View­ing the world through rose-tinted glasses

Brands and their agen­cies may not in­tend to de­lib­er­ately de­ceive, but by omit­ting in­for­ma­tion and look­ing at prod­ucts through rose-tinted glasses, they fre­quently mis­lead

ArabAd - - INDUSTRY TALK - - I.A.

In June, a com­mer­cial by By­b­los Bank caught the imag­i­na­tion of many Le­banese. With a tagline that stated ‘There’s no home like a home in Le­banon’, it fea­tured many of the things that peo­ple love about the coun­try: the grandeur of Raouche Rock; the sea; the first al­monds of spring; 24-hour de­liv­ery; man’oushe; a grand­mother’s cook­ing; old houses and their or­na­men­tal bal­conies.

And yet Le­banon’s cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal her­itage is be­ing eroded, the sea pol­luted, the food poi­soned, and the coun­try’s land­scape blighted. It was, shall we say, a ‘se­lec­tive’ and ar­guably mis­lead­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

It was also a rep­re­sen­ta­tion that caught the at­ten­tion of many Le­banese, in­clud­ing Elie Fares. Writ­ing in A Sep­a­rate State of Mind, he stated that “there comes a time when hum­mus and man’oushe over sen­sa­tional mu­sic isn’t enough any­more to sell a coun­try”.

Writ­ing of his im­mi­nent em­i­gra­tion to the US, he said: “I’m leav­ing a coun­try whose beaches are dirty, whose sea is toxic, whose forests are be­ing dis­man­tled, whose el­derly are be­ing turned down at hos­pi­tal doors, whose moth­ers and their chil­dren are be­ing evicted from houses and forced to live in con­struc­tion sites even in the heart of Beirut, whose garbage can’t be sorted or ad­dressed, and whose peo­ple – most of them at least – are still ready to of­fer their necks to the same politi­cians who have turned this coun­try into what it is to­day, as they drool over any video or in­ter­na­tional ar­ti­cle that says their coun­try is a nice va­ca­tion site, and whose chil­dren are forced to beg in the streets to make ends meet.”

Is the film mis­lead­ing? Some be­lieved so, mak­ing fun of a com­mer­cial that ig­nored the re­al­ity of Le­banon.

It also poses wider ques­tions, not least how much do you have to ig­nore cer­tain el­e­ments of a nar­ra­tive be­fore a story es­sen­tially be­comes a mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion, or even a lie? And how much can an ad­ver­tiser bend the truth and re­main cred­i­ble?

It’s an is­sue that af­fects all ad­ver­tis­ing, with ‘lies of omis­sion’ – fail­ing to in­clude rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion that would dis­suade a per­son from pur­chas­ing a par­tic­u­lar item or trav­el­ling

Ad­men are paid to be pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cates of a par­tic­u­lar brand, to spell out why you should choose that over all the com­pe­ti­tion. Which means high­light­ing the good, not labour­ing the bad Tom Cal­laghan

to a cer­tain lo­ca­tion – fre­quently cause for con­cern. Dis­hon­esty, no mat­ter how in­no­cent, erodes trust. And once trust is lost it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to re­gain.

“In a world where we have not only be­come cyn­i­cal, but where it’s the only ac­cept­able re­sponse, ad­ver­tis­ing all too eas­ily trips over its own two feet,” says Tom Cal­laghan, a for­mer Dubai-based ad­ver­tis­ing cre­ative and now full-time au­thor. “Air­line ad­ver­tis­ing that shows the de­lights of fly­ing (and fails to show you the scream­ing child next to you in cat­tle class). Car ad­ver­tis­ing where you cruise along twist­ing clifftop roads with­out an­other mo­torist in sight (and doesn’t por­tray the night­mare of the North Cir­cu­lar rush hour). You sup­ply the cat­e­gory, you’ll find many ex­am­ples where rose-tinted con­tact lenses have been glued to the con­sumer’s eyes.

“Then there’s the re­ac­tion against that, where sup­pos­edly ‘real’ peo­ple are shown in ‘real’ sit­u­a­tions – re­mem­ber the days of smart, fo­cused wives and brain-dead hus­bands? (A re­ver­sal of how it used to be back in the 60s and 70s). Of course, they’re ‘lies’, but only in the sense that they at­tempt to show the po­ten­tial con­sumer a prod­uct or ser­vice by try­ing to en­gage their in­ter­est.”

Are such ‘lies’ jus­ti­fied? Do they ir­repara­bly dam­age a brand?

“Telling peo­ple some­thing is bril­liant doesn’t make it so,” says Phil Ly­nagh, di­rec­tor of in­de­pen­dent agency SHA. “Telling some­one that a sports car will de­liver sex­ual favours from strangers is a com­pelling propo­si­tion yet un­for­tu­nately it’s also an out­right lie. These tales are far too easy to tell, but they’re im­pos­si­ble to sell.

“We are in the busi­ness of clev­erly com­mu­ni­cat­ing the real ben­e­fits of a brand rather than just cre­at­ing them from thin air and hop­ing no­body both­ers to Google or ask a friend. It’s our job to help guide our clients in these sit­u­a­tions, re­mem­ber­ing the com­mer­cial truths and de­liv­er­ables that the con­sumers will ex­pe­ri­ence. If these aren’t vi­able, or they don’t ex­ist, then you are aid­ing and abet­ting the sell­ing of lies. This never ends well for all in­volved.”

You only need to look at Volk­swa­gen to see where lies lead you. In March last year, the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion in the United States re­leased a de­tailed and damn­ing false ad­ver­tis­ing law­suit against Volk­swa­gen, claim­ing it de­ceived con­sumers with its ‘Clean Diesel’ cam­paign, and sought to com­pen­sate Amer­i­cans who had bought or leased an af­fected ve­hi­cle be­tween late 2008 and late 2015. The law­suit would go on to be­come the largest false ad­ver­tis­ing case in the com­mis­sion’s his­tory.

“The thing is,” adds Cal­laghan, “the story be­ing told and its prom­ise has to have at least some truth in it. I may not be able to drive along the Amalfi coast, but I will get some sat­is­fac­tion when I’m be­hind the wheel (all right, maybe not in the rush hour). If the re­al­ity be­trays the prom­ise, all that hap­pens is that the brand fails faster. As a con­sumer, I bal­ance an­tic­i­pa­tion with the sus­pi­cion that most things don’t live up to my ex­pec­ta­tions – check the di­vorce fig­ures.

“Ad­ver­tis­ing isn’t about ly­ing, but nei­ther is it about Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s ‘I can­not tell a lie’. Ad­men are paid to be pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cates of a par­tic­u­lar brand, to spell out why you should choose that over all the com­pe­ti­tion. Which means high­light­ing the good, not labour­ing the bad. “The real ly­ing that takes place in ad­ver­tis­ing is ly­ing to our­selves: we tell our­selves that it’s ‘ground­break­ing’, an ‘en­tirely new con­cept’ and all the other award-en­try hype. Take this year’s big win­ner at Cannes. As peo­ple stroll down Wall Street past ‘Fear­less Girl’, 99.99 per cent say ‘cute statue’ and walk on, think­ing no more about it. The real prob­lem in ad­ver­tis­ing isn’t ly­ing; it’s ir­rel­e­vance.”

We are in the busi­ness of clev­erly com­mu­ni­cat­ing the real beneàts of a brand rather than just cre­at­ing them from thin air and hop­ing no­body both­ers to Google or ask a friend. Phil Ly­nagh

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