Join the fight against our post-truth world

Is the ad industry ever in danger of confusing hard evidence and beliefs?

"A widespread promiscuous devotion to the untrue."

This is how Kurt Andersen describes post-truth Trump’s America. In his bestselling book Fantasyland, he argues that regarding facts as optional is deep-rooted and centuries-old in his homeland.

His argument runs like this: the founding fathers fled an England that was too religiously tolerant for them and sought a new land where nobody would mock them for their delusions and dreams. Creating new truths began in the 17th century and has never stopped.

It's no co-incidence, according to Andersen, that the US produced Disneyland or that creationism is still popular. Americans are great at fantasy. Facts, he claims, are too often perceived as merely another version of the truth: "America was the dreamworld creation of fantasist, some religious and some out to get rich quick, all with freakish appetite for the amazing."

Andersen is fearful of the consequences of this for the world – a world where opinion is as valid as hard evidence. Here’s one of his more recent examples: "'Do you think that talking about millions of illegal votes is dangerous to this country without presenting the evidence?' the anchor of ABC World News Tonight asked Trump. 'No,' he replied, "not at all! Not at all – because many people feel the same way that I do.'"

Are we, in the ad industry, ever in danger of confusing hard evidence and beliefs? 

At 2018’s IPA Effectiveness Week conference, Libby Child presented research into marketing effectiveness culture across the industry, where more than half the respondents rated the abilities of their organisations at six or less (out of 10). "Marketing effectiveness culture" is short-term in its focus. It is not yet the norm for it to be aligned across the company or for formal KPIs to be shared across the board. So sometimes budgets are spent against the more easily judged short term rather than in the long term in terms of brand health and in terms of a sustainable business model.

There was a trend a few years ago about "the wisdom of the crowd". Surely if most people around you believed something, that would be better than the opinion of an elite group of experts? This can be seen as part of a "Fantasyland" continuum, where someone hears what they prefer to believe and then is served social media feeds that reassuringly echo rather than challenge their views. 

Every aspect of a communications plan must have a rationale, backed by evidence. That evidence must be substantial and independent. To make any decision because that’s where other brands are spending or on the basis of media owner information that is not third-party-verified may lead you to enter the "Fantasyland" delusion. 

There is always room for instinct, for gut feel and for making a decision because of a belief in the potential of a media idea that is yet unproven. But this should be tested in a valid experiment, with proper accountable measurements.

"Fantasyland" can be dangerous. Andersen calls out some opinion-formers as "Squishies, people intellectually or temperamentally disinclined to tell people they’re full of shit when they are, who have lost their stomach for the fight against the multiplying and empowered Believers".

The IPA effectiveness movement stands out against the Squishies. Now a global initiative, it is dedicated to broadening the bank of knowledge from more brands and more disciplines. As convenor of the 2020 awards, I’m hoping that more agencies than ever this year can find the time to enter to ensure the triumph of evidence-based marketing. 

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom

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