The Big Lie – the complete book online - 7 Hyperbole

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Chapter 7

The Second Biggest Show
on Earth?


The titles of “humbug” and “prince of humbugs” were first applied to me by myself. I made these titles part of my “stock in trade”.

Struggles and Triumphs, the autobiography of P. T. Barnum, published in 1854,
was a bestseller

Do advertisers lie?

Do politicians evade? Are government ministers economical with the truth? Do estate agents stand in front of damp patches in the wall? Would you consult a spin-doctor for a medical diagnosis?

In the 1996 Reith lectures, Professor Jean Aitchison, the Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at Oxford University, argued:


Humans, alongside other primates, are often called social animals. This has promoted two types of behaviour: a fondness for grooming one another, and an ability to make guesses about the mental state of others: intelligent primates can put themselves into one another’s shoes, as it were. These abilities tie in with two things language is especially good at: interacting with others and influencing them . . . The ultimate goal of learning to speak may be lying, or a spin-off from lying – the ability to talk convincingly about things which are absent or even non-existent. This property of language, known as displacement, is one of its great strengths.


Or, as the French statesman Charles Maurice Talleyrand-Périgord observed more succinctly, “Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts”.

Thus, the evolution of language gave Homo sapiens sapiens a competitive edge in the struggle for survival. He was able to communicate clearly, and he was also able to lie more effectively than other animals, which have a limited repertoire of physical signals intended to confuse. Concealing the truth is an essential skill in an intelligent social environment: it allows one to gain social acceptance and personal advantage. The reactive need to second-guess others, to find out what was really going on, must have put more pressure on developing an even bigger brain. So today, when the business Ansafone message tells us, “I’m afraid no one is available to take your call at the moment”, we know that means that the staff haven’t come in yet, or they’ve knocked off early.

The instinct to lie is human, and call it what you will, the intent of advertising is to deceive. Exaggeration is essential to advertising; it has stretched the truth for so long that the absence of reassuring hyperbole provokes more suspicion than its presence. Cards posted in a newsagent’s window must describe cleaners as “reliable”, prostitutes as “young” . . . etc. or they will be passed over. P. T. Barnum didn’t have to do any market research before deciding to call his circus nothing less than “The Greatest Show on Earth”. His dazzling insight was not simply that “There’s a sucker born every minute”, but that the public is a willing accomplice in its own bilking. Pricing points rely on this: we know that an item (such as this book) advertised for £12.95 or £1,495 really costs £13 or £1,500. But as prospective purchasers we connive happily in the deception, and think of it as “around” £12 or £1,400. We are particularly likely to collude if an investment has been made. At Steeplechase, the famous Coney Island amusement park in New York City, one 1950s attraction came straight from the Barnum tradition. It advertised a viewing of “The Famous Californian Red Bats”. These resided in a small cage in a tower at the top of a steep, narrow staircase, and could be viewed only by sacrificing a couple of precious points from your strip of entry coupons. The designers of this display knew that the file of children and adults descending the staircase would never inform those trudging upwards that what was in the cage was a pair of red baseball bats.

What happens when the willing conspiracy between buyer and seller is shattered? The price of telling the truth in business is formidable. In 1991, under various trading names, Gerald Ratner owned almost every jewellery chain in the UK. His company was the world’s biggest jewellers, employing 25,000 people. In explaining his firm’s spectacular rise from 3 per cent to 34 per cent of the market to an audience of 6,000 members of the Institute of Directors one day, he confided that his products were “crap”. The tabloid newspapers seized on this indiscretion and the next day customers jammed his stores, wanting their money back. His employees were “gob-smacked”. In less than a year the share price of the Ratner Group slumped from around £2 to under 8p and the business was trading at a loss. Gerald Ratner estimates that this remark cost his company £200-£300 million. It cost him a personal stake of around £6 million and his career as chairman of the Ratner Group.

Advertisers habitually devise elaborate constructs intended to deceive.A plain brown envelope drops through your letter box. It bears a numeric code, 095, written by hand in blue ink. And a typewritten message: “I think the enclosed survey will interest you. . . . etc”. It is signed by hand in blue ink by “Linda”. Above the printed name of an organisation called Consumer Research Centre her reliable Anglo-Saxon name is typewritten: Linda Harrison. The H has jumped out of line, just as it used to do in old-fashioned typewriters. The only true statement on this envelope is the typewritten message beneath: “Delivered By Hand”. Despite appearances to the contrary, this specimen is one of thousands of envelopes identical apart from the address. Everything else has, in fact, been printed. “Personalised” messages like these are now common practice in direct marketing drops. The only thing remarkable about this specimen is the idea that in the closing year of the 20th century any “consumer research organisation” (for which read “advertiser”) could pretend to believe that consumer research organisations still used typewriters.

Advertisers are so used to distorting facts that they find it difficult to comprehend why people are bothered about it. A 1995 Australian ad for Blackmores Active Woman Formula vitamins featured a woman identified as Caroline, who was described as an “architect, mother of three, Red Cross volunteer and recreational pilot”. She was pictured wearing aviator glasses and cap, saying “People wonder how I do so much: I wonder how they do so little”. The Australia Advertising Standards Council asked for it to be withdrawn, because the only true claim ascribed to the woman shown was that her name was Caroline. The head of sales and marketing for Blackmores was baffled by the decision, because he had received only a few complaints about the ad: “I don’t think we’ve committed a moral crime or anything . . . We researched it and that ambiguity didn’t come through”.

The instruments of lying are the same as in any piece of propaganda: hyperbolic claims, deceptive images and misleading associations. Consider these slogans:


“We’re Getting There”

“Securicor Cares”

“With the Post Office It’s Sorted”

“We Won’t Fail You”

British Rail, 1970s

Securicor, 1970s

Post Office, 1995

British School of Motoring, 1999


Do you believe any of these statements? Probably not entirely. Because personal experience may argue against it. But you know what they’re trying to say. It may or may not be relevant to your needs. And, in an imperfect world, you may be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. Which may give these advertisers a slight edge the next time you consider their services.

These examples are subjective claims, subject to interpretation. But the slogan British Airways has used since 1983, “The World’s Favourite Airline”, is more factual and would appear to be based on some sort of objective measurement of customer satisfaction. In 1999 Virgin Atlantic tried for the third time to convince the advertising regulatory authorities that this claim is false, by maintaining that BA had won fewer industry awards than Virgin. Both airlines produced customer surveys supporting their own popularity. The Independent Television Commission and the Advertising Standards Authority rejected these as self-selecting and decided that the key factor must be simply the number of international passengers carried. They ruled that BA could continue to use the claim because, according to International Air Transport Association figures, the airline flew 28 million passengers in 1997. (The American carrier Delta Airlines flew three times as many passengers, but as most of these journeys were confined to the continental United States and there is no open access to American skies for international airlines, the regulators discounted it.) As British Airways carried more passengers than other (non-American) airlines, it had to be “the world’s favourite”. There was no proof that the passengers enjoyed the experience, or would not have preferred to fly with another airline had the choice been available. Nevertheless, however flawed the logic, the statement seems credible (particularly to the British), and has formed the basis of a consistent advertising strategy, hewing a line between the majestic and the pompous, for seventeen years. So now it carries even more weight. Consistent repetition of a hyperbolic claim will over time persuade consumers that there must be some truth in it. After all, “they can’t just say anything they like, can they?”

Of course, “they” can. The outright lie contained in the British Airways slogan is based on deliberate semantic confusion, the “Bill Clinton defence”. However, the practice of advertising prevarication does not rely merely on verbal trickery; it is psychologically pervasive. Its tools are exaggeration, oversimplification, appeals to emotional guilt and aspiration, association, and the manufactured “bandwagon” appeal.

At its simplest level, the aspirational approach always shows the dream, not the reality: an advertisement for a dry-slope skiing course doesn’t illustrate its leaflet with a beginner on a green plastic surface on a dull day in Doncaster, but shows a crouching downhill racer on a shimmering alpine snow slope. Advertising is life-enhancing, and like a playful, friendly puppy, that is one of its charms.

Oversimplification is common. Apple Macintosh advertised a new 1996 computer model containing software which “takes the confusion out of the Internet and allows you to enjoy online computing within minutes. No need to . . . No need to . . . No need to . . . You simply launch eWorld, type in a few personal details and you’re away*”. The asterisk referred to a thick wadge of qualifying terms and conditions, including the advice that you will also need to buy a modem.

Advertisers, like speechmakers, take care to associate themselves with “good things” – motherhood, family life, patriotism – while throwing mud at the opposition. Larry Barker, Creative Director of the advertising agency BMP.DDB, offered an insight into the process in his suggestion for creating a hypothetical advertising campaign to marshal public opinion behind the House of Lords, under threat of dismemberment after the accession of the Labour government:


You need to muddy the waters, to try and find things that make the House of Lords seem more libertarian than the Commons and distract people from the current issue . . . There’s a lot of history there, and the English like their history. Do a big emotional number on it: say that it’s part of our heritage and we couldn’t possibly lose it. Hopefully, that will gloss over the fact that they’re a bunch of old decrepit nutters. You could reverse the “thin end of the wedge” thing and say something like: “If we get rid of this, what’s next? The Queen? All the things we hold dear?” You’d be looking to raise the spectre of England as a republic with a president.1


Since concern for the environment has swum into the consumer consciousness many advertisers have gone to great lengths to be seen to be green. A 1993 campaign by the Newspaper Publishers Association extolled the power of the press: “How else can we find out about new products that will improve our lifestyle, our health, our appearance, or our environment?” There is, of course, no product which improves the environment, only some which damage it marginally less than others. Advertisers encourage confusion, inventing definitions which sound legalistic and make objective judgement difficult. Paper products sold in Superdrug, Boots, and Sainsbury’s are variously described as made from “selected waste paper”, “recycled paper”, “low-grade waste”, and “post-consumer waste”. Trivial associations may be expressed in a way which imply a broader benefit. An umbrella selling in Boots in the mid-1990s featured a promotional tag showing a circle of three arrows symbolising recycling. Only the small print explained the reference: “This swing tag contains 80% re-cycled material”. And Tesco’s Nature’s Choice Organic Milk cartons were sold with the promise that “this paper container is made of wood – a re-usable natural resource”. The statement is factually correct, but you can’t recycle cartons which have been coated with wax.

Like lawyers and politicians, good copywriters can distract attention from flaws in an argument by the inclusion of authentic but irrelevant information. A 1999 press advertisement for a credit card, American Express Blue, showed a skier with the headline, “Do piste-taking and get paid for it”. The text explained: “The credit card that gives you 1% back on everything you spend . . . so whatever you do, blue pays you to do more”.

And, massively, advertisers lie by insinuating that they share the same Weltanschauung as the consumer. The consumer is flattered; by recognising his views, which he feels distinguishes him from the general run of humanity, advertisers ingratiate themselves with the consumer. The advertiser has become a friend with a legitimate claim to the consumer’s support at the point of purchase. That was the theory behind the 1980s flood of fashionable “attitude” advertising (see Chapter 17). However, it’s difficult to be convincing, as many ham-fisted advertisers painfully reveal when they aim across the generation gap at an adult’s image of inscrutable youth.

Visual analogies offer more powerful opportunities for hyperbole through a process of contagion. American advertisers, particularly, like to make sure you don’t miss the connection. In a magazine a golden Fabergé egg nestles in a fold of lustrous dark velvet. Beneath it a Lincoln limousine appears against a similar background of blurred motion. The headline is explicit: “Fabergé. What an egg should be. Lincoln. What a luxury car should be”. An advertisement for a sportswear manufacturer associates the brand with the love of nature. A deer prances in the shallows of an unspoiled mountain lake, above the line “Wherever there’s a love of outdoors you’ll find Eddie Bauer”. For extra authenticity, the species of deer and the location of the photograph are specified.

In 1997 the Inland Revenue had to tell UK taxpayers some bad news. From now on they would have to fill in tax forms themselves. The department introduced self-assessment with a campaign using cartoons of cuddly, balding, moustachioed businessmen in bowler hats to represent the hounds of the Inland Revenue Service. By 1999 these cuties were dressing up in silly bee costumes with tiny wings, pot bellies, and bent antennae to convey the cosy message: “Miss the 31st January deadline and you’ll be stung for £100”. Beer brands like to be associated with hard men, and Sheffield is known for steel. So a 1990s TV commercial for Stones Bitter, brewed in that city, began with gritty black-and-white footage of tough, sweating, goggled men labouring in the heat of the furnaces. “Sheffield Gold: when you know you’ve earned it,” says the voice-over. As the British steel industry was now too clean and automated to provide the traditional image, the commercial was filmed in a Czech foundry.

Modern film techniques give free rein to exaggeration. In a commercial for the Solid Fuel Advisory Council, a dog, a cat, and a mouse settle down comfortably before a real coal fire – and kiss. Another featuring a child and a python sharing a hot tub was withdrawn when viewers complained.

Advertising agencies are particularly fond of the technique they call ‘the big brand feel’. And not just because it’s expensive. The sheer visual impact of an advertisement can generate sufficient prestige to enhance the appeal of the brand almost regardless of the message. That’s why agencies recommend large ads in newspapers and like to make films in exotic locations, using big stars, large casts, and sophisticated, expensive computer technology. It’s Goebbel’s basic technique: the bigger the lie, the more it feeds the appetite of the gullible. It means that in the major media, heavy advertisers fight more with money than ideas.

British Airways commercials are typical of the genre. When BA wants to advertise a special offer on reduced fares, it doesn’t just publish a price list of destinations. It launches a campaign which creates a vision of London spectacularly emptied of people. Suburban streets, the West End, and the City are deserted, as in a post-apocalyptic disaster movie. The lone commuter who remains howls “Where is everybody?” from the top of a building. All BA wants to tell you is that you can fly to Rio and back for £299 (under restrictive conditions, which you discover later). But the big film treatment orchestrates the simple price reduction into a momentous occasion. It’s the old “bandwagon” approach, which appeals strongly to deep-rooted insecurity: everyone is doing it, so don’t get left out. Similarly, British Telecom made its 1999 advertising effort to claw back customers from the grasp of price-cutting competitors seem like a mass movement with this superficial and unsubstantiated argument: “Thousands of businesses are coming back to BT every month”.

The populist appeal is often very emotional: the 1970s Coca-Cola campaign promoted peace, love, understanding, and a fizzy beverage with a cast of thousands thronging hilltops and mouthing the words to “I want to teach the world to sing”. The Halifax Building Society 1990s campaign massed cheery folk in various improbable constructions to form an X, and another BA commercial swept in for an aerial view of a happy horde photographed from afar, forming a smiling face. Man is a social animal, and the perspective pioneered by Cecil B. DeMille, a bird’s-eye view of massed populations driven by a single purpose, exerts a powerful emotional appeal. When interpreted by a contemporary Hollywood film director, using the high-technology tools of his trade, stirring music, and a million-pound budget, you can begin to believe that this really must be the world’s favourite drink/building society/airline – and that that matters.

Perhaps the biggest of all the “big-brand feel” commercials was broadcast over fifteen years ago, and it only ran once. As 1984 dawned, a single commercial, directed by Ridley Scott, who made the Hollywood block-buster films Blade Runner and Alien, took over the centre break of America’s Superbowl football telecast. An athletic woman brandishing a sledgehammer raced through a crowd of proletarians to strike a blow at a huge screen, from which an image of Big Brother pontificated. Message: because of Apple Mac, the future was not going to be like George Orwell’s 1984 after all; the individual would triumph over dictatorial corporations such as IBM. The spot was seen by 43 million Americans and the press seethed with publicity before and after the event.

Advertising hyperbole is so insistent that some social observers believe it has numbed our critical faculties:


Few today are able independently to estimate the value of anything without prompting from self-interested sources. Nothing will survive unless inflated by hyperbole and gilded with a fine coat of fraud. The quest for individual social significance is unremitting, and if you’ve not earned it you can affect it by verbal pomposity. When not achieved by euphemism, dignity can be projected, it is thought by quantitative means : “a great dining experience” for a great dinner “a great reading experience” for a good read.2


Yet there is evidence that people no longer “believe everything they see in the papers”. In the United States two psychology professors, Deborah Gruenfeld and Robert Wyer Jr., showed people mock newspaper headlines – obvious statements such as “Black Democrats Supported Jesse Jackson for President in 1988” – and asked them to rate their plausibility. The scores were all quite high. The respondents were then shown contradictory “headlines”, and unsurprisingly, the original belief scores decreased significantly. But when a matched group of respondents, who had also seen the original statements, were then exposed to different headlines confirming the first statement, such as “Black Democrats Presently Support Jesse Jackson for President”, the belief scores still dropped. The researchers concluded that communications reinforcing a previously held belief have almost the same effect as contradictory communications. Why? Because people are natural sceptics. They are able to detect a hidden agenda beneath what is being said. Why is someone telling us over and over that Jesse Jackson has the support of black Democrats? What’s the game?

But like many such psychological studies, that involved only the weakest kind of communication – rational appeals to the intellect – which advertising generally eschews. As the consumer gets more and more acculturated – hip – to advertising devices, a kind of escalating arms race evolves between advertisers and consumers. The latter, even the most poorly educated, gradually “get wise” to the blandishments of the former, who must then invent more novel weapons of deception.

In advertising, as in painting, non-representational techniques are increasingly popular, because they can exaggerate expectations. The astonishing advances in film technology have created new frames of reality. In the animated short films of a generation or so ago, a solemn dog called Droopy used to turn to the audience and explain “in a cartoon film you can do anything you want”. Now live action films make old animation gags seem to come true. These effects first appeared in the products of Hollywood: in an early example Meryl Streep gave a virtuoso performance by revolving her head 360°; in the 1994 film The Mask, an actor’s eyeballs bulged out on stalks, his jaw turned into steps, and a red carpet of tongue rolled out, just as in the old Tom & Jerry cartoons. Soon commercials for a mobile phone were sliding a man’s mouth across his face to demonstrate the disadvantage of phones less well designed ergonomically than their own brand, and AXA Equity & Loan was dramatising investment worries by a sleepless man literally “tied up in knots”, or a woman “getting into a twist”.

Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) takes a realistic photographic image, distorts it in a computer, and reassembles frames, just as cartoon animation changes individual cells, to produce a continuous lifelike action. It is destined to become the ultimate instrument of the Big Lie. Our generation can distinguish between the fantasy of animation and the reality of photography. We are also aware of photographic trickery. And when we see Spielberg’s Tyrannosaurus rex chase after real people, or a film actor’s head expand like a balloon, we know that what we are seeing is not actually happening. Bizarre events can be compared to the reality of experience. But less obvious distortions will be undetectable. For coming generations the distinction between real moving images and imaginative constructs will be forever blurred. You can already make a film without sets, actors or cameras, simply by feeding existing film footage into a computer and tweaking it. It is perfectly possible to get Marilyn Monroe to bed Bill Clinton on television, or Stalin to endorse Stolichnaya vodka. The legal obstacles are trickier than the technology. Once these are settled, truth and myth, past and present, fact and fable all blend in the alchemist’s pot. The consumer needs a new maxim: Caveat Viditor.


Advertisers, like journalists, novelists, priests, and folk you meet in the pub, help us interpret the world. We are sceptical; we know each has his own agenda and we don’t expect literal truth from them. Yet we enjoy the colour and meaning they add to everyday existence. Those who arouse our emotions by telling us the best stories, painting the best pictures, we reward with empathy.

1 The Independent, 28 July 1998.

2 Paul Fussell, BAD, or The Dumbing of America, Summit Books, 1991.


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