A Letter From the Editor

By Published on .

The most famous American story about truth-telling is a lie. As you probably know, the tale of little George Washington and the chopped-down cherry tree ("I cannot tell a lie") is a smarmy if appealing piece of political fiction. A clergyman and itinerant book agent named Mason Locke Weems inserted the fable into the fifth edition (1806) of his book The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington. The Encyclopedia Britannica dryly notes that the biography "was more noted for its apocryphal anecdotes and readability than its accuracy." So, sorta like Edmund Morris' recent book about Ronald Reagan? Plus ca change...

Of course, lying is wrong and all that -- but ah, the power and endurance of Weems' deceit! Almost two centuries after its introduction, his fib may well be the first thing most people think of if you ask them for stories about the country's founding father. In fact, in the hold it has on the public imagination, Weems' lie probably outshines most of George Washington's actual exploits. The stateman's squashing of the Whiskey Rebellion. His campaign against the Iroquois. His role in the siege of Yorktown. All these truths pale next to a falsehood about a friggin' tree, and next to little George's supposed assertion that he (and I quote) "did not have sexual relations with that tree." (Note to factchecker: make sure I have this right.)

I'm not sure that any advertiser today could accomplish what Weems did -- successfully hijack the public consciousness using a total fabrication. Few would try to do anything so bold, either out of a sense of morality, or because they fear the public relations fallout that would ensue if the press and the public got wise to the subterfuge. Volvo, for instance, could tell you what that's like. Remember the 1990 spots in which the Swedish cars had been secretly rigged to appear structurally stronger than they really were? Someone blew the whistle, and the weeks that followed were surely not among the automaker's happiest times.

So most advertisers and their agencies know better than to concoct outright tales. But what about stretching the truth? Have you done it in your ads? Come on, just a bit -- to make a point? How about placing an argument's emphasis just so, stressing that the glass is half full, leaving consumers to grasp that it's also half empty? Is that OK? How funny does a spot have to be before we see its exaggeration as witty rather than mendacious? May advertisers use white lies? Is there even such a thing in advertising? In our cover story (page 18), Sandra Gurvis delves into these questions with all the ardor of Ken Starr burrowing into a roomful of White House documents.

I've more than once railed against untruthful ads, especially the semi-criminal fallacies perpetrated by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. But Madison Avenue does not exist in a vacuum; it is the product of the culture that it both shapes and is shaped by. According to some news reports, the majority of students now cheat during exams. In recent years, millions of jobseekers have apparently been sending out `embellished' resumes. To top it off, the present occupant of the White House is not known for his, let's say, staggering forthrightness.

Maybe it's true that every society gets the advertising it deserves -- fibs and all.

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