We need to talk about bullshit.
Because there’s a lot of it around — a bit too much. Frankly alarming amounts of it can be found in creative marketing — whether you’re someone who needs branding and advertising, makes it, or simply experiences it (to the tune of 5K messages a day). We’ll talk about why that is, and what to do about it.
But first things first: let’s agree on the terminology. What is BS? It just means lies, right? Oh, no. It’s a whole other kind of beast. So what’s the difference?
We’ve yet to hear a better definition than the one by the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt. In his 1986 essay aptly named On Bullshit, he makes a crucial distinction between BS and lies.
Lies misrepresent the truth, or at least what the liar believes to be true. Lies are false information. Bullshit, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily need to be false information — and that’s important. Because while lying is inherently tied to the truth, BS has no concern for the truth. Zero. Not interested, k bye. A bullshitter will say whatever will get them to their goal. That’s it.
Thus, a liar is being deceitful about the truth, or at least what they believe to be true; while a bullshitter is being deceitful about his or her intentions. They might state false information or they might not. They might present us with a cocktail of made up stuff mixed in with facts. The point is, they don’t give a damn about what the truth is, and will say a-ny-thing if it’s useful to their goal.
Like getting your business. Or getting them out of trouble. Or getting you to vote for them. You get the gist.
Worst of all, it’s hard to regulate against BS. There are watchdogs that make sure advertising isn’t deceitful (that’s ASA in the UK), but they can only take care of factual misinformation: like claiming that your eye cream works as well as Photoshop. There is no law against spin, manipulation, and unprovable claims.
Now that we’re all clear on what BS is and isn’t, let’s talk about how it applies to creative marketing. There’s bad news and good news; and as any sane person would, let’s start with the bad, no-good, suboptimal news:
There’s simply a lot more scope for bullshit in branding and advertising, both while making it and getting it made.
Why? A numbered list to the rescue:
Branding and advertising are complex processes with many parts to them, from strategy to design to copywriting, and there’s a stupendous amount of jargon involved (‘I’m just not sure these B2C adcepts are on-brand, can we get some more scamps, please?’ Chloe said at the tissue meeting.) This makes it easy for culture-making storytelling gurus to pull 200% organic, gluten-free, hand-picked wool over your eyes. They make it all sound like sorcery or aerospace engineering, also known, to the initiated, as rocket science — instead of explaining the process and making it transparent. Or they sell just one part of the process, conveniently forgetting to mention that there are a dozen more things you’ll need to source. A few grand down the line you’ll find out they don’t do any strategy or competition research — so when your new brand ends up looking exactly like every other in its category, it won’t be their fault. They’re far too busy high-fiving themselves to care whether your business lives or dies. People who do things properly tend to be a bit less into self-aggrandising and pretentious talk, less pushy and more down-to-earth — which can make them harder to spot than the jargon-spewing loudmouths (more on this in point 3).
The range of prices in branding is officially stupid. How can a logo cost anywhere between a fiver and £5 million? (the short answer is: the £5 million covers ever so slightly more than ‘just a logo’, oh and by the way, would you rather choose a £5 parachute or a £5 million one?) In general, the same rules apply: you get what you pay for, and if something seems too good to be true, it usually is; but still, this dizzying price range provides plenty of room for cowboys to roam and graze.
Branding and advertising are all about communication; a somewhat less precise science than, say, software engineering, law, finance or data analytics, and therefore harder to control and regulate. And if history has taught us anything, it’s that communication can be extremely powerful. Placed in not-so-good hands, it’s a dangerous tool. Unhelpfully, we’re living in the age of persuasion, also known as the post-truth era, which means that fact-checking and truth-seeking is somewhat less popular in many circles, and people with more money than morals can buy their way into your inbox, shopping basket, and worst of all, your head. Often, it’s not about who is better or smarter, but who is louder, more persistent, and has perfected the art of spin. Basically, these times are a bullshit artist’s dream come true, and a prime example of this is currently, mind-bendingly, residing in the White House. Is it any surprise that more and more BS goes unchecked and unchallenged in the communication business?
That’s the bad news. The good news is shorter and punchier:
Honesty is still the best policy.
For those of us not into this whole bullshitting-your-way-through-life-and-business thing, it’s now more important than ever to stay truthful with yourself and others. Whether you’re a brand owner or brand-maker, stay vigilant, check yourself and others for BS, and hold on to basic human decency for dear life: it’s our only hope. In the words of the late, brilliant, and thoroughly BS-allergic David Foster Wallace, ‘...become an agent of light and goodness, rather than the evil that’s all around.’
Not only will this mean you can live without the creeping feeling of being a fraud or a sellout. It’s good for business, too. Truthfulness sticks out in the sea of alternative facts and airbrushed burgers, attracting people of the same mindset as you: those with a low BS threshold; good, smart, conscientious people. The kind of people you want on your side.