brands in the age of fake news

This past Saturday morning

“Daddy, what is fake news?” (6 year old daughter)

“What do you think it is?”

“When people tell lies on Facebook”.

Is fake news going to create a generation of sceptics?

Surely 6 is too young to be confronted with the difficulties of working out what’s true, what’s not true, what’s biased, what’s manipulated, who you can trust?

The more I thought about it, the more the question really started to bother me. It has big implications for how those future generations are going to approach the world, and for how brands are going to have to up their game to build any kind of trust with a fundamentally sceptical generation.

The earlier we are exposed to disinformation, to lies, to bias, to edited oversimplified versions of reality the more sceptical, and less credulous we’re going to become. Maybe my daughter’s generation is going to be a much less credulous, much more sceptical bunch.

Is this the emergence of generation sceptic?

What is fake news: ‘them vs us’ tribalism reinforced through social media?

Lies and false promises are bad enough.

Boris-Johnson-574738
some promises are hard to keep

But much more pernicious is the filleted, edited, biased version of truth that gets served up almost everywhere through your chosen social channel nowadays.

I suspect that’s what will breed generation sceptic more than anything else.

Are we being manipulated? Can we trust what we’re told?

The Trump campaign played to biases. Cambridge Analytica (CA) used some kind of micro-targeting wizardry to influence millions of people to vote for him*. Some kind of plausibly deniable version of CA did the same for Brexit. If you want to feel very uneasy about all this I’d urge you to ask Facebook for their file on you.

Ad agencies have been flogging social media as effective persuasion channels for a wee while and overstating their effectiveness a smidgeon. Extensive investigations demonstrate that many “influencers” have bought followers and are – in fact – not influential at all.

(This is fun – stick in a twitter handle and find out how many fake followers they have. @realdonaldtrump is a good start)

Are we suffering from too much simplicity?

Right now there are wildly oversimplified debates occurring on a wide variety of super important topics. I’ve been struck by this before. We have a growing tendency, reinforced through media, and now amplified through social media to see every issue, every debate, every topic as binary.

Getting to the truth, even getting to the right question has become ever harder. Even the UK’s once revered BBC has become obsessed with “balance” – seeing every topic as a forum where there have to be “pro” and “anti” factions debating wildly oversimplified propositions:

  • Sugar is bad. Sugar free is good.
  • The Russians are to blame. The Government is lying.
  • Globalisation is a bad thing. Globalisation is a good thing.
  • The NHS is broken. The NHS is the pride of Britain.
  • Immigration is bad. The economy depends on immigrants.
  • Aid is good. Aid is bad.

Increasingly I run into organisations and brands that are suffering through this oversimplified approach. Especially when it comes to the things that really, really matter for the future – like the environment, energy use and production, food, mobility, education and work – it does nobody any good at all to reduce any of this stuff to “good vs bad”, “black vs white”.

It creates divisions and tribalism at a time when we all need more cohesion.

We live in a much more complex, nuanced world than this. China can be a global leader in tackling climate change and a laggard on human rights. There are big opportunities and challenges in Brexit. Obesity is a chronic multi-dimensional problem which cannot be solved by simply by swapping sugar for aspartame. Social media can be a force for good as well as distorting. Battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are both good prospects for reducing the environmental impact of transport.

I reckon generation sceptic will be very difficult to influence

They will ask penetrating questions. They will never take what they are told by authorities – and brands – at face value. They won’t accept that every issue has two clearly defined sides that are at odds with each other.

And brands will have to adapt

For hundreds of years brands have operated as simplifying signs – as a shorthand for what’s good, or well produced, or well made. Brand practitioners have simplicity drilled into them. Make it simple, keep it simple.

But we’re suffering from oversimplification. Brands are guilty of resorting to it as a default mode. It’s interesting how the soft drink brands are responding to the sugar tax – some are pushing their sugar substitute alternatives (which won’t actually solve the problem but are cheaper and therefore more profitable), some are decidedly “pro-sugar”.

 

 

I don’t think my 6 year old daughter and her sceptical cohort – with their interest in health, and their absence of credulity – will be swayed by this. It’s all too dumbed down and too simple. An Orwellian switch from pro sugar to pro sweetener is disingenuous at best, and – when you think about it – actually quite irresponsible.

We live in an age where business and brands are increasingly shaping the agenda on the stuff that matters. Look for example at the leadership of Iceland (frozen supermarket chain) on palm oil and plastic. This is a brand that is thinking for itself and acting out of conviction – not responding to legislation.

Screenshot 2018-04-10 08.08.06

I’m beginning to think that the really successful brands of the future might engage generation sceptic on their level.

Working out their own path, immune to the vagaries of external influence. Doing what they think is right, not what others tell them to do.

Maybe they will be curious. Maybe they will ask questions. Maybe they will avoid crass oversimplifications. Hopefully they won’t pander to tribalism.

Perhaps they will be more thoughtful, less brash, more….human. 

Perhaps the successful brands of the future may just win by embracing complexities and rejecting over-simplicity.

And then maybe we’ll all win by having a much less binary, much more nuanced, much more cohesive approach to the things that really matter.

I’d love that.

 

 

 

*perhaps – but I suspect that it’s not nearly as effective as Bertie says it is. I’ve seen a bit of micro targeting stuff up close, and either I am too stupid to understand it or the claims made for it are wildly over exaggerated.

 

 

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