The FTC protects us from false and misleading advertising, but just because an ad isn’t false or misleading doesn’t mean it’s the truth. I don’t mean just accurate, I mean the unvarnished truth. Truth is possibly the most powerful messaging strategy you can have, but maybe not for the reasons you think.
Just telling the truth isn’t enough. Accuracy is fine, but it isn’t always interesting. The truth can be dull as dishwater, but “a truth” is interesting because it contains an insight. Or, as the McCann slogan for the past century says: “Truth Well Told.”
Ad legend Bill Bernbach was big on the topic of truth. “I’ve got a great gimmick” he once said, “let’s tell the truth.” Another legend David Ogilvy was fond of saying: “the consumer isn’t a moron, she is your wife,” which implies that she can’t be easily fooled. Another vote for truth as a strategic imperative. But why and when does truth work so well?
Truth works because it gains trust. Trust in the brand and the company, even if the product isn’t perfect. In fact, sometimes an imperfect product is your best asset.
Consider some of the best trust campaigns in history: VW Beetle calling itself a lemon. Avis, “we’re number 2, we try harder.” Both were willing to admit to an imperfection in order to gain trust. The emotional connection established by being painfully honest, not just “accurate” was shown to be far more important than product perfection.
It’s the same dynamic as the self-deprecating joke. People like and trust those who don’t take themselves quite so seriously. Who put themselves out there. In fact, Psychologists tell us that you can only achieve a high level of trust if you make yourself vulnerable, which big companies are not fond of doing.
But every once in awhile, they get smart and surprise us, and are inevitably rewarded. Conversely, covering up problems almost always leads to scandal and distrust. The BP oil spill. Bill Clinton: “I did not have sex with that woman.” The Challenger O rings and NASA. It’s not the act as much as the cover-up that does the damage. The inverse being that its not about being perfect, but it is about having the courage to admit your imperfections that builds trust.
In 2014, there are new challenges to truth. How do we handle paid influencers in social media? How about native advertising? Today, we like to use the word transparency. But at its core, it’s the same issue that it’s always been--truth in advertising.