Stayawake, User Experience Branding by Sarah Welstead
Authenticity, Transparency, Truth: Not as popular as you think

January 21st, 2014

see through skirt

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared in 2012. But in the wake of the Edward Snowedon leaks, the coverage of the Sochi Olympics, and even Chris Stark's Mila Kunis interview, this is a topic I find myself thinking about more and more these days.

Scarcely a day goes by in which I don't see a link to another TED talk exhorting companies to be more authentic.  More transparent.  More aligned with core values.

I get it:  In a networked world, more consumers have more access to more information, more quickly, than they've ever had, and they're better at parsing messages than they've ever been.  So if you don't tell the truth, people find out pretty quickly - and they get mad.

But here's the funny thing:  Consumers don't actually want the whole truth.  Those of us who spend a lot of time on social media talk a blue streak about truth and transparency because we see our little blogosphere world blow up when some brand gets caught in a lie or the halfwit intern in charge of the corporate Twitter account says something stupid, but it's not that simple.  And here's how I know.

Regular milk has dead bacteria in it

A few years ago, I spent a lot of time working on a milk account, one of the 'fine filtered' milks that have done such a good job of de-commoditizing the milk segment.  The side of the milk carton says that the milk is "92x more pure" than regular milk because it's been "filtered".

The truth is that it's more like 1000x more pure; the reason it's more pure is that the 'filtering' has removed the dead bacteria that were killed by pasteurization; and the reason that it stays "fresher, longer" is because there aren't any bacteria carcasses rotting in the milk.

But in focus groups, consumers didn't believe the "1000x more pure" claim, and they definitely didn't want to hear about dead bacteria floating around in regular milk - even though once you know that, you'll never drink non-fine-filtered milk ever again.

Citronella doesn't do jack squat

I also worked on a big household products brand, who had a big insect repellent line of products.  One of the products they made was citronella candles and lanterns, but they never wanted to advertise them.  Why?  Because they knew - through their own, and independent, testing - that citronella does almost nothing to repel insects, especially mosquitoes.  The corporate culture was one of high ethics and family values, and it killed them that stores were marketing citronella products next to 'real' insect repellents.  

When they tried to explain to consumers that citronella products weren't effective, they got an incredibly negative response.  So they finally just gave in and made them - but, in a move that will shock those of you who think that marketers are all evil, refused to let us promote them as insect repellents.

The Kardashians

I hope that no one reading this right now is under any illusions that we really, truly know anything much about what goes on in any of the Kardashian-related households, regardless of how often they appear in even credible news feeds.  But it's telling to me that regardless of how many times the Kardashians themselves say their show is fake, and the obviously edited racist comments (in the holiday episode, Kim says "When I married a black guy, my father was so mad...", but the word 'black' was edited out to maintain the fiction that it was the marriage, not the race, that was the problem), these people still have an audience.  And it's not just a 'love to hate them' audience, either - marketers and advertisers are still lining up to partner with them.


No, I'm not saying consumers are stupid don't get all snippy.  I mostly think that there are so many messages flying at consumers from so many directions all the time that they simply don't have time to think too much about dead bacteria in their milk, or seek out primary-source data on citronella instead of believing their sister-in-law.  (I'm a little less sanguine about the rise of the Kardashians - I wish we'd give more airtime and attention to people who do more than promote consumerist culture.) It's not like I'm making my own soap out of lye and olive oil, and I'm quite sure I'm living in my own little world of self-delusion about the products I buy.  

I'm just saying that marketers are still doing a lot of storytelling, and the stories haven't suddenly become non-fiction.

Tagged under : truth in advertising

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