My team had a problem. We were trying to sell the concept of integrity and exactly no one was buying it. By “no one,” I am referring to the investment professionals and high net worth investors we’d assembled in focus groups around the world.
Our charge was to create an advertising campaign that, among other things, sold the idea that our organization’s professional designation could serve as a symbol of integrity and trust. We’d been to Chicago, New York, London, Hong Kong, and Frankfurt and the problem was the same. The more we pushed the ideas of “integrity” and “ethics” in our messaging, the more skeptical our audiences became, the more dishonest and unethical they perceived us to be.
We didn’t give up though. We figured there had to be some word combination that would get the concept across. But there wasn’t. I can remember, at one point, one of our focus-group participants turning toward us. Even though we were obscured behind a special mirror, he knew we were there. “Sorry dude, you’re trying too hard,” he said. “It’s like what that Supreme Court justice said about pornography, ‘I can’t define integrity, but I know it when I see it.’”
That wasn’t the most elegant paraphrasing of Justice Potter Stewart that I’d ever heard, but it nonetheless pointed us toward a solution. We couldn’t talk about integrity; we had to show it. In our ads, we would associate our credential with symbols that people generally considered beyond reproach with regard to integrity. This analogy would allow our audience to draw the inference that our credential symbolized honor and integrity in the same way these other symbols did.
We’d solved a problem, but I’m not going to claim the advertising campaign was a huge success. As I remember, it was a good campaign, not a great one.
Recently I was watching a house advertisement on CNN that attempts to emphasize the importance of facts. The ad conspicuously puts a banana in a series of locations where we are conditioned to know there should be an apple. Kids are bobbing for bananas at a party. In a book, a banana bonks Sir Isaac Newton on the head. And, near the end, a girl is looking at a painting of Eve handing a banana to Adam in the Garden of Eden. The girl then takes a bite out of an apple and the tagline appears: “Lies can become truth, if we let them. Facts First.”
I immediately thought back to that focus group and thought, “Dude, you’re trying too hard.”
Then I thought about the toxic environment that is compelling CNN to run that ad. Legitimate news organizations shouldn’t need slogans that espouse the virtues of the truth. In 1897, The New York Times adopted the slogan “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” but recently The Times has felt it necessary to complement that slogan with marketing campaigns with the taglines “Truth is hard” and “Truth is more important now than ever.” For its part, in 2017, The Washington Post changed its masthead to incorporate the slogan “Democracy dies in darkness.”
Reading or watching the news these days, you can’t help but wonder if we’ve arrived in Bizzaro World. We long had operated under the general guidance of clichés such as “facts are stubborn things.” If someone was playing around with facts, you could shut them down by invoking Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
Facts are certainty. Facts are stability. Facts give us a baseline from which we can argue our opinions. Except, these days, facts are under attack, this as people from all sides of the political spectrum have introduced us to oxymoronic terms like “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and “truth isn’t truth.”
I have been wondering for a while when and how the daily assault on facts in our political environment would cross the barrier to become acceptable in our day-to-day business. If we become accustomed to our political leaders and the media routinely making statements that are easily proven untrue, how can we expect our colleagues, subordinates, and business leaders to answer to a different standard?
Last April 10th, Mark Zuckerberg sat in front of Congress, looked lawmakers straight in the face, and told them that Facebook did not sell users’ data. Yet we learned recently that Facebook has arrangements called “integrated partnerships” that give the companies such as Netflix and Spotify privileged access to users’ personal data. This includes the ability to read personal messages. Somewhere, I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg will hide behind the term “integrated partnership” and continue to say that Facebook doesn’t “sell” users’ data.
Zuckerberg isn’t the first CEO to lie to the media nor the first person to lie to Congress. This feels different to me though. This feels like a CEO who is testing our government’s and our nation’s new-found tolerance for “alternative facts.”
In such a case, we can’t lean on the subtlety of analogy just to be polite. We must establish facts. And to you Mr. Zuckerberg, I say, that’s no banana; that, sir, is a lie.