Advertising in the age of truth and lies

30 Oct 2018  |  Tara Austin 
Advertising in the age of truth and lies

Advertising has the power to shape business, culture and behaviour - so now it’s even more important to embrace the positive impact of what we do, writes strategist Tara Austin

I’ve never been recruited to be a spy. But of course, isn’t that what a spy would say? So, like all things in life, I’ll have to let you make up your own mind.

You could take a look at my neglected LinkedIn profile and crawl over my much-digitised life. At the end you’d know where I live (Poirot’s house), the fact I was Head Girl (obvs) and maybe the name of my first pet - but would you know “the truth” about me? No, of course not, you’d believe something based on a smattering of “evidence” and, more importantly, whatever you already wanted to believe.

A few months back I interviewed a cognitive behavioural therapist – an amazing man who helps people reframe the unhelpful metaphor of “panic attacks” as “faulty car alarms”.

He told me that he often purposefully creates high levels of ambiguity when he treats patients. He forces them to think “is my therapist actually saying I should carry on doing drugs?” Because once someone is asking themselves that question you’ve created enough space in their mind for them to actually fill in the answer.

The most important aspect of therapy, he told me, was ensuring you never make a patient defensive, as it forces them to engage in what the behavioural sciences call “motivated reasoning”.

Down the rabbit hole

Motivated reasoning is exactly what you think it is – in more ways than one - because it’s all the thinking we do which convinces us of our own rectitude, and makes it super easy for us to notice, consider and remember all the evidence that confirms our existing opinion, rather than the stuff which contradicts it.

It’s the reason I just don’t pay much attention to anti-royalist arguments about tax-payer’s money and all that stuff, but I have excellent recall of my university classes on the role of constitutional monarchy. Long live the Queen.

Now, much has been written about the internet as an echo chamber (including a prescient article in Wired by a brave Mat Honan which, even back in 2014, highlighted the dangers of “liking” to push your Facebook feed towards ever more polarised extremes).

And even before Trump and Brexit we were talking about how the rabbit hole that is “search” feeds our confirmation bias (the aspect of motivated reasoning which allows us to notice and find more believable that evidence which “agrees” with us). After all, we have known since the advent of the internet that it is the harbour of all conspiracy theories - if I look for evidence that America invaded Iraq because Saddam Hussein had stargates, Google can helpfully oblige.

But whilst we have spent a few years debating how to “burst the bubbles” of our algorithmically-dictated newsfeed, conscious of how our own online choices might be influencing our perspective, were we in fact blind to the real question of our age? A question that this year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal has brought into sharp contrast - not because of the data stolen from those who had not agreed to it, nor the fact it may have been used to influence elections, but because it speaks to something more profound. Can you know more about what influences me than I do?

Would I lie to me?

The West has finally woken up to the fact that Russia has abandoned its grand narrative of old in favour of something far more insidious. Peter Pomerantsev – author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, the book of modern Russian information warfare - interviewed the former managing editor of Russia Today (now appointed in the press office of the Kremlin) who claimed “there’s no such thing as objective reporting”.

If this is “true”, then what the Russians are suggesting is “in fact” there’s no such thing as truth. Whilst no one likes agreeing with the Russians these days, surely behavioural science has at least taught us this.

Even I don’t really know who I am and how vulnerable I am to my own cognitive biases and heuristics. Tell me 9/10 people do something and I’m likely to follow the norm. Tell me I’m particularly talented at something and I am ego-enhanced putty in your hand. As Richard Shotton wrote in the Drum earlier this year, simply making your message rhyme means I am more likely to believe it.

As we increasingly understand the bizarre environment of the brain surely we must ask if there is a truth – or whether, as Professor Nick Chater’s Flat Brain theory would have it, there is just a narrative, it either resonates with me, or not.

Clearly there’s a slightly alarming opportunity here for programmatic advertising to “take over” as the machine understands ever-more about what makes us tick, what makes us click and even like, share and buy. Like the Russians you could use this for nefarious means, using a “firehose of falsehood” to induce cynicism across the board, until no one trusts anything anymore. Or you could use it to sell biscuits and beer and insurance, as many of us do. Interestingly, neither of these are palatable to the average man, although we in marketing might see no moral issue with the latter.

Could advertising end up the guardian of truth?

Apologies for the fact this lack of truth seems at first rather nihilistic. And fear not, for perhaps there’s a saviour at hand in a most unlikely of places. It comes from the simple fact that human beings, whilst mostly oblivious to their own motivations and influences, are highly sensitive to those of others. Put short, reputation is a delicate beast.

Just as we have seen with Instagram influencer scandals or calls to boycott YouTube (due to advertising appearing around extremist content), brands will not stand for advertising in environments that have potentially harmful associations. Far better to be seen in places known for their integrity like the press or the other “terrestrial” channels amongst which I’d put OOH alongside TV.

Sure, they too aren’t immune to criticism, but the faces of the journalists who write and edit the stories in the newspapers are where the buck stops when it comes to “their truth” and they are heads that can always be publicly rolled, as the past has shown.

Advertising money, it seems, will follow the truth – or at least the resemblance of truth and the avoidance of lies. Should a new platform appear that consumers use and crucially trust, a future Snapchat or the like, then the ad money will flow – shifting the goalposts to ensure the consumer has at least somewhere it can tentatively “trust”.

I’ve never been cynical about what I do (see: Head Girl creds). Advertising has the power to shape business, culture and behaviour. We influence minds and that’s always been a helluva honour. Perhaps now though it’s even more important to embrace the positive impact of what we do. I for one am glad not to be a spy in this new meta-digital era. After all, creating advertising for brands as the bastions of truth in this brave new world has to be far more satisfying than trying and failing to pick apart the Russian lies.


Tara Austin is chief strategy officer for Kindred

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