Saturday, May 17, 2008

Lies, dam lies, and advertisements

A phrase attributed to Disraeli (or perhaps Twain) is “'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

It was the key quote from one of my favorite books of my childhood math geek days: Darrell Huff’s classic How to Lie With Statistics, which (Wikipedia claims) is the most widely read statistical text of the past 50 years. Alas, despite Huff’s wide distribution, such lies (such as truncated graphs) remain popular, particularly in the popular press.

Lying seems to be taken for granted in advertising. People can say things that aren’t true (“I lost 20 pounds in one week”) because that’s marketing license and thus people discount such claims. Still, the FTC has rules that says ads are deceptive if by omitting key information, a reasonable person would be misled. So nowadays the trick is to add small fine print, briefly flashed on the screen.

Even within this context, the AT&T ad of the past several months has been bothering me. It claims “best coverage”. But of course, that’s not true - according to Consumer Reports, AT&T places fourth after Verizon, Alltel and T-Mobile. Call quality is not a new problem for AT&T Wireless (née Cingular).

The footnote says “based on global coverage.” (Of course, AT&T has no coverage outside the U.S., just roaming agreements with other carriers). So for the fraction of minutes used by the 1% of Americans who use cellphones overseas, you might get better cell phone coverage. That’s assuming you’re willing to pay outrageous roaming rates, although it’s not clear how AT&T has better coverage than T-Mobile or a dual-mode CDMA phone. Meanwhile, the claim that a dad will get better coverage on lover’s lane because his AT&T phone roams to London is not misleading, it’s a lie.

The other lie — a new one this weekend that pushed me over the edge — is the claim that the latest Narnia movie is “even better than the first.” The first cognitive disconnect came with the review in my morning paper, which called it cliche and predictable due to hollow characters and wooden acting. However, the weekend onslaught of Disney ads is claiming Prince Caspian is “triumphant” and “the must-see film of 2008”. This is traditional movie hype, but when I can’t read the names of the critics or the periodical on my 26" TV, I got even more suspicious.

Sure enough, the only recognizable publication among the list of favorable “Caspian” quotes was CNN. Except that critic Gorman Woodfin is not a critic at CNN (founded by Ted Turner who called Christians “losers”), but instead is at CBN (founded by Pat , who wants Christians to take over the country). Given the status of C.S. Lewis as an iconic Christian philosopher and the Narinia novels as Christian allegory, the difference matters.

In strategy, we often expect ethical corner-cutting from schlocky little companies (or young high-growth companies like Worldcomm). Here AT&T and Disney are just the opposite. Both are Fortune 100 companies, and Disney is a top 10 global brand, even if the US-only AT&T is not.

So is this ethical decay in the executive suite? Another rationalization that “everybody does it”? I don’t know the explanation, but it’s not encouraging.

No comments: