Why we don’t trust advertisers and politicians

Why we don’t trust advertisers and politicians

As marketers, we’re constantly pondering the form of that perfect message to generate allure and persuade customers to purchase our product. We create clever branding statements and advertisements often overstating the advantages of our product while avoiding any mention of its weaknesses.

The pattern is like this. Create ads, make promises, get sales, repeat. Advertisers tell you what you want to hear until they sway you into doing what they want you to do.

A study by the University of Massachusetts found that 60% of people can’t hold down a conversation without lying at least once. Every person who has ever been asked if a dress makes someone look fat knows that people are not always honest. It seems almost natural that people lie every day, embellishing or speaking untruths, telling a listener what they want to hear, or perhaps attempting to make oneself look better.

And we expect customers to trust us when we say our laundry stick will remove any stain without impacting the color in a shirt?

When it comes to people in government, it’s a similar pattern. Run for office, make promises, get donors, make more promises, get votes, and repeat. Politicians tell you what you want to hear until you do what they want you to do.

It’s hard to trust someone who is selling something.

Selling from inside the Beltway

Today, Congress is trying to keep some promises by addressing climate change, but they're trying to keep some donors too. The Biden administration is currently focused on a large reconciliation bill of 3.5 trillion dollars over 10 years. It’s designed to slow climate change by addressing energy production, with taxes and incentives particularly targeted at coal and natural gas which are the second highest source of carbon emissions following cars. In addition, it has investments in education and social safety. The President has sold the plan as something that will be paid for by taxes focused on the wealthiest Americans. Advocates for the plan claim it will also help pay for itself by reducing climate related costs, and building the tax base through education policies which build the workforce.

It is Biden’s own party that is preventing the bill from being passed. In particular one now famous Senior Senator from West Virginia, Joe Manchin.

The lack of agreement has become a big sticking point for getting the reconciliation bill passed, considering Democrats hold a razor thin margin. It’s a tale of two Joe’s fighting for their agenda, with Manchin holding all the leverage, because Manchin is the party’s holdout vote. The Democrats are vexed by the power that Senator Manchin is exercising, rendering the party’s majority practically useless.

The West Virginia Senator is from a coal state. His personal net worth substantially comes from the coal and natural gas energy industry, and many of his campaign donations are from the energy industry as well. His concerns with the bill are related to how it impacts the energy industry.

Last year, Pew Research found that only 20% of people trust the Government, a number which changes based on when and how you ask the question. Nonetheless, that rate has been declining since being in the range of 70% in the late 50s. Even recent studies from Gallup indicate that Americans' trust in elected officials (or people running for office) is bouncing around its historic lows of 42%. Again, while the findings are telling, the specific number is only as reliable as the context of the question, and how you define trust.

Trust is complicated

Trusting an ad, a politician or perhaps a business partnership is not just about whether they tell the truth, or not. It’s also about whether their motives lead them to exploit the person to whom they are trying to sell something.

Studies have consistently indicated that distrust in advertisement is to be expected, but it is not always the case. When advertisers focus their message on consumer concerns rather than making bold claims about their product, they connect more with what is important to the customer. “When the consumer sees any marketing, their natural instinct is to think of themselves.” Jennifer Denney of Elevated Marketing Solutions shared on a Facebook thread. “So you have to start with the ‘what’s in it for me’ mentality from the consumer's perspective.” She explains that the key to successful advertising is to recognize this mentality about customers, and shape your message around them.

With advertising, the incentives are based around telling a customer what you want them to hear, to get them to do what you want them to do. Customers intuitively see through that, and that’s why people don’t trust advertising.

Indeed, the question is “what’s in it for me”. But distrust comes from the tendency to be skeptical of one’s motives where the natural question is to ask “what’s in it for them?”

What’s in it for them?

We’re all selling something.

In the case of Joe Manchin, he is selling fossil fuels. In fact, the company he founded in 1988, Enersystems, has earned him well over 5 million dollars in dividends between 2011 and 2020, according to the available data from his Senate disclosures. Today, as a Senator, Joe is selling the idea that taking action to slow climate change is “very, very disturbing” when it involves substantially addressing our use of and dependency on fossil fuels where he makes his money.

Joe is not the only one selling fossil fuels. His largest donors are too. Tellurian Inc is listed as his largest donor in the period of 2017-2022 on OpenSecrets.org. Tellurian advertises themselves as “Of the Earth, For the Earth” on their website, touting their commitment to the environment including reducing carbon emissions by using natural gas instead of coal. While it’s true that natural gas emits less carbon than coal, the Union of Concerned Scientists disputes whether it is an environmentally sustainable solution, and claims that it would take new policies and investments to ensure it is a net improvement. Most climate initiatives including the current bill in Congress are aimed at eliminating both over time in exchange for solar, wind and nuclear power. Senator Manchin says we should let the market work itself out.

Joe Manchin is not lying, but his motives are clearly aligned with protecting the fossil fuel industry in spite of the urgent need to reduce its carbon emissions.

Everyone is selling something at least some of the time. After decades of being in the business of marketing things, I’ve learned a very important principle.

The person who is most trustworthy is the person who is not selling something. @danielherndon

Advertising is aspirational

It is worth mentioning that advertising, whether a website headline or a stump speech, is aspirational. Some statements project the vision more than the literal outcomes, because when you get down to business, it gets complicated. But there’s a difference between a bold statement and a bold-faced lie.

Marketers present the message that will sell their product. Politicians push the narrative that will get them elected. And we have trouble trusting them all–because people can see through their disingenuous messaging, and understandably question motives.

To all of you who are selling something, take a moment to ask “what’s in it for my customer?” because your constituent is asking the same question about you.