The art of deception


VIEW: The art of deception —Andleeb Abbas

The fight for market share makes organisations look at more and more ways of impressing upon customers what they do not have and what they ought to have. In order to convince the customer, they actually take him into a world of fantasy

There is a fine line between explanation, exaggeration and deception. Many times, knowingly or unknowingly, we cross the line. As individuals, organisations and leaders, sustainable success depends on how much you deliver on what you promise. However, in today’s world, words rather than deeds are the focus of attention. The ability to create an image is indeed a strength, but the inability to back that image with substance is surely the path to eventual doom. However, in a world where speed and quick response is the name of the game, who cares about the long run? This has created a short cut culture where the immense pressure of professionally being a slave to targets and personally living up to the Jones’ has left no time for people and organisations to think about the direction in which their life and work are heading. Thus, when they do stop to think about what they are doing, they find emptiness within, which gnaws at them incessantly and makes them another bitter and discontented member of society.

Organisations today are increasingly competing in a globally cutthroat market place. They are constantly haunted by the ever-increasing requirement to cut costs and increase revenues. The fight for market share makes them look at more and more ways of impressing upon customers what they do not have and what they ought to have. In order to convince the customer that their product is the only one that can give them what they have dreamed of, they actually take the customer into a world of fantasy through their luring advertising and alluring services. Customers get so fascinated by the image of a soap turning their skin flawless and a car making their appeal irresistible that in the hope of getting these results, they fall prey to buying these products and services only to find reality biting them out of the fantasy.

In a country like Pakistan where the literacy rate is low, the power of the media has an almost spellbinding effect. Flashy advertisements with lofty claims somehow capture the imagination of an unexposed public, making it easier for organisations to better their numbers. The other license for an organisation’s liberty to make unfounded claims is the absence of a system of accountability that can encourage even an aware consumer to persecute wrongdoers and encourage consumers to take on any claims that have crossed the fine line between exaggeration and absolute deception. The existence of a consumer court where such cases are presented is no guarantee of being able to get speedy and effective justice.

The recent curtailment of a misleading advertisement by a packaging company by the Competition Commission of Pakistan (CCP) is a good step in this direction. The advertisement, showing the ineffectiveness of boiling milk, in an attempt to encourage the buying of packaged milk, can have a discouraging effect on the public’s desire to boil milk and get rid of the main bacteria. Such steps, if taken with consistency, can make organisations careful of such carefree indulgence in the realm of unauthenticated fantasies.

Many organisations have perfected the art of making the untrue look like the truth. They use statistical facts and figures to prove their claims. Statistics, as they say, can be legalised misrepresentation. Statistics talk of averages and research is dependent upon sample studies of the population. The element of bias and twisting the facts depends on the intention of the researcher. Methods of drawing the sample as well as phrasing of questions can give two diametrically opposing pictures of the same study. This is why we have the most amazing and sometimes unbelievable findings coming out of these studies.

In less developed countries, a lack of awareness encourages manufacturers to claim anything and everything under the sun and get away with it. Cooking oil companies can merrily have low cholesterol written on their packaging and promotions. Cosmetics can boast about how your complexion, face and life can change with a few applications of a certain cream. A certain brand of car can pull you into the belief that the sex appeal of the car can act as magnetic attraction to the opposite sex. The possibilities are endless.

However, in the more developed world with a more sophisticated consumer base, organisations have to be more factual and careful. That is where the statistical jugglery takes place. These organisations do not make claims in their advertisements but get independent research done and then, through various so-called ‘independent’ experts, publish these findings in relevant journals to increase the credibility of the research. A recent article published in a journal claimed that chocolate actually reduces teeth cavities. This finding they substantiated by picking a sample of children of a certain age and observing their chocolate eating habits and then deducing that those who ate more chocolate actually had less cavities. How representative the sample was and how controlled the environment was is nobody’s business. As long as you have a fancy expert name behind these facts, everything sells.

While the plethora of information has really made the knowledge economy inevitable, the interpretation of information and the choice of action based on this information still lies in the choices made by the human mind. The human mind, beset with the pressures of delivering immediate results, often overlooks the long-term impact and tries to find a short cut to temporarily seduce people into the make-believe of fantasies becoming reality. However, in the long run when claims and promises turn out to be shallow chants, the bubble bursts leaving behind it a credibility gap that becomes a fertile ground for distrust and disillusionment instead of sustainable results. The need of the hour is to go back to the basic principles and values of doing what you say and saying what you do. This needs strength of mind and character that, perhaps, is the rarest commodity in today’s whirlwind world of get more for less.

The writer is a consultant and can be reached at andleeb@franklincoveysouthasia.com

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