Liars and the Lying Lies They Lie About

Advertising Still Has Some Dark Corners Where Truth is Seldom Spoken

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A few years ago on some panel about political advertising, I asserted that the whole genre is a pack of lies and is the ugliest stain on our democracy. This assertion was met with a parting shot by another panelist, a brand-name academic on the subject, who came back with "our research shows that most statements made in political ads are true."

By "most," it turns out, she meant the definition of "most:" more than 50%. But she didn't mean 99%, or 80% or even 60%. She meant a simple majority.

Astonishing. This panel, populated naturally with political consultants (i.e., "liars") seemed satisfied that only a little less than 50% of all statements uttered in all political ads are lies. As Aristotle might have said, "Oy, vey."

In consumer advertising, no matter have strenuously you define "truth," the honesty quotient certainly hovers above 90%, and probably much higher. This isn't a reflection of the industry's inner goodness, but rather of government regulation, media scrutiny and vigilant competitors prepared at the drop of a hat to haul your sorry ass into federal court. Complain as you will about consumer ads -- God knows I do -- truthfulness itself is not a big issue.

Except in a few categories, which seem to be congenitally incapable of being honest with the audience:

-- movie marketers

-- department stores

-- car dealers

As everyone knows, car retailing is and has always been a sewer of sleazy and corrupt sales practices. Dealerships will tell you almost anything to get you in the door, and salesmen will tell you almost anything to get you in the closing booth. The Internet has been a great equalizer, arming consumers with price information and thus reducing dealer leverage. But the stores still need to get you in the showroom.

I recently got a mailing from a neighborhood Volkswagen dealer offering "Fair Kelley Blue Book Value + $1000" for my used VW. This struck me funny, because I'm in the process of trying to sell a used Jetta, (61,200 miles in very good condition! Call now!). The Blue Book trade-in value for my car is about $7500. Therefore, the dealership was offering to buy it for $8500. Right?

Don't be silly. Of course that isn't right. The dealership would give me only the value for a car in "fair" condition, or about $1000 less. When I protested, they said that's all they offered to begin with, pointing to the phrase "Fair Kelley Blue Book Value." I tried to explain to the general manager how the English language works -- that by putting the word "Fair" in front of the phrase without quotation marks was in no way a reference to the car's condition. It was, in fact, unfair.

She laughed at me. She is so used to the little tricks her industry employs to mislead customers day in and day out, that she was actually amused I would parse her direct-mail copy for, you know, meaning.

She asked me why I was so annoyed. I told her I'm so fed up with dealer sleaze that I was determined to exact justice by making one dealer actually live up to its word. I told her that in the end, come what may, she will pay me the advertised price for my car.

How determined am I to make one liar pay for collective guilt? Well, at least $500 determined. My car is advertised to private buyers for $9000.
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