020. Closer to home, in a rare lapse into morality, the Tory party saw off a leader whose conscious separation from the truth had finally become a bigger story than the various crises he was supposed to be presiding over.

Just because standards are falling away in other formerly robust walks of life, though, that’s no excuse for marketing to follow suit. Ironically, perhaps, in an industry defined by invention, we need to stay on the right side of truth and not let creative storytelling stray across the line into out-and-out lying. Not just because we’re a professional business service, but because building and maintaining trust is so fundamental to what we do. 

Strong marketing is built on clarity, authenticity and honesty, and I think there’s a big opportunity for an industry known for spin to step up and show the way in a post-truth world. 

Is it spin or just a lie?

I understand why marketers might be tempted to lie. Most people think we’re all liars anyway. Spare a thought (if you can) for estate agents, perhaps the most maligned of marketers, who have been so tainted with this image that they’ve basically become caricatures of themselves. 

And marketers shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves when we are tempted to bend the truth. We’re only human after all. Research suggests the average person lies once or twice every day.

So when we’re predisposed to lie and it feels like it will contribute to professional or personal gain, it’s little wonder that we might be tempted to be just that bit too creative with the truth.

When marketers go too far, though, they risk losing their audience’s confidence and trust. Dishonesty – whether it’s an outright lie or a poorly judged trampling of authenticity – can be incredibly damaging. Pepsi's viral advert featuring Kendall Jenner in 2017 resulted in a decade low for Pepsi’s consumer perception levels. More subtly, Burger King’s decision to use a sexist trope as clickbait for their 2021 International Women’s Day Women belong in the kitchen campaign did nothing good for their reputation. 

In the B2B world (where I spend most of my professional life) examples of such dishonesty and poor judgment are rarer. Maybe it’s because it’s not – traditionally – the home of bold creative thinking. Or maybe it’s just that the outcry that follows tends to be far less public. But that’s not to say people don’t get it wrong. Take Quantum Tech’s newsjacking horror following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Or the “Crying CEO”, someone who really should know better demonstrating that being (apparently) authentic doesn’t always equate to using good taste and judgment.

So is lying always bad? Not when it takes the form of empathetic storytelling. IBM’s Every Second Counts campaign is a great example from the B2B world. A made-up scenario “inspired by true events” is delivered with enough authenticity and style that the audience is more than happy to suspend disbelief and play along. Elsewhere, Malaria No More’s "Malaria must die” video went one better not just by roping in David Beckham but by embracing the ultimate modern weapon of deception, the deepfake. Dove is another brand who has exploited this technique in a compelling illustration of just how insidious our post-truth era can be.

It’s not immediately obvious where deepfakes will find a home in B2B marketing – maybe they’ve already moved in and we just haven’t noticed. But whatever bold ideas we dream up, we should – as ever –  look to the B2C space for the good, the bad and the downright ugly.

Beyond creativity

Betraying your audience’s trust is not just about using iffy or dishonest creative, though. The amount of technology we use in modern B2B marketing presents additional opportunities to indulge in unethical practices that can irreparably damage a brand. Spamming your audience or betraying the sanctity of their private data are two obvious examples. And the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are presenting their own ethical challenges for businesses.

There is a need for general standards and integrity in a profession increasingly driven by data, automation and AI. Regulations are being put in place to protect people from nefarious marketing tactics like spamming, but advertising campaigns are more difficult to police. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) only sees campaigns once they are live so it often falls to marketers themselves to set their own standards and embrace integrity from the outset.

Laying the foundations for trust

Creative authenticity is what we should all be aiming for. That means not making false claims, not covering up negativity and making sure that anything people need to understand is communicated with clarity. How best to balance creativity with clarity and honesty? Here are three key tips all marketers should consider.

First, operate a strategy-first approach to problem solving and creative briefs. Our own model at The Frameworks forces us to look deep into every challenge or the opportunity. We don’t just take a brief at face value without digging into deeper context and audience expectations, insights and empathy. That safeguards us against the temptation to charge in and do something silly. 

Second, follow best practices. If you have a campaign idea that doesn’t seem quite right, check and then check again. Take a step back and think about the audience, what their understanding of the subject matter is and what you’re asking of them. Often, it comes down to providing foundational education rather than being tempted to make a truth-stretching claim about the benefit of using a product. 

Third, hold yourself to high standards and don’t be pushed into dodgy practices. We all come under pressure from clients, managers, timelines or last-minute curveballs. But there’s always an alternative to sharp practices. No one wants to go viral for the wrong reasons. 

These aren’t revolutionary ideas but solid foundations that – crucially – still leave room for creativity. I’m passionate about the possibilities bold thinking can unlock in the B2B space. 

Perhaps the traditional hesitancy for B2B marketers to be creative has largely insulated us from the pitfalls of straying into unethical, dishonest and trust-eroding territory. And perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. But let’s not authenticity be the enemy of creativity.

A version of this article previously appeared on Advertising Week in September 2022.