Are Marketers Liars?

On the list of “people you trust,” marketers (including those who do advertising and PR) tend to be on the low end. However, this annoyance with marketers often has to do with “spam” – interrupting your life with messages you don’t care about – rather than outright lies.

bullhorn
A marketer’s primary job is to generate awareness of and interest in a population of people for a product or service.
[SOURCE] © “meeshypants” used according to Creative Commons License

That being said, there seems to be a general belief that marketing is the Department of Lies, and this tends to be the case even in how fellow employees in a company treat their own marketing department. For example, just today, I heard a coworker tell me in a meeting about a customer experience in a future trade show:

“I thought Marketing can talk about anything.”

“No, marketing prefers to talk about real facts in a way that matters to our customers.”

People who do marketing for reputable companies are usually under strict legal obligations to tell stories, benefit claims, and promises that are true. In certain industries like consumer goods, regulatory bodies such as the Federal Trade Commission require claims to be backed up by evidence. In competitive sectors such as many high technology and financial sectors, rival companies will bring lawsuits for marketing claims that are not backed up with third party evidence.

Here’s some examples: I can’t say my product is “the best” unless I have a third party who says that my product is “the best.” I can’t say that my product will save you 99% on your costs if I don’t have real customers who have publicly said “this product saved me 99% on my costs”, or at least I have very clear empirical evidence of these savings. Even then, I will probably have to couch such claims with terms like “as much as…”, or “in cases where XXX is true…”.

Sure, there’s a lot of wiggle room in the above statements and examples, but generally, if you dig in, you’ll find truth in whatever message or claim you’ve found interesting.

Being untruthful in marketing can have serious medium and long term implications for companies beyond just regulatory concerns.  When marketers do an especially great job overselling capabilities and benefits of a product, this can lead to negative brand sentiment that will retard future growth for the company. Maybe that won’t matter to a sales force trying to make this quarter’s quota, but it should be important to any stockholders that plan to own company shares longer than a year.

There are a couple of circumstances that challenge marketers’ ability to be 100% truthful.

The first is with new products. If you are lucky, your company can do lots of new product testing both in the lab, and with early customers.  However, these are often under idealized circumstances, and with people who are “in the family” and are often not the same as the future customers who would actually pay full price for a product that solves a problem or allows them gain a unique benefit. Good marketers do their best to “create” fact in these circumstances. This doesn’t mean we make stuff up. No, we find and orchestrate proof points in usage stories and third party endorsements to prove claims to the best extent we can.  Our real challenge comes when others with a vested interest in the success of a product begin evangelizing or marketing a product based on their belief or vision of how great a product will eventually be. These product creators and developers tend to be the same people who think of marketing as the Department of Lies, but don’t realize that they, themselves, are engaging in marketing in an unprofessional manner.

The second challenge is caused by customers themselves. People buy on big visions and big ideas, often far bigger than the actual need they are trying to solve. If I’m deadpan honest as a marketer about what my product does today, as-is, based on your exact need, you’ll find it boring, and unemotionally engaging. This “need for something bigger” is a huge tool for us marketers and we use it to differentiate our products in a customers’ mind far beyond the exact need they have today. We do this in a few ways:

  • Make our product seem more specialized by positioning against existing well-known alternatives
  • Make our product or brand synonymous with a lifestyle
  • Associate a brand with a world-changing cause
  • Change packaging or deployment to be bigger, seem newer, blended with other products, or otherwise easier to use.

You could say, “well that’s just marketers taking advantage of human psychology” to hawk their products, similar to lying. However, I take it as a personal challenge to make my products better, even when cycles of innovation are incremental at best and never fast enough.

So, are marketers liars? I think it’s a matter of your relationship to the tribe they evangelize for. Like any story or information you are presented with, consider the bias of the source, and discern the useful information that resonates with you. Maybe marketers aren’t liars – our bias is simply more obvious.

PS: Just as  I finished writing this blog, I logged onto Facebook and ran into some ads that are outright lies. Then I opened my email and saw that The Motley Fool had emailed me another obvious potential shark attack. So yes,  there are marketing people who are more concerned about a paycheck than integrity. So maybe I’m fortunate to have the luxury to be able to do marketing for products and causes I believe in.

Comments

  1. marciaewalker says:

    You have perfectly summed up my work life! Great post – thank you. I am going to point people to this frequently in the future. There are certain quotes that are especially appropriate; I will not call them out so as to protect the innocent – and the guilty!

    • And you know the call that I was talking about :) However, that is only a minor example. There are much more egregious examples that I’ve seen in all the high tech companies I work at. Many developers despise marketing, but don’t realize that when they engage in marketing unprofessionally, they are exemplifying the worst behaviors they despise.

  2. Good for you Greg. I’m new to marketing (I actually don’t even work in the field….recent graduate), and it’s disheartening that this even needs to be said. Today the consumer is more empowered than ever. Marketers need to create value….not sell empty promises!

    • My point isn’t just about marketers needing to tell truth. In fact, most professional marketing organizations insist on this. My point is that many people NOT in marketing think marketers should lie.

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