May 4, 2022

Everybody Lies

 

  First, let me say I'm aware that I make things up for a living, so writing about lying is a little hypocritical. But I don't pretend that what I say is real, and that's the difference. Everyone in our society is bombarded with lies all day, every day. We're used to it. Sometimes we even enjoy it.

When analysts dig into why people believe lies, they find all sorts of explanations. Confirmation bias means we like things that reinforce what we already believe, so we accept lies that help with that. Many like leaders or organizations that tell them what to think, so they don't have to reason things out for themselves. If that leader lies, at least he's tough. If the organization runs to propaganda, at least it's working for "our" benefit. Another big reason we believe lies is fear. If we don't think we can cope with X, we like it when someone promises that X won't happen, even if we know in our hearts that it isn't true. Conversely, if the leader/organization says X will happen if he/it isn't in control, or if we're told the problem doesn't really exist, we want to believe that too. Life is less scary that way.

There are other theories about why we believe lies, but you get the idea. All sorts of psychological factors figure in. But here's an idea I haven't seen discussed before. What if we believe lies because we expect them? From the first day we can understand language, we're lied to. It's called advertising, and it's a billion-dollar industry. Advertising is expected and even respected as a necessary tool of business. Soft lies and hard lies, ads are built on convincing us something is true that probably isn't.

You're a consumer. It's your job to figure out what they're trying to do to your head.

Recognize the (sometimes subtle) messaging. "Is it true blonds have more fun?" a slogan from the olden days, played on women's desire to be attractive. Ads hint that you'll have more friends or be more admired if you buy this car or drink this vodka. The reverse is also true. They hint that NOT using a product will devastate your social life: bad breath, stinky pits, frizzy hair...the list of social "sins" is endless, and we rush out to buy products to "protect" us from ostracism.

Look past the hype. How likely is it that Pillow X is the best in the world? How much do you really care about which beer you drink? Do you really need that phone plan with bells and whistles you'll probably never use?

Note the background imaging. It's no mistake that while the drug company spokesperson is reading you that looooooong list of possible side effects, there are people on the screen doing fun things with family and friends in peaceful, scenic settings. It's called distraction.

Reject endorsements. Advertisers can always find someone who'll endorse a product if the money's right. I get very angry when celebrities push products, and my husband gets tired of me shouting "Whore!" at the TV.  How much would you bet that Actor X doesn't know jack about reverse mortgages? And if his old car broke down, wouldn't Rapper Y simply get a new, flashier one?

Note the wording. "Nine out of ten doctors surveyed would recommend this product." How many doctors actually answered their survey? Were they given some incentive to respond positively? How was the question worded? As Mark Twain said, "Gather your statistics, and then distort them as much as you please."

If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Recently, a friend slapped her midsection and told me, "I gotta get rid of this, so I ordered some pills I saw on TV. You take one every night, and they dissolve your belly fat." Sometimes we want to believe so badly, it takes almost no effort to persuade us. But take a moment before you order the exercise machine the people on the screen seem to be enjoying so darned much. Picture yourself using it for even half an hour every day, for months. Is that ever going to happen? (Hint: For the vast majority of us, the answer is no.)

What does all this have to do with lies we're told outside the world of advertising? All our lives, we've been bombarded with advertising that lies to us, so we expect lies in other spheres. I hear people dismiss political discourse with, "They're all liars." It's become an excuse to turn our backs and not listen, not analyze, not vote. But in the face of politicians' lies (sometimes attributable to hyperbole or exaggeration or even wishful thinking), our job is to dissect what's said and separate what's true from what's false, what's possible from what's improbable. 

We've all fallen prey to advertisers' lies and bought products that didn't deliver. If we became wiser about how we spend our money, that's a good result. It follows then, that if everybody in our political system lies, our job is to look past the hype and find who has real value and who is all smoke and mirrors.

You're a citizen. It's your job to figure out what they're trying to do to your head.

 


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