Ruminations on the Post-Truth Era and its Implications for Marketing

Did you know that Oxford Dictionaries recently chose “post-truth” as its word of the year?  This of course begs the question: what exactly does it mean to live in a post-truth society, and why should we care as marketers?

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What is Post-Truth?

This week I read a well-cited journalistic piece entitled “Post-Truth Nation” that articulated the idea of what “post-truth” means as it relates to U.S. politics, and it was very compelling. In referring to the recent U.S. presidential election, the author drove home the following point: “This is not a debate between two ideologies. This is a showdown between myth and reality.” At first I assumed this was going to be a one-sided opinion piece, but as the article went on, the case for the argument that we’re living in a “post-truth nation” grew. In short, if you can avoid getting sidetracked by the political viewpoints, the author’s purpose was to simply urge people to be critical of their information sources, be diligent about differentiating news from noise, and to separate fact from fiction.

For a more extreme example, let’s step outside the box for a moment and consider niche publications like The Islamic State’s magazine, which is a publication that essentially normalizes extremism because it squarely fits in with pre-existing beliefs: check out their recent articles (via The Clarion Project) for yourself.

For the record, Oxford Dictionaries defines “post-truth” as:

Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

Sounds a lot like marketing and PR in a way, doesn’t it? For example, I really do believe that my $4 Starbucks coffee tastes better than the $0.99 version at the local gas station (or Dunkin Donuts in the case of the image below) despite clear evidence that this may not always be the case. As innocuous as a cup of coffee is, you can see how this logic, when applied to bad ideas, can be  frightening.

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The Post-Truth Run-Up

Now for a personal story to offer some background as to why this article stood out to me: for several years following college I stayed in touch with a philosophy professor who was instrumental in shaping my thinking about the world. Post-college he had suggested that I look into non-profit work abroad, but in an old email exchange I came across recently, I talked about wanting to explore the field of marketing. Ever the philosopher, his words of wisdom about my career choice were as follows:

Marketing is an interesting choice of concentrations at this point in history because the fragmentation of media almost guarantees that niche micro-markets and mini-markets will continue to develop as an overlay on more general mass markets, such as capital-intensive technologies, social movements involved with large-scale problems like health insurance, big-budget productions, etc. What’s interesting to me about these niche markets is that communities tend to form in conjunction with them. These communities can become self-aware alternative political and financial power centers in their own right.

In the context of today’s landscape, these words now ring more true to me than ever despite being written nearly 10 years ago, pre mainstream adoption of social media and mobile phones. For example, consider the fact that America’s trust in the mass media has reached an all-time low. In the context of this added complexity and massive range of accessible viewpoints via digitization, is it any wonder? Or think about Facebook and its latest “fake news” saga: no doubt entire sub-communities have formed around fake news. One individual who wrote fake news stories even stated “I think Donald Trump is in the White House because of me.” There are also reports that one-third of pro-Trump tweets are generated by bots.

Despite whether or not fake news or fake bots contributed to the popularity of Trump, or any political candidate for that matter, the point is that a fragmented media landscape supported by niche communities formed around poor ideas can lead to bad outcomes. Consider the Wall Street Journal’s recent piece illustrating what a sample Facebook news feed might look like for a liberal vs. a conservative.  Just skimming through this piece gives one a quick idea of how easy it is to see why people have come to think so differently, and especially when a majority of Americans now access their news via social media.

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On top of all of this, we still all have that one friend or relative who forwards along/shares  commonly known urban legends at the drop of a hat … when it actually takes less energy to do a quick fact check than mindlessly accept someone else’s words as truth. Why is this behavior so prevalent? Perhaps it’s because when we see something that fits in with our beliefs, we are quick to accept it as truth without questioning. Let that be a cautionary tale.

This insight my professor made to me about the marketing industry didn’t mean a whole lot to me 10 years ago, but the wisdom is now thoroughly appreciated as some of these predictions about the future have begun to play out. No doubt his understanding of philosophy provided him with a sense about how the role of marketing could either help or hinder the collective good in the future: and we find ourselves at such a crossroads today.

Digging into the Concept of Post-Truth

As it turns out, there have been entire books written on the topic of post-truth, which appears to be an unsurprising byproduct of our migration to interconnectedness. In 2004, Ralph Keynes published a book entitled “A Post-Truth Era.” The synopsis reads:

In the post-truth era, borders blur between truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty, fiction and nonfiction. Deceiving others becomes a challenge, a game, and ultimately a habit. Research suggests that the average American tells lies on a daily basis. These fibs run the gamut from “I like sushi,” to “I love you.” As the volume of strangers and acquaintances in our lives rises, so do opportunities to improve on the truth. The result is a widespread sense that much of what we’re told can’t be trusted.

While there’s a lot to unpack here, I think there is a basic takeaway is that we’re living in times of massive change and uncertainty, driven by information overload. In many ways we’ve reached a turning point; now is the time to take responsibility for and devise a better way forward.

The Marketing Connection

As marketing professionals we have the unique opportunity to mitigate some of these forces, share stories and truths that are authentic, and conduct our own personal due diligence when it comes to crafting strategies and messages on behalf of others. This should not be taken lightly as we collectively work to shape the thoughts of others, spread messages, and call people to action on behalf of our companies, clients, and brands.

Now it’s your turn: what do you think about all of this post-truth talk as it relates to marketing? Would love to hear your thoughts!

 

 

2 comments

  1. Tiffany,
    This is one of the best blog posts of the year. Critical thinking skills are at a premium and the lack of those skills is clearly on display. Where do you think this leaves mass marketing? Is every strategy now a niche strategy? Have political campaigns been permanently changed?

    I’m going to use this in my my class this spring and also use it to coach students on good uses of social media where the world is watching.

    • What a nice thing to say, Jim! Stay tuned for another blog post on this. At the crux of the issue lies a fractionalized media landscape. I don’t have the answers, but I personally think that American philosopher Ken Wilber is onto something big, who is a proponent of integral theory, which seeks to make multi-dimensional sense of the times we live in. The competition for attention today is intense, people are largely immune to mass messaging, unless there’s an authentic and personally engaging tie. Hence the attraction to sensationalism, for shocking or attention grabbing statements transfix. Perhaps this is a new strategy in its own right for the time being, but in the midst of this lure we forfeit something fundamental to our humanity. I think it all goes back to Heidegger’s concept of falling (just Google). So to answer your question, the marketing strategy depends on the stage of consciousness of the target and then tailoring the product or service to fit that particular level of consciousness. All else from there pertains to details of execution in my opinion …

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