Deception. Enhancing the Truth. Alternative Facts. Lies. How do they fit into marketing?
An article by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee on lying recently captured my attention. It detailed why we lie and how to lie is human. It really got me thinking about how deception fits into marketing.
Lying has always been one of the subjects that has fascinated me the most - and one of the many reasons I chose to study forensic psychology.
As Yudjihijit states in his article "Deception and honesty are part of being human." And I couldn't agree more.
The average adult deliberately misleads 1 to 2 times a day (Buella DePaulo et al). Predominantly these are "white lies". Small, innocent, innocuous lies. Excuses and defences, primarily little deceptions to make us feel better.
Lying is part of our complex collection of human emotions, and as a subset of our emotional range, this means it is prime for use in marketing.
Often enhancing the truth, or "alternative facts" as Trump has coined, and their use in marketing are seen as grey areas.
Here's why: Lying is deliberately deceiving. The definition for deceiving is to "deliberately cause (someone) to believe something that is not true, especially for personal gain."
There is no room for that in your marketing. Not if you're marketing ethically and care about your audience.
If your audience can't trust you, because you're exploiting their belief in you for your own personal gain, you have no foundation to build a relationship with them. You've lost them forever. And marketing - even (especially) in the 21st century - is still ALL about the relationship. If you can't build a relationship - you have nothing.
So how do you ethically use the human predisposition to lying, and believing lies, to your advantage?
First, you need to understand why lying works, and what we lie about.
Evolutionary psychologists believe that lying emerged very soon after language. When you really start to think about it, the reason for this is very clear. Ethicist Sissela Bok says "Lying is so much easier than other ways of gaining power."
When you learn to lie, you can manipulate situations without physical force. Suddenly you have an obvious advantage in the competition for resources and mates, without the risk of harm.
This uncovers one of the core reasons of WHY we lie: to manipulate.
But lying is linked to more than just gaining a competitive advantage over mates and resources. Lying is actually an important developmental stage in our growth.
Kang Lee and colleagues at the University of Toronto studies how children become more sophisticated liars as they get older.
What they have discovered is that the emergence of lying is strongly linked to the development of Theory of Mind.
Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one's own.
When a child begins to understand the beliefs, intentions and knowledge of others they begin to seek ways to manipulate these situations to their advantage. To children, the beginning of learning to lie is almost always NOT malicious. It's something they do to protect themselves when they have been naughty - or to gain something.
In tandem to developing theory of mind, we develop Executive Function. Executive Function is all about developing the capability of planning, attention and self control.
As we get older, our executive function increases - and we lie less.
So we may very well have developed lying as a survival trait.
But if we all lie to some extent - why do we believe lies from others? Surely we should all be so jaded that we shouldn't believe anything anyone says....
Believing in one another is actually another survival trait!
We are hard wired to trust each other.
As a social species humans are incredibly reliant on social relationships. We need to have trust in relationships in order for us to further our species! Without that trust, we would cease to exist. So here you have a fascinating juxtaposition of two contradictory survival traits.
Additionally we simply cannot process all the information we take in on a daily basis. To handle the complexities of social interaction, body language and our surroundings, we rely on a complex system of previously stored interactions (called schema in psychology). These stored interactions are our "defaults", and our brains will pull these defaults up in millions of situations during the day to help us understand what is going on, and to save on processing power.
This additional layer means that we sometimes simply trust by default, because it's easier.
Admittedly this does make us sound simply lazy - but we'd be paralysed if we had to process every situation of every second of the day consciously.
It's this inherent flaw in our psychology that allows us to be exploited by those looking to gain from your trust.
There is another problem too.
We are prone to accepting some lies, even when it's contradicted by clear evidence. I am sure you will be well aware of many examples of this in our current modern society of "alternative facts".
There are two aspects to this.
1. The more often we see a piece of information, the more likely we are to believe that it's true.
2. We want to hear some lies.
If something affirms our world view, we are much more likely to accept it - even if we KNOW it's not true. We have very little resistance to the lies that comfort and please us. We want to hear some lies.
So we are wide open for exploitation from external sources. The question then is, why don't we lie more?
Plainly speaking, honesty and truthfulness is societal. We are taught to value the truth and to be honest. This leads to honesty being an internalised societal value.
We're honest because we don't want to look dishonest. All because we'd get frowned upon by the rest of society.
Honesty is a social norm.
And it's a consistent social norm in almost every culture on the planet. Such a strong societal norm means strong discomfort for us if we don't adhere to it.
Now you know a little more about why we lie (survival), why we believe lies (survival), and why we don't lie more (social survival), let's take a quick look at HOW we lie.
Image from National Geographic, Why We Lie by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
We predominantly lie to promote and protect. Which sounds great! Except it's to promote or protect yourself.
And here comes an additional facet to lying - it's selfish. Having a look at the diagram, the following categories could be considered lies that are a manipulation that will solely benefit yourself:
- Personal Transgression - 22%
To cover up a mistake or misdeed
- Economic Advantage - 16%
To gain financial benefits
- Personal Advantage - 15%
To gain benefits for yourself beyond money
- Self Impression - 8%
To give yourself a more positive image
- Malicious - 4%
To hurt other people
Together that makes up 65% of lying.
Those character traits also fit two subsections of society that are not looked upon favourably: Narcissists: those who lie to boost their image; and Sociopaths: those who lie to manipulate.
Bringing this back to marketing. If you are lying to boost your image, or to manipulate someone into something they wouldn't do without the lie - those are the connections that people are making when they discover your lies. That is the last thing you want to be doing if you're looking to build a lasting customer relationship.
In marketing deception is short term. A short term strategy to get clients to part with their money quickly.
Deception. Enhancing the Truth. Alternative Facts. All a short term strategy to get money fast.
Telling your audience what they want to hear diminishes your role as an authority. Although the truth is a harder sell, it does two things:
1. It separates the people who are only looking for a confirmation of their world view, from those who want to actively improve their lives and/or businesses - ie. those that can handle the truth.
2. It increases trust.
Being honest with your audience will build a true relationship.
Be aware that greed/monetary gain increases predisposition to lying. So if you are in a high stakes market, or buying a high ticket item, do your fact checking...
I only ever advocate one.
This is a bad idea, for all the reasons I have explained. Seriously.
Here is the real gold: Craft a message around your products and services that is compelling. This is hard work. I am not going to shy away from that truth (hah!).
Help tell an authentic story to your audience that takes them on a journey.
Crudely, a story would look like this:
1. You are here, you feel like this, it sucks.
2. You could be here, you'd feel like this, it's awesome.
3. This is how you get from the former to the latter, and how I can help you do it.
This "story" is all about how you relate your product or solution to your audience. Show them through the story how they would feel after their pains (the thing that sucks) are solved.
Seth Godin, in his book 'All Marketers Are Liars' (Tell Stories) listed the following nuggets of how a great story works:
- A great story is true
- A great story makes a promise
- A great story is trusted
- A great story is subtle
- A great story happens fast
- A great story doesn't appeal to logic, but rather to our senses
- A great story is rarely aimed at everyone
- A great story doesn't contradict itself
- A great story agrees with your world view
In essence all the story is, is the core message you are using to sell your product. And that message is the one of how they are feeling now, with how they will be when the pain is gone, and how they are going to get there.
If you're focusing so much on yourself that you feel the need to "embellish" the truth - you're doing it wrong.
Your marketing needs to be about your customer - and if you focus on taking them on a journey that will show them that they can get to where they want to be, they will be compelled to make that story a reality for them.
Authenticity is going to help you cut through the noise of other marketing drivel.
A quick way to help gain the trust of your audience is to help them see all the nonsense that is out there - show them what to look out for, and how to be aware of the traps more unscrupulous people may be laying.
The truth is a harder sell, but more profitable in the long run. It's a long term strategy and it's all about customer relationships and customer lifetime value.
So the question becomes - how do I craft a story ethically?
Start by getting clear on your audience. I have created a free mini course - The 3 Reasons You're Not Getting The Engagement You Want In Your Business - that helps you get clarity on 3 of the reasons your customers may not be buying from you, and those 3 reasons are deeply linked into understanding your audience.
In the free mini course we cover:
1. How to position your content/ solution/ yourself to affect directional decision making
2. How to connect with your ideal customers on an emotional level
3. How to get your ideal customers' attention in the first place
To recap, make sure you understand your audience so that you can craft a compelling story for them. Then help them make that story a reality.
If you make the story about them, you won't have to lie. You won't get any chance to.
Get clarity on your audience, and how to build a trusting relationship with them. Grab your free mini course now.
Kenda Macdonald is an Automation Ninja. With a background in Forensic Psychology and an affinity for statistics and behaviourally intelligent automation – she’s not your average expert. She’s been living and breathing Infusionsoft since 2011 and has spent over 14 500 hours learning new ways to automate what people think is impossible. She’s a true nerd, and spends her waking hours helping businesses understand behaviour for super effective marketing, and relishes in simplifying over complicated processes for truly intelligent automated marketing. She’s the founder of Automation Ninjas - Experts in behavioural automation. Expect enthusiasm and a wealth of knowledge – not normalcy.