Silly spin patronizes public, undermines accountability

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Here's something I'm tired of: people talking around the issues-the polite words and empty phrases that have cropped up in the world of business, and which journalists often have to swallow and reproduce, if only to give the companies we write about a chance for fair comment.

This is not limited to business journalism, of course. George Carlin has a brilliantly scathing routine centered on how Americans rely on soft language to avoid hard truths about death, disability, poverty and racial tension. "That guy's not economically disadvantaged," is the gist of Carlin's monologue. "He's f***ing broke."

The same kind of infuriating nonsense is a daily frustration in Ad Age's little corner of the universe. We tolerate it to the degree that we have to, at least in our news reporting. If some spokesman insists on using circular language to answer a question, we have to give him the opportunity to do that, even if the rest of the story makes clear the absurdity of the spin.

Still, it's a shame. What's needed, and often sorely lacking, are executives willing to speak truths, even harsh ones, without couching them in a secret wink/wink, nudge/nudge, know-what-I-mean language. The code is no more acceptable because it is so thinly veiled. Raise your hand if you really think so-and-so left his company because he wants to spend more time with his family.

Yet no one gets fired anymore. Ever. They resign to pursue other interests or to travel the globe. No agency-client relationship ends badly in the age of corporate spin. The business interests of their parent companies are too intertwined to allow that. No ads ever get pulled off the air because they're not working or were based on a poor strategy or because the celebrity endorser was just arrested. Instead, the advertiser always insists with a straight face that the ads had simply run their course and were scheduled to stop just when they did. The timing? Pure coincidence.

Case in point: KFC. On Oct. 28, it introduced proudly and to great fanfare its ridiculous campaign positioning fried chicken as healthy food. This was clearly a long-term strategy, not a quickie contest or price promotion. "KFC Corporation announced today it is setting the record straight-fried chicken can, in fact, be part of a healthy diet," the press release began.

The ads were heavily criticized, however, with the storm centered in the pages of this publication. Ad critic Bob Garfield called the launch spots "desperate and sleazy," while in an editorial we called for them to be pulled. The Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, which opened an inquiry.

KFC yanked the ads off the air. It was a clear response to the pressure. Clear, that is, to everyone but KFC. Its PR folks insisted the chain did no such thing. The ads stopped running, they said, because they were scheduled to stop running. Um, right.

Unfortunately, those who do speak their minds often pay a price. One agency executive, who questioned, in the press, the judgement of a client, still carries the scars of an upper management lashing. When it does happen, though, when reality is bluntly confronted, it's perversely refreshing.

The problem is greater than spin, which trusted media outlets enable their audiences to see past. It is symptomatic of bigger business issues, including a lack of respect for the consumer's intelligence. It also results in a culture devoid of accountability. If nobody admits to there being a problem in the first place, nobody has to step forward to accept responsibility.

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