The New Liars Club

It used to be that if you made a list of everyone you could trust, advertising people would be near the bottom of it, right above lawyers. This past year, however, that list has been scrambled.

I’m not talking about the tobacco companies—or any companies, for that matter. Lying isn’t anything new there. We learned that back in 1987. The travails of Enron, Tyco and the rest should really serve only as a refresher course. In fact, corporate dishonesty is so prolific that students have taken up lying to get into business schools. (Berkeley’s Haas School of Business recently rejected 5 of its 100 prospects for lying in their applications.) We all take corporate B.S. for granted.

What is surprising is the list of newcomers to the liars club. Some heretofore venerable institutions have been caught fibbing. The New York Times, the Catholic Church, even the most revered American institution, our very own president, have been “bending the truth.” (And I didn’t even mention Martha.)

It’s all summed up pretty well in a joke I heard a while ago: “As Enron was collapsing, Ken Lay was desperately trying to raise cash. In a meeting with his bankers, he presented a list of all the company’s collateral for a new loan. There were pipelines, energy contracts, receivables, even a half-built plant in India. But the bankers weren’t satisfied: ‘Isn’t there anything else you own that is fully paid for, that you can put up?’ they asked. And no one has seen Dick Cheney since.”

This has become the year consumers quit trusting anyone. Who can blame them? Even the icons of Americana are taking advantage of them. Coca-Cola is contracting its way into schools. McDonald’s has been fueling the obesity epidemic. Our farmers have been using pesticides. Our ranchers have been using steroids.

Consumers have never been as keenly aware that corporations don’t have their interests in mind. They feel misled and used.

So, apparently, we advertising guys aren’t as close to the bottom of the liars list as we used to be.

Not because we’ve cleaned up our act, but because the newcomers have dirtied theirs. But keep in mind that to the consumer, there’s not much difference between a client and an ad agency. They don’t care who comes up with the advertising. Which means that when a marketer does a bad thing, so do we. And vice versa.

So what can we do to keep from drifting back down the list?

We can help our clients earn back consumers’ trust. Help them do the right thing—or, at least, not do the wrong thing. For example, should a major oil company claim to be “green” because it’s making its fuel burn .009 percent cleaner? Of course not. That’s spin, and everyone knows it. Instead, an agency could get the client to donate to an environmental cause—and use PR rather than advertising to let the public know. (Telling people how good you are doesn’t work. Letting them discover it does.)

Client cultures can be insular. A big part of our job as agencies is to represent the consumer’s point of view. To point out the consequences of a company’s dishonesty or exploitation. To remind clients that at any time, the press, a watchdog or a competitor can (and will) call them out. To advise clients that a short-term gain is rarely worth the consumer backlash.

Obviously, respect for the consumer falls in our laps, too. It can be demonstrated in choosing the quality of a message over the repetition of it. Let’s face it: The amount of advertising out there has gotten ridiculous. And the answer to clutter isn’t more clutter. Let’s quit making the media buys that replay a commercial every five and a half minutes. Stop the e-mail blasts—who the hell can read 375 junk e-mails each day? And do we really need to see commercials in an elevator? Come on.

These days, trust is a fragile thing. Let’s quit bullying it.

This can be the year we climb up the list, and next year we can stay off the bottom. It’s all about respect. Trust me. I’m in advertising.