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Giles Keeble: the truth isn’t the truth any more it’s Google – what about ads?

Bill Bernbach once wrote that the truth isn’t the truth until someone believes you. He was of course making the point about the importance of response in communication.

Recently, research in the US has shown how the ultra-right have ‘gamed’ Google so that the messages they want to appear at the top or near the top of a search appear there, in the same way brands want to. (It would seem too many people can’t be bothered to scroll or search further.)

Professor Jonathan Albright has researched this and mapped the results. He says:

“The best way of describing it is as an ecosystem. This really goes way beyond individual sites or individual stories. What this map shows is the distribution network and you can see that it’s surrounding and actually choking the mainstream news ecosystem.”

Like a cancer? “Like an organism that is growing and getting stronger all the time.”

So now what is not true is true, so long as someone believes it, without checking it.

What has this got to do with advertising?

There are a number of possible responses. One is that the role for the likes of the ASA and other regulators grows. The other is that advertising becomes unregulated simply because it is impossible to control.

The first presents a couple of problems. One is that UK regulator ASA usually acts after the event, by which time the message has been out there and the objective achieved. It has always been the case in the press that a libel is in headlines in the front pages, whereas the retraction is lost somewhere in the body of the paper.

A second issue is that should the ASA etc become a body of the literal truth, the creative use of hyperbole, humour, and metaphor would be lost. Truthful? Maybe- but dull, and therefore not believed because not interesting.

Unregulated, we will see the equivalent of what is happening on the web. Brands say what they like and people believe them because they no longer question them – whether because they lack the time, the willpower, the curiosity, or simply because the messages fit with preconceptions.

Advertising is facing tough times, and I don’t think this (perhaps unforeseen) consequence of the internet is going to make things easier.

Some months ago I was asked to look at some outline work on the future of the agency and whether the creative talent could be used to solve social, political and environmental issues.

There are a number of problems with this.

One is that bright youngsters have many more options than they used to, so advertising may not be attracting the quality of talent it once did (though it is obvious that there is still great work being done here and there).

The other is that many agencies have always looked to do some kind of pro bono work, but without income from clients it is a luxury. Unless clients see that corporate responsibility is worth pursuing – not just as a communications add-on or gimmick- then agencies will find it hard to change.

As the Chinese say: ‘Interesting times.’ Which is of course a euphemism for a world that is probably going to hell in a hand-cart.

Have a very Merry Christmas.

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