Honesty is the enemy of traditional marketing. It’s sad but true. It’s not because honesty isn’t possible in marketing, but that if companies were completely honest about their products and services—about how they’re made, what they do, their flaws, their shelf life, etc.—fewer people would buy them. That’s why creating illusions is so essential to marketing. But it only takes a tiny crack in the surface to destroy an illusion. As a colleague pointed out to me recently, a supermodel only has to stumble once before the illusions so central to fashion fall away and you are left with just people wearing clothes. If the quality is there, there is nothing to hide.
That’s the big-picture, but I think most honesty-erosion tends to happen on a smaller scale, where the line between truth and fiction can be pretty blurry. There’s a general impulse toward bending that line intentionally, one often motivated by our desire to bring attention to something we believe deserves it. Whether it’s a product, a service, or even a cause, we might be willing to “sex up the story” if doing so means bringing greater awareness to it.
This isn’t just a marketing problem, by the way. We do it when we believe the attention garnered by a thing or an idea or an injustice isn’t as big as it should be. Listen to the retraction issued by This American Life of Mike Daisy’s account of working conditions in Apple’s factories in China. Pay attention to how uncomfortable you feel. That discomfort is a measure of the distance between truth and fiction.
For the first year after graduating from college, I did freelance design work. I registered a business, created business cards, set up a website, the works. I wasn’t alone, either. Several classmates did the same thing, and we would often compare notes and even help each other get work from time to time. We learned all kinds of things by trial and error back then, but the one thing that left the greatest impression upon me had to do with how honest we were in describing ourselves. Every one of us made heavy use of the word “we” on our websites—though “we” was almost always just one person working from a room in a shared apartment—because we feared we wouldn’t be hired if it was clear that “we” was really “I,” a freelancer flying solo.
We believed that no matter how good our work was, we’d be ignored as individuals. So we created an illusion that we thought looked strong. “I” was just a kid on my laptop at a desk in his bedroom; “We” was a company, confident, experienced, secure. But that, of course, wasn’t true. I learned that there was no point in trying to convince potential clients of something other than that which would quickly become clear to them if they hired me. So, a simple rule: If you’re one person, never refer to yourself as “we.” That’s the kind of small-scale honesty we need to take seriously.