Advertising and the annals of absurdity

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June 18, 2013 by Tamara Piety

File this one under “A” for “absurd” – or maybe it should be “C” for candid. An article in Advertising Age offered the observation that while “transparency is all the rage,” “authenticity” is what matters.


The thrust of the piece is that companies ought not to engage in what we might call “oversharing” on social media in an effort to be “transparent” because sometimes customers don’t really want to know the truth, they just want you to be true to who you are.

Social-media transparency is terrifying. The idea that your organization should always talk openly with consumers about every subject seems like it would be a noble and beneficial practice. But transparency is fraught with questions of legality, risk and brand identity for many companies.

So I think it’s time we all have a heavy dose of reality: Not every organization needs to be, nor should be, completely transparent.

In fact, I’ll go one step further. I can name quite a few types of organizations where transparency can actually hurt your reputation online.

Well, yes. Especially if your company cops to using sweatshop labor or some other practice that is unsavory and likely to have negative consequences. Yet, presumably the author didn’t mean that if you are doing bad stuff you shouldn’t talk about it because it might hurt your reputation because that seems really obvious, however problematic for the public interest.

It seems self-evident that “transparent” is marketing speak for giving the appearance of candor and truthfulness such as to create the impression that if you were doing anything wrong it would be obvious, while in fact doing nothing of the sort and keeping the bad stuff to yourself.

It is difficult to know how else to interpret observations like this one: “We can’t assume that complete candor is the only way to do business in a social world, because it doesn’t always reflect the true identity of an organization. Sometimes the brand demands mystique. Sometimes it requires the voice to be stoic and silent. Not to mention the times when complete candor highlights operational failings.”

Right. Asking companies to psych out WHMBD? (What Would My Brand Do?) is almost as nonsensical as trying to figure out what the framers of the constitution would have thought about a technology (like GPS or telephones) that hadn’t yet existed when the constitution was drafted – an exercise in futility. Should we try to commune with the dead to divine what they would have thought about an issue they hadn’t thought of? How do we figure out what sort of response is “authentic” to a symbolic, non-human representation of an idea?

Yeah, and highlighting those pesky “operational failings” is clearly a problem!

This sort of meaningless patter is apparently what passes for deep insight in the marketing world. It can be translated as: “Telling the truth about your operations could generate bad PR if the truth is out of sync with your brand “identity” or reveals “operational failings.”

No kidding.

it is hard to find a clearer illustration of how futile it is to expect transparency or self-regulation in the context where economic success is dependent to some extent on obscuring the workings behind the curtain. “Transparency” is only going to be forthcoming where it will serve the interest of the promotion of the product, although apparently the author of this piece thinks that random brand managers out there need to be reminded of this.

“So the answer to how transparent we should be and whether Diane-the-product-manager should be blogging really comes down to, ‘Is this effort projecting who we really are and is it reasonably sustainable?‘”

Translation: “Are our communications consistent with our marketing message and if it is, (but it is not true) will we be found out?” or alternatively, “Are we making promises we won’t be able to keep?”

Who buys this stuff?

Others in the industry aren’t so sure that it matters what gets out there if consumers effectively don’t have other choices or are sufficiently desirous of other aspects of the product that they decide to ignore or overlook that which is uncomfortable. For example, in a news analysis related to the Prism disclosures and privacy concerns, some industry analysts predicted that “the new revelations will have little impact on tangible consumer behavior or on corporate bottom lines for the simple reason that these companies …are so embedded in consumers’ daily lives.” [Ad Age Staff, “Experts: Prism furor won’t last,” Advertising Age (print edition), June 10, 2013 at p. 8 (for some reason this piece doesn’t seem to be available on-line)]. The article quotes one analyst as follows: “Consumers will do what they usually do; be upset with the practice and move on with their business.” Id.

Nice. Consumer sovereignty indeed.

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