The Truth Is, There Is No Truth — Let Alone in Advertising

Think about it. Most of what we consume as information about our world, society, events, and brands is “second-hand” reality — let alone in advertising. We didn’t really see what happened in protests covered on national news. We were not live audience members at a political rally.

Think about it. Most of what we consume as information about our world, society, events, and brands is “second-hand” reality — let alone in advertising. We didn’t really see what happened in protests covered on national news. We were not live audience members at a political rally. Or we didn’t experience the results firsthand that a customer claims to have experienced from a company’s products or services.

So can we really trust or should we believe what others “report” to us? The answer to this is widely debated on Facebook and news stations as we face all of the “fake” news we get daily, and as we become more aware that so much of what we see and hear is just that: fake. We are finally being made aware of the fact that many propogandists will overlay someone’s face on another person’s video image to “fake” that someone in the public eye said something harming that, in most cases ,they never did. Scary. We are also learning that so much of the posts we see on social media — Facebook, especially — were created by propogandists and posted to our accounts because of the demographic profile Facebook created from our past posts and those of the “friends” connected to us. We’re really starting to get it, whether we face it or not.

One thing we marketers need to also face is the how the “truth” we are putting out there is being received. As consumers are starting to watch the “news” and read social media with a different lens than before, we need to look at how that new lens affects their vision for our marketing messages. Here’s just two examples.

Testimonials

These have been the foundation of marketing since the beginning of time. They’re claims from one customer at a time about how products or services changed their worlds. We’ve used them, believing prospects will believe them if we attach them to a real person. Perhaps not so much anymore. Celebrity endorsements have been decreasing in influence rapidly for the past few years. We all know celebrities can be bought for the public appeal of their personal image, and that many are willing to put their mouth when the money is, and so these appeals don’t influence our purchasing choices like they used to. The same is holding true for ordinary people testimonials. Especially as more brands offer to reward us for posting reviews about them.

A testimonial is only true for the person speaking, and at the time they wrote the testimonial. Their truth may not apply to someone else, and it may not be true anymore, due to subsequent experiences with the brand involved. Testimonials can also backfire, as the prospects will expect to be just as delighted as those customers they believed, and the reality is that this is not likely the way it will go. Ever. As all customers’ needs, expectations and experiences are as different as the individual using the product or service. We see and judge life’s experiences through lenses of our experiences, culture, expectations, social situations, life’s challenges, and so much more.

Product Claims

Time to drop the hype. We’re so used to making self-proclaimed endorsements of our competitive advantages, product quality, results generated, and so much more. If anything has come out of the “fake” news movement, it’s that we are learning not to believe hype and claims that can’t be substantiated. We marketers need to start writing more like journalists were trained to write decades ago, before they cared more about ratings than news or truth. When I attended to journalism school as an undergraduate, our work was thrown out if we used adjectives or made suggestions that were not attributed to quotable sources. This needs to become the new norm for marketers, many of whom were raised to use big words, project big claims, and spark curiosity, and then explain later.

Many consumers today have become jaded, skeptical, and cautious to trust, and for good reason. They have been bombarded with “fake news,” “fake promises,” fake claims,” and more “fake” truths. Generation Xers, Millennials, and the up-and-coming generations are learning not to believe more than believe. There are a lot of reasons for them not to trust what they hear or see. TV and digital and print news can be manipulated with Photoshop and other special effect tools. Video and comments from spokespeople can easily be taken out of context and, in reality, we are learning to expect that they are more often than not.

What Marketers Can Do About Truth

Marketers can overcome this jaded vision of the world and brands in business today by addressing truth firsthand. You can do this by creating more interaction between your brand and consumers online and in the real world. Let customers experience what you are all about — your products, your persona, your values — more than reading your carefully crafted statements. Apple’s stores are a great example of how this can be done. The atmosphere is open and engaging, not stiff and overwhelming with merchandise and sales signs popping out in front of you at every corner. They simply ask how they can help, educate you about their technology and your options, and let you explore and experience the products for as long you want to, in an engaging, no hype, no hard-sell setting.

In short, “truth” is not in the written word or video snippets, but in the actual experience of each customer. Creating personal realities that are meaningful and relevant should be every marketing team’s top goal.

War Against Fake Content: Update From the Front

The development of “fake news” and the willful propagation of false information into search engines is a threat to the whole search marketing ecosystem.

SEOThe complexity and accuracy of today’s search engine algorithms are a tribute to the science of information retrieval. The size of the search engine databases and the speed with which they return results are engineering marvels. In the midst of all of the incredible engineering science, there are still huge challenges. “Thin content” and the malicious propagation of false information and fake news threaten the very basis of the search ecosystem. Weeding out “thin content” and false information is a very difficult task.

Google’s Panda and more recent Fred updates have tried to address the problem of “thin content.” Defined as pages that have little or no value, thin content pages are typically:

  • Automatically generated content
  • Thin affiliate pages
  • Content scraped from other sources. For example: Scraped content or low-quality guest blog posts
  • Doorway pages

Additional examples of “thin content” are e-commerce product pages with little or no descriptive content or a few lines that could be found on any site vending the product. All of these produce a less-than-satisfactory user experience; however, they do not spread offensive or disturbing false information. The Google updates directed at algorithmically rooting out thin content have been somewhat successful in and attacking the “thin content” problem.

“Thin content” is just the pointy tip of another huge iceberg. The development of “fake news” and the willful propagation of false information into search engines is a threat to the whole search marketing ecosystem. Bolt onto this that some of the information is not just false, but it is offensive (contains racial and ethnic slurs) and often disturbing (advocates violence or provides how-to information on bomb-making and such).

How Does This Threaten the Ecosystem?

Research studies have shown that naïve consumers often equate those sites/pages that appear at the top of the search results as being authoritative, the best vendor or the correct answer to their query. When the page shown as the top result promulgates a fake story or contains offensive material, the searcher is in a quandary. Is the information accurate, or is the search engine not to be trusted? Huge volumes of false information can crowd out quality, accurate information. When advertisements run on the pages showing disturbing or offensive information, advertisers pull back on their advertisements, threatening to choke off the engine’s economic lifeblood — its advertising revenues.

Send in the Troops

Google has for several years maintained a human task force, some 10,000 contract employees strong, whose members review and rate sites according to a very specific 160-page set of guidelines. (Opens as a PDF)

These guidelines provide interesting reading for those who want to understand how content and pages are viewed. Raters must pass a rigorous test that ensures that they understand the 160 pages of guidelines. Once on-task, reviewing results of actual searches, the raters do not directly influence specific site results, but rather provide data that can feed into the ongoing algorithm development.

Google has used its army of raters for several years. Over time, the guidelines have changed. For example, when Google placed increased emphasis on ensuring the quality of pages with impact on your money or your life (YMYL), the guidelines were enhanced for how to evaluate this type of page. With the growth of mobile, the guidelines included information on reviewing mobile content. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Google has given specific guidelines for how to judge and evaluate offensive or disturbing content. It is a fine line that must be tread between providing accurate general interest information on disturbing topics such as genocide, the Holocaust, human trafficking and providing malicious or dubious information. The results of these human raters will ultimately be used to train the search engine to present quality information. The future is in their human hands, not in the magic of the algorithm, for they are its guidance system.

Fake News Marketing: The Bad Side of SEO

Many of the click-bait stories were carefully optimized to respond well for search. Add in the search engines’ bias toward displaying trending or popular stories, and you have an ecosystem that nurtured and supported click-baiting.

Gyre that fake news causes in search
A woman walks on a Hawaiian beach where plastic from the ocean washes onto the shore. Fake news SEO causes this in search results.

The recent news is ablaze with discussions and accusations that any dissenting opinion to our current administration is fake news. Even unfavorable polls are declared fakes. These accusations are often presented along with risible oxymoronic “alternative facts,” or lies by another name.

As I have watched this descent into journalistic maelstrom, I have wondered about whether click-baiting and SEO copywriting might have contributed to the growth of this toxic environment.

Many fake news stories started as a form of click-bait, providing tabloid sensationalism to mundane topics. These were often created to draw traffic to accompanying advertising or even to sell products or create advocates for various online organizations.

Unwitting Search Engine Complicity

The bad news is that many of these click-bait stories were carefully optimized to respond well for search. Add in the search engines’ bias toward displaying trending or popular stories, and you have an ecosystem that nurtured and supported click-baiting.

Efforts by Google, Bing and Facebook to sift out the garbage from the river of putrid information being cast into the Internet are ongoing.

Given how we depend on search to provide authoritative answers on almost any topic, it is incumbent on them to ensure the integrity and veracity of the information delivered in the search results.

SEOs, Use Your Power for Good (And Your Brands Will Benefit)

As a successful SEO, I am always amazed at the power of SEO content and copywriting.

Yes! Content is king, and solid SEO copywriting and optimization works, whether you are an e-commerce vendor (where my search practice focuses) or in some other business. Many e-commerce sites, coming late to the party, are just now discovering the power of content. They are adding volumes of content to their sites. It is often carefully written — using SEO principles and curated by content strategists.

But I find myself asking if it really adds anything of substance. Is it just irresistible cotton candy for the mind with no intellectual nutritional value? Does each piece give helpful information about the product that might be useful as it drives the consumer to purchase?

The lack of intellectual nutritional value in product content, coupled with a distrust of advertising, motivates the consumer to seek reviews or other sources of validation.

Out in the northern Pacific Ocean, there is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — an enormous debris field the size of Texas, filled with of garbage, plastic and other non-degradable material. The Pacific Ocean is vast and fills one with awe at its majesty and beauty. So this huge depository of rubbish is a nasty blemish.

In the future, will the huge server farms that make up the “cloud” become cluttered with an equivalent garbage patch of information that adds little or nothing to man’s vast store of knowledge? The advertisement with the Geico gecko wandering in a Silicon Valley server farm touches this nerve.

Just as search engines must root out “fake news” and click-bait, any of us who create SEO content, whether as a copywriter, editor or strategist, should ask ourselves if each piece of content adds to man’s vault of information or is more debris for the digital garbage patch floating in the cloud.

Follow-Up: Marketers, Don’t Fund Fake News

It was a one-two wake-up call at last month’s Interactive Advertising Bureau Annual Leadership Meeting, almost on cue with my previous blog post “Living With (and Working Against) Fake News.” Two industry leaders made powerful statements, asking us to clean up how people experience ads and, going further, to make sure those ads don’t finance questionable content or falsehoods online. Brand storytelling has no place in fake news.

The Role and Implications of AI and Machine Learning within the Marketing Tech StackIt was a one-two wake-up call at last month’s Interactive Advertising Bureau Annual Leadership Meeting, almost on cue with my previous blog post, “Living With (and Working Against) Fake News.

Two industry leaders making powerful statements and asking us to clean up how people experience ads and, going further, to make sure those ads don’t finance questionable content or falsehoods online. Brand storytelling has no place in fake news.

First, we had brand leader Mark Pritchard of Procter & Gamble laying out new requirements for its agencies in 2017 in a push to create “better” ads and media transparency. Among them:

  • Adopt one viewability standard for online ads. P&G is embracing that of the Media Rating Council.
  • Find an accredited third party to verify ad measurement verification — again, P&G advocates Media Rating Council accreditation toward this purpose.
  • Prevent ad fraud and click fraud by getting its online advertising supply chain Trustworthy Accountability Group certified.
  • Vote for this cleanup with ad spend — give business to those agencies, ad tech and publishers that do the necessary work to keep digital advertising clean and transparent.

Then we had Randall Rothenberg, IAB’s chief executive, who I’ve long regarded as one of the most articulate, forceful and learned voices in our field, who laid it on the line:

“We have confronted the terrifying realization that facts and truth — and the time-honored processes for establishing them — can be turned into relativistic commodities, undermining the will of our citizenry and the ability of our leaders to make the world a better place.

As an industry, it is our obligation to again step up. But this time, our goal cannot be merely to fix our supply chain. Our objective isn’t to preserve marketing and advertising. When all information becomes suspect — when it’s not just an ad impression that may be fraudulent, but the data, news and science that undergird society itself — then we must take civic responsibility for our effect on the world.”

Rothenberg echoed Pritchard’s call to get on board with industry standards — and went one step further, with a prescription:

“Get yourself out of the fake anything business … This is not difficult. Simply ask your finance department to create a list of all your customer payables. Then commission a team to review the list to determine who your customers actually are, and what they do for a living. If they’re engaged in child porn or distributing pirated movies or generating neo-Nazi propaganda, or anything else you wouldn’t want your parents, spouses, neighbors or children to know about, then stop doing business with them … And once you’ve reviewed and cleared your customers, do the same thing with your suppliers.”

Well said — let’s fix things fast.

Living With (and Working Against) Fake News

First, let me say this is not a political post. Sometimes, understandably, I garner partisan comments and critiques on my marketing observations about elections and campaigns, or current events and what we can learn from them as marketing and communications practitioners. I welcome all comments — but there is no intended political agenda here.

First, let me say this is not a political post. Sometimes, understandably, I garner partisan comments and critiques on my marketing observations about elections and campaigns, or current events and what we can learn from them as marketing and communications practitioners. I welcome all comments — but there is no intended political agenda here.

Second, there’s been a lot of media attention around “fake news,” “alternative facts” and “bad ads” this past week, and in this digital age, it’s not surprising to see these phenomena come forward. These are not political manifestations — I believe they happen because of human nature, unchanged over time, and in the digital realm, there are new opportunities for bad behavior.

My point here is that we’ve allowed this to happen.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: decades past have had their days of yellow journalism and snake-oil salesman. While I may long for the days of fair and impartial voices in journalism — a la, Walter Cronkite — there’s always been an element in media that’s sponsored by one interest or another, perhaps for entertainment, even if the veneer is authoritative, informative and educational. For years, “feel good” stories are inserted in evening newscasts. And product placements appear in morning television. In cable television news, is there any news at all or is it mostly commentary and entertainment? So, I continue to worry about who pays the freight for U.S. journalism, even as I recognize and welcome the fact that advertising foots the bill.

We need, perhaps desperately, in American democracy the check and balance of a well-financed, vibrant Fourth Estate. The “Media Opposition Party” is hardly monolithic — and that’s why I still care about the practice of journalism that takes time to fact check and to keep its editorial opinions on the Editorial Page. That’s why I also watch public television and listen to public radio — no interest there, except to the public (or at least the members of the public that is its donor base). News versus analysis versus commentary — there needs to be a distinction.

Once again, we’re in a new age where there’s a slush — not a firewall — between church and state (publishing and editorial). The rise of “Native Advertising,” social influencers, “clickbait content,” brand journalism, pay-to-play speaking gigs, even who’s sitting next to you in a bar, muddies the distinction between editorial and paid content — particularly on a digital or mobile device. One from the other is a click away to an untrained eye. It is true that there is value, immense value, in paid content, but it’s also wise to know — as a citizen, as a consumer — when you’re engaged with paid media, from earned media, from editorial opinion, from entertainment.

Sometimes, when a PR practitioner is pitching an editor, reporter or conference organizer for earned media, he or she is presented with a paid media option instead. My client may well opt for the paid media option, but I make sure that my editorial pitch is really about editorial content. I’ll let my client know the availability of a paid media option, should they wish to pursue this.

Now, all that being said, I’m happy accepting earned media assignments (my bread and butter), as well as paid media assignments (content marketing). Let’s simply make sure they are distinct and differentiated when and where they appear. It’s not just the Federal Trade Commission who cares about this, I do, too! Hence, my blog today — and it is not a soap box.