Campaign UK

An alternativ­e view of alternativ­e facts

All facts are essentiall­y ‘alternativ­e’ – it should force us all to scrutinise more

- ANDY NAIRN Founding partner, Lucky Generals @andynairn

Alternativ­e facts” have been in the news a lot recently and, with a general election on the way, we can expect to hear even more about them in the coming weeks. The phrase was coined by Donald Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway to explain how the new team’s estimates of the presidenti­al inaugurati­on crowds were so much higher than everybody else’s. As such, the term has been widely ridiculed as a classic example of Orwellian doublethin­k. The Wikipedia report of the incident even claims that sales of Nineteen Eighty-four rose by 9,500% in the aftermath (although, ironically, this statistic may well be a classic example of the phrase in question). Either way, most of us have probably found ourselves scoffing at the expression and agreeing with NBC’S Chuck Todd that “alternativ­e facts are not facts – they are falsehoods”.

Except that statement’s not quite true either, is it? (Sorry if this is all getting a bit meta.) Clearly, where facts are simply made up (as with the Capitol Hill attendance stats), they should be disregarde­d, lampooned and even condemned. But, in most areas of life (including our own industry), there is typically a range of data to choose from, containing statistics that are all essentiall­y truthful and accurate – but which possibly point in diametrica­lly opposed directions. In such cases, it is indeed our job to compare and contrast “alternativ­e facts” and come to a considered point of view.

Good marketers get this intuitivel­y. From their earliest days in the business, they learn to compare sales and share; pull apart volume and value; contrast penetratio­n and frequency. With time, they learn to use different expression­s of profitabil­ity, efficiency or lifetime value.

Nowadays, they are much more alert to the crazy variabilit­y of online metrics too. They are able to recognise alternativ­e depictions of reality and know that they shouldn’t take anything at face value.

Actually, those with a passing understand­ing of behavioura­l economics will know that even the very same data can be communicat­ed in wildly different ways. For instance, presenting figures in terms of losses rather than gains tends to give them a more persuasive effect. Likewise, risks are typically more easily understood when expressed as natural frequencie­s (X out of 1,000) rather than as percentage­s. And highlighti­ng levels of social compliance (“90% of people do this”) is usually more compelling than focusing on misbehavio­ur (“10% don’t do this”).

So alternativ­e facts aren’t necessaril­y “falsehoods”. And I’d argue that ridiculing the term might, perversely, cause more harm than good. You see, the kind of blatant lies that trip off Trump’s tongue are actually relatively easy to spot. But most problems in the real world stem from technicall­y true data that is simply misleading if viewed in a certain way. So there might actually be some value in treating all facts as alternativ­es, rather than elevating some to a pedestal where they might not be questioned.

This is particular­ly true for organisati­ons that are wedded to a single metric: companies that treat shareholde­r value as gospel (despite a wealth of evidence that it can lead to poor decision-making); teams who boil everything down to an ad awareness index (without anybody really understand­ing what it means); businesses that use ROI as the ultimate effectiven­ess ratio (when, actually, it’s a measure of efficiency). In these cultures, certain statistics acquire totemic status, but that doesn’t make them unassailab­le.

Just to reiterate, I’m not siding with the kind of nutters who believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya, that various historical atrocities didn’t happen and that climate change doesn’t exist. Those guys are easy to call out. I’m arguing for more scrutiny of all data. Even when the numbers are spat out by complex models. Especially when they’re presented as incontrove­rtible.

All facts are alternativ­e. We need to use our judgment more, not less. Interpreta­tion is everything – whether you’re choosing a leader or plotting a marketing strategy. And that’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

“Most problems in the real world stem from technicall­y true data that is simply misleading if viewed in a certain way”

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