What If Advertising Told the Whole Truth?

Man looking at a wall of TVs showing advertisments

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There are many different types of lies that we all encounter in our day-to-day lives. The writers of the book "Spy The Lie," an excellent account of spotting deception, says there are three main categories of lies, those of commission, those of omission and lies of influence.

The Lie of Commission

This is the easiest one to categorize. A lie of commission is a blatant, bald-faced statement that is the exact opposite of the truth. For instance, if someone at work steals your lunch, you see them do it, and they say "I did not steal your lunch," that's a lie of commission. These are the lies that would make Pinocchio's nose to grow a foot or two.

Advertising rarely, if ever, produces ads that contain lies of commission. There are just too many lawyers waiting to jump on them. Bait-and-switch is a prime example of when these lies are used, but even those are prosecuted.

The Lie of Omission

This is a much more difficult scenario. Lies of omission are not outright lies. They are usually truths, but with something quite important missing in order to create a misconception. For instance, you may be buying a car and the seller will say "it's a lovely motor, serviced regularly new paint job." What they're not telling you is that it was serviced regularly because it's a lemon with constant problems, and the new paint job is from an accident that the car was in.

This is where advertising is most at home. Talk about the benefits; ignore the drawbacks. There is nothing "wrong" with this approach in advertising, you are merely telling people about all the good things your product or service does. If you're selling a house, however, this is not exactly full disclosure.

The Lie of Influence

Think of this as a little sleight of hand, but with words instead of magic tricks. With a lie of influence, the liar is faced with the fact that the truth is not on their side. The truth hurts them, and they don't want to talk about it. So, they will give you another piece of information that will try and sway your opinion. For instance, you may ask someone "did you steal $20 out of my wallet" and they'll come back with "I volunteer every Sunday at a soup kitchen, does that sound like something I'd do?" They're trying to influence your opinion with a positive statement.

Advertising loves lies of influence as well. It's why you see so many celebrities endorsing products. They bring a certain amount of influence with them, so you think "well if she drinks it, it must be good." Nope. She's being paid.

Within each of these categories, you will find many other types of lies. They include white lies, dissembling, half-truths, exaggerations, and fabrications.

Now, knowing what we do about lies, and how they are told, it seems fair to ask the question…would people prefer honest ads, or do they want to be "lied" to?

What if Ads Were 100% Honest?

If advertisers are completely honest with ourselves, we know as either client, account manager, or creatives, we'd be setting ourselves an impossible task.

That's not to say we're not honest in what we do. But come on, no one ever sprays on Axe deodorant and gets chased by women from Victoria's Secret catalog. Men don't become more attractive to women when they drink beer. Women don't get a flawless complexion by putting a bit of foundation on.

In advertising, we exaggerate the benefit, and we conveniently say nothing about the negative sides of the product.

What if antiperspirant ads came out and said "this stuff makes your pits smell nice, but it leaves white marks on your t-shirts. And you will not be any more attractive to the opposite sex." Would this work?

In the short term, yes, it would actually. Because it's a new approach. You could call it "Honest Joe's Pit Rescue" and consumers would rush out in droves because they like something new.

 The Comedy Movie That Dared to Include Honest Ads

In a movie called "Crazy People," starring Darryl Hannah and the late Dudley Moore, an ad creative was admitted to a mental institution for daring to create ads that spoke the whole truth. This was a guy at the end of his rope, tired of making false claims and doing boring work. What resulted was a series of ads that accidentally went to print.

"Buy Volvos. They're boxy but they're good."
"Jaguar. For men who like hand jobs from beautiful women they hardly know."
"Come to New York. It's not as dirty as you think."
"Metamucil. It helps you go to the toilet. If you don't use it, you get cancer and die."
"Come IN the Bahamas."

You get the picture. People went nuts (excuse the pun) for them, and the products sold in record numbers. Well, of course, they did, it was a movie. But if this had happened in real life, what would the outcome have been? and in reality, regular consumers would love the breath of fresh air. For a while.

Then reality would suddenly lose its appeal, and people would go back to the products that didn't remind them of their less appealing traits.

The Cigarette Brand That Tried "Keeping it Real"

This no-nonsense, total honest approach was actually tried once, on a brand of cigarettes marketed in the UK. They called them DEATH cigarettes, and the packaging was black, with a skull and crossbones emblazoned on it. You really don't get much more honest than that.

And what happened? Well at first, the result was incredible. The company couldn't sell them fast enough. Guys bragged about how they could "handle the truth" and wanted a product that set them straight. The TV news and papers ran stories on these new, honest, aggressive cigarettes stating that death is imminent. It was a public relations masterpiece. 

But after skyrocketing sales came the inevitable crash and burn. 

Shelves that were once empty started to become packed with packets of cigarettes that no one wanted to buy. Smokers returned to their older brands in droves, stating that they preferred the taste. And after just four years, the company closed its doors.

However, the taste had very little to do with the shuttering of the company's doors. It wasn't anything to do with the product itself, it was pretty much the same as any other. It was simply that smokers didn't like being reminded that they were killing themselves. They preferred the lie that although cigarettes do kill many people, they wouldn't be affected because they are not susceptible to lung cancer. Blissful ignorance, coupled with hopeful thinking.

So, Do People Want Honesty?

Yes and no. People actually want the illusion of honesty. They want to think they are being told the truth, and do not want to be blatantly lied to. Somewhere in the middle of that gray area is what is known as exaggeration, sarcasm, and playful language. 

Women will not chase after you if you spray a manly scent on you. But...they might just say hi at the bar. You won't become a shiny-haired movie star by using shampoo...but you might get more people to notice you. And so on. 

The whole truth is a hard pill for most people to swallow these days. And the likes of the VW bug campaign from the sixties is fast becoming an unlikely probability.