I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been reading Proust (and admonishing copywriters to read more fiction.) In Search of Lost Time can be a slog, for sure. But it also gives you a lot to think about. Here’s an idea that struck me a few weeks ago:
“What is more usual than a lie, whether it is a question of masking the daily weaknesses of a constitution which we wish to be thought strong, of concealing a vice, or of going off, without offending other people, to the thing that we prefer? It is the most necessary means of self-preservation, and the one that is most widely used. Yet this is the thing that we actually propose to banish from the life of the person we love; we watch for it, scent it, detest it everywhere. It distresses us, it is sufficient to bring about a rupture, it seems to us to conceal the gravest misdemeanors, except when it conceals them so effectively that we do not suspect their existence. A strange state, this, in which we are so inordinately sensitive to a pathogenic agent whose universal proliferation makes it inoffensive to other people and so baneful to the wretch who finds that he is no longer immune to it!
In other, slightly simpler words: We lie all the time. We lie about our availability for meetings and we make up stuff on our timesheets. We tell people we’re on our way when we’re still packing our bags. Their emails ended up in our spam folders. Your posterior looks great in those jeans. (This last one is true, though.)
But when someone lies to us? Horrors. Lying is one of the worst of all possible sins.
Most of the lies we tell are what psychologist Jeff Hancock calls “butler lies,” so named because, in days gone by, fancy people employed people to tell little lies for them. We actually tell these lies to protect relationships we value: Just because I was too tired and in no mood to call you back doesn’t mean I don’t care about our friendship, so I say, “Your message didn’t come through until the next morning! Crazy!”
Hancock’s TED Talk mentions a couple of other kinds of internet-era lies, as well. The most common is the sock puppet—that is, using a fake identity to promote yourself on the internet. The Chinese Water Army is the sock puppet on steroids: Think scads of bogus product reviews, or the proliferation of fake news from Russia.
Sock puppets are a special kind of troll, and nobody likes the Chinese Water Army. But there are other ways to lie on the internet, as well.
What about native content? Is that a lie? I think there’s some cause for concern. I deplored the way The Onion created content for Dairy Management, Inc.—essentially compromising their satirical cred to shill for Big Dairy. Did their Millennial target audience see through the meta-meta smokescreen? I hope so.
There’s also just a lot of flat-out lying. The New York Times documented all of President Trump’s lies and exaggerations between his inauguration and June 23. It’s a pretty impressive (depressing?) list, and includes the remarkable fact that the president said something untrue, in public, every day of his first 40 days in office. (When it comes to lying, Hillary Clinton is no slouch, either.)
But do these politicians’ lies have consequences? Do anyone’s? Volkswagen perpetrated “the biggest known fraud in automotive history,” affecting nearly 12 million cars around the world. The company’s stock took an immediate 30% hit; yet, two years later, it’s reacquired most of its value.
So where does that leave you? If even a really big lie does only temporary damage to your reputation, what’s to stop you from lying with impunity?
Perhaps the best answer is, “your conscience.” Another answer is, “great marketing.” You can seduce people into buying your crappy product once, but it’s harder to get them to buy again once the lie has been revealed. (I, for one, will never buy another Volkswagen—and my wife and I have owned at least three.)
Keep in mind, also, that the most important word in marketing today seems to be “authenticity.” Social media and email have meant a resurgence of one-to-one messaging. Your lie feels a whole lot worse when it’s personal.
Then again, maybe you should make your lying more obvious. If you need to lie, why not make lying your brand? It’s worked in the past:
Finally: You might think about those “harmless” butler lies. Are you really lying to protect a relationship you value? Or are you covering up selfish behavior? Can you go a whole day without telling a lie—not even a tiny, meaningless fib?
Yes? I don’t believe you.
Pinocchio illustration hand-drawn by me. I totally drew that myself.