Most years after the annual Loerie Awards some kind of scandal emerges. Oftentimes these are minor skirmishes of the nature of ‘I wasn’t credited for my work’ or ‘That ad only flighted once at 4am on a Sunday morning’. But occasionally – as with this year – something serious comes to light.
In this instance a prominent agency fabricated political dialogue to make a point in an ad for the Apartheid Museum. Even writing that makes it sound a little more serious than it is. An agency got actors to re-enact some historical dialogue that perhaps wasn’t true. Is that better? Not sure.
As the owner and CEO of an agency, I have no intention of climbing onto a soap box here. I choose to believe this was an honest mistake, misguided perhaps but nothing nefarious. And the point of this rather good campaign stands in my view.
Still, it raises the question: do agencies routinely lie? Do clients sign off on that? And do customers go off and buy things under giant misapprehension?
Ask the average person if advertising is true and you’ll get a good deal of scepticism in return. When a bank proclaims ‘lowest interest rates’ on a loan or a car company says ‘safest in class’, people hear it but apply a note of doubt to it. Why? Because unless you live under a rock, you realise you are getting paid content from someone who has a direct, expressed vested interest in making themselves appear as good as possible.
Marketing comes with self-flattery baked in. No one can expect a company to fund a message that points out its own flaws – except where this is a tactic to, say, appear humble.
This is different, however, from lying. It is not the ‘whole truth’, but it is also not simply falsehood.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is a body that investigates the claims (among other things) of ads. Anyone can report an ad to the ASA as making a false claim and the ASA must and will investigate. If the ad is shown to be untruthful they have the authority to order it withdrawn and disclaimed.
Likewise, the Loerie Awards themselves investigate any claims about falsehoods or misrepresentation and have been known to take rather severe action when it comes to light.
But more of this kind of after-the-fact censure is unnecessary. We live in a time where ads are consumed and questioned in real-time. We have seen countless problematic ads torn to shreds by the crowd to the point that the brand suffers dramatic reversals of fortune.
It is this fact that is really keeping this industry in check. Of course we have an incentive to lie, and of course there are those who would bend to that incentive if they could. But, I would suggest, that’s just not possible anymore. In a world of social media, brands cannot outspend and outsmart the whole population. If you create lies you will be found out – and the damage is irreversible.
Working in this industry, I can say without question that outright lies are unusual, unwelcome and not required:
Unusual because clients and agencies operate within ethical parameters that have major consequences for individuals and companies if crossed;
Unwelcome because the public has a low tolerance for being misled, and reacts with righteous indignation when they are;
And not required because advertising is a sophisticated, complex and effective tool that operates by sharing the right parts of the truth to the right person at the right time – not by lying.
None of this excuses those who use lies to make a point, grab attention or win awards. We can and do detect lies, and we stop them in their tracks.
That is why I would argue that you can approach your nearest ad with a high degree of trust, sprinkled with a healthy dose of common sense.
Jarred Cinman is the CEO of VML South Africa, a progressive digital agency in South Africa, and part of one of the leading digital agency networks in the world. He sits on the Loeries Committee and is a board member of the Dramatic, Artistic and Literary Rights Organisation (DALRO).