In an age of unprecedented accountability, it’s in everyone’s self-interest to be open and honest.
Oasis released an album back in 2005 that proved to be ahead of its time. It was called “Don’t Believe the Truth”. Back in those days the truth was that diesel engines were preferable to petrol engines, our banking system was in good order and, as Gillian Duffy learned to her cost, if you raised the subject of immigration you were labelled a bigot.
Not anymore. The truth is very different. Diesel engines are hidden killers. Our banking system was on the point of collapse. And immigration has now been de-stigmatised across the political spectrum as a subject for debate. How the truth changes.
The reason I give these examples is to show how every era wrestles with the truth. It has become fashionable to see the post-Trump, post-Brexit era as the post-Truth era. But I wonder if this, in turn, is really just another distortion. Of course, there are plenty of things to be sceptical about at the moment; fake stories and alternative facts abound – especially in some over-combed quarters. But we shouldn’t confuse the meaning of Trump with the meaning of Truth, and to suggest that overall standards of truthfulness have somehow plummeted seems like an overstatement even he would be proud of.
To start with, what would be our point of comparison as the high water mark for the era of Truth? Tony Blair’s prosecution of the Iraq War? Florida’s hanging chads? The coalition’s promises on tuition fees? Pravda in the 70’s or perhaps Nixon and Watergate? The fact is that nothing is above suspicion and every generation will have good cause for scepticism. But it seems tendentious to argue that overall standards of truthfulness and accountability are deteriorating. That we have entered a post-Truth world. The reverse seems more likely.
In our own narrow field of advertising, we can look back with some consternation at what was legal only 25 years ago. Alcohol advertising could trade on social success, and cigarettes could not only advertise, they could promote themselves as fashion accessories. This hardly represented the sunlit uplands of veracity. Ethical standards have undoubtedly improved. Employees are better protected and, over the last few years, there are a number of initiatives (including those of the IPA) which mean that the composition of our work force is far more closely scrutinised so that we can see where we are failing in terms of diversity and equality. The truth may be that we have a long way to go, but at least we are now bothered about establishing the facts, and this puts us in a position to take action – or be judged for not doing so.
The level of information available to consumers now is unrecognisable to where it was 25 years ago. What once was opaque is now much more open to view, most notably in terms of a company’s employment practices and supply chain. Yes, there is still much further to go, but there seems little evidence that the transparency agenda will suddenly wane. In fact, people’s appetite for the truth seems keener with each passing year, and we are seeing this manifested in everything from the number of historical inquiries regarding past injustices, to our growing knowledge about health and income disparities, to consumer review and price comparison sites, to the recent surge in ACLU membership, to what political candidates such as Nuttall and Snell tweeted or posted when (bizarrely) they thought no-one was looking.
Despite some garish headlines, it is unlikely that standards of truth are falling. Instead, our expectations of transparency are rising. This has to be good news for brands and companies who are doing the right thing by their staff, their communities and their customers. These are the brands that are now setting the agenda, these are the brands that can hold their heads high when predators come knocking and tell them where to get off. These are the brands that tend to be launced out of our industry by our brightest and best (on which note, good luck to Halo, may you be another Innocent – interesting use of vocabulary in both cases).
The reason for my confidence isn’t because I think the world’s becoming more virtuous. It clearly isn’t. The reason for my confidence is that, in an age of unprecedented accountability, it’s in everyone’s self-interest to be open and honest. This is the most competitive strategy. And, where openness coincides with self-interest, truth will flourish.