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Seeking Truth in the Information Economy

Seeking Truth in the Information Economy

Norman Guadagno

Go ahead and search for “fake photos on the Internet” or “fake facts,” and you’ll find dozens of examples showing the proliferation of altered images, blatant lies and other misrepresentations of reality. As much as I love the notion of Teddy Roosevelt riding a moose, that widely circulated photo is just not accurate (although it is an interesting historical artifact demonstrating that images have routinely been manipulated long before the dawn of the digital age).

We are all attempting to determine the nature of truth, rumor, lie and error in our information-rich, always-on culture. What once seemed easy—“I know it’s true because I saw it in the newspaper”—is now endlessly called into question. Political candidates spin tales based on their own interpretation of facts, and those tales get spun again by the media and again by your friends (or in-laws) on Facebook. Celebrities of all types use their social media channels to promote their favorite causes, and our kids interpret their endorsement as a substitute for actual fact-checking. 

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All of this creates a high degree of ambiguity in the world around us, and makes me ever more skeptical of everything I see and read. Having been trained as a social scientist, I’d like to think I’ve developed a pretty good sense of the difference between hype and fact, or at least between science and speculation. However, I am not sure I can say the same for the generations raised on a steady diet of the Internet. 

Yet the marketer in me understands the potential opportunity here. If the line between fact and fiction has gotten so blurry, how can marketing deliver messages that matter to our target audiences? We talk a lot about credibility, authenticity and user-generated content as the way in which to market our products and break through to millennials and other online audiences, but I fear this is simply another way to leverage the new information economy to our advantage, bringing us no closer to any real truth. 

Marketing often relies on (legally) bending the truth just enough to create something memorable, something that will cause a brand or product to be recalled in the future when a purchase is made. But marketing should also clearly identify itself as such, not allowing itself to fall into the murky abyss of content that might subsequently get reposted as fact. Should there be a standard digital “signature of inauthenticity” embedded in all marketing to prevent future confusion?

Consider the recent kerfuffle over the ads that Amazon placed in New York for its new drama, “The Man in the High Castle.” The story, an alternate history in which Japan and Germany won World War II and divided up America between them, is heavily laced with questions about truth and propaganda and what people believe. It is also full of signs and symbols from that era that many people find disturbing and offensive. Amazon (and its agency behind the promotions) may have made a tactical error here, but the bigger question to me is how those ads—turned into tweets and Instragrams—may reappear in some future Facebook post about the Nazi takeover of New York. It is not too difficult to imagine the marketing of fiction today becoming the “secret facts” being kept from us tomorrow.

When we market, we must think about our intended audience as well as our unintended audience. Everything gets thrown into the information machine and comes back out in often unexpected ways. I can already imagine my future grandchildren asking me why the man bun was the preferred hairstyle of world leaders from Washington to Obama.

Norman Guadagno is senior vice president of marketing strategy at Wire Stone, an independent digital marketing agency based in San Francisco.