Monday, November 05, 2007

The ethics of persuasion

Tell a stranger at a party that you work in the field of persuasive communications, and there's a good chance he or she will ask you how you can sleep at night, when you make your living telling lies on behalf of evil corporations.

Perhaps it sounds naive, but - even after all these years - I'm still always a little surprised to be reminded that so many people feel this way. So let's tackle both halves of the accusation, one at a time.

There's no doubt, unfortunately, that some persuasive communications do tell lies. I'm thinking, for example, of Penelope Cruz and her amazing (but, sadly, fake) eye-lashes. I've never had much time for philosophical debate over what exactly constitutes a lie: if you set out to communicate with people in a way that's clearly intended to deceive them, then, for me, your pants are definitely on fire - whether you're advertising a revolutionary new mascara or talking a nation into an illegal war.

But here's my defence. Actually, very little business communication does deliberately set out to deceive. As persuasive communicators, we're paid to tell the most compelling story possible on behalf of our clients, which will, of course, mean accentuating the positive, focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses. But that isn't the same as deliberately trying to deceive people. In fact, far from imagining our readers are so stupid that we can easily dupe them, we're crediting them with the intelligence to listen to the case that we are presenting as sceptically as they wish, and to reject it if they feel it isn't strong enough.

And there, in that last sentence, is why good persuasive communicators don't lie. It isn't because we are unusually virtuous people. It's because we know that trying to deceive people is too risky. We may get away with it in the short term; but, sooner or late, we'll be found out; trust will be destroyed; and with it our chances of building a lasting relationship with our audience.

So let's spell it out: persuasive communications that lie are bad persuasive communications. They don't work.

As for the evil corporations, my view is that this charge can only really be made to stick if the person levelling it is a hard-line anti-capitalist, living a subsistence lifestyle and eschewing all the temptations waved temptingly under our noses in a modern consumer society.

Unless that describes you (and much respect if it does), I honestly don't think you have any right to take issue with the principle that any business (or other organisation) engaged in legal activities must be entitled to communicate with its customers, or anyone else who might be interested in what they have to say.

Of course, you absolutely have the right (see above) to be unpersuaded by such communications; to be annoyed or offended by them; or to ignore them completely. But would you, if you had the power, make it illegal for the florist's shop opposite your office to put a sign in their window on Mother's Day? Or for your dentist to take an ad in Yellow Pages? Or for your local pizza place to take orders online via their website? No? Then you really can't deny that Nike or Starbucks or Esso or NatWest - or even those tossers at Barclays - should be allowed the same freedom, on a rather bigger scale.

I hope what I've said doesn't sound amoral. I may accept in principle that any legitimate business has a right to tell its story (within any relevant regulatory constraints), but that doesn't mean that I necessarily want to help them find the right words. And, over the years, I have occasionally turned down work for "ethical" reasons.

I've refused work from tobacco manufacturers, on the grounds that there is nothing at all to be said for cigarettes (unlike alcohol, which I have occasionally helped to sell). I said no when I was approached by the tourist board of a country whose government, I felt very strongly, had no respect for the human rights of a sizeable minority of its population. And quite recently, I declined the opportunity to write a series of ads persuading teenagers to spend large amounts of their parents' money on a service sending them texts allegedly from Hollywood A list celebrities (on the grounds that I have teenage children and would be seriously pissed off if anyone tried to flog them such a thing).

To be honest, none of the above demanded any great moral resolve on my part. I didn't want to do the work, and I was probably busy working for other less ethically dubious clients. But a few years ago, I did make one much harder decision.

Having done an enormous amout of work for car manufacturers over 15 year or more, I decided to withdraw completely from the automotive market. Part of the reason, if I'm honest, was boredom: I'd written several thousand ads, mailers, brochures, web banners and radio scripts featuring exhilarating performance, head-turning looks and super-glue handling, and I was in serious danger of becoming jaded. (All right, perhaps I had become jaded.)

But there was an ethical dimension to my decision, too. No, I don't think motor manufacturers are evil and, yes, I do own a car (although it's very, very old and I try not to use it more than I have to). But, generally, my strong feeling is that there are more than enough cars on the roads of this small, polluted island; and, more specifically, I think that communications heavily featuring exhilarating performance, head-turning looks and super-glue handling tend to increase the likelihood of people driving like sociopathic dickheads.

Anyway, these days I won't touch anything on four wheels (or two, for that matter) - and I feel better for it, though also quite a bit poorer since cars used to account for a big chunk of my income. But, then, as the great Bill Bernbach observed, "a principle isn't a principle until it costs you something".

I hope what I've said here doesn't sound smug. I'm certainy not suggesting that my ethical standards are particularly high, or that anyone else should adopt them. My only point is that, as grown-ups earning our living in the business of persuasion, it's up to each of us to decide what we feel comfortable with, and what we don't - and to draw the line accordingly.


At 8:47 pm, Blogger Mike Reed said...

Great post, Lindsay. It says much of what's gone through my mind over the years.

Don't you think, though, that people distrust corporate marketing in a way they don't when Bella from the flower shop puts a SALE sign up? I think there's a latent suspicion that we're being bamboozled in some sort of way by the big boys, with all their sophisticated marketing ploys, while Bella's just turning an honest buck.

This may be supported by the fact that - as many reports show - we are indeed being bamboozled a lot of the time, by institutions like banks, supermarkets and so on. (I've decided not to work for supermarkets, and have since proved it by turning away Sainsbury's.)

As others have said, this is part of the reason for successes like Innocent (sorry to mention them). They seemed - at least at first - genuinely authentic and honest, like Bella. The danger for brands like that is the cynicism that comes when they start to 'grow up'. I guess that's when persuasive writing becomes even more important.

Sorry, bit rambly that.

At 11:06 am, Blogger Lindsay said...

Thanks for the interesting comment, Mike. Yes, I absolutely agree that the bigger the business, the more sceptically people will approach its communications. And I think that's probably as it should be. But, as I said in my post, I don't think you can deny businesses the right to communicate, based on their size: the same principle, I think, has to apply to all.

Interested to hear you've given up supermarkets. I wouldn't touch Tesco, but I'm pretty sure I'd roll over for Waitrose, if they knocked on my door!

At 11:06 pm, Blogger Mike Reed said...

Oh good heavens, Waitrose isn't a *supermarket*!

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