Service Is Our Business chapter 6
CONFIDENCE in business is founded on fact and exact statement. Millions upon millions of statements are made every day in all sorts of business situations and by every possible medium of communication. Each occasion is a test of the good faith that relates the individual’s integrity to the general prosperity. Of all such occasions, advertising is responsible for the greatest number of statements with the most continuous impact on public confidence. The vast sums spent for advertising—billions of dollars a year in the United States alone—are easily justified by increased volume of sales and consequent employment. More important than costs, however, is the challenge contained in the question that should be applied rigorously by every advertiser to his “copy”: Is it the truth?
From time to time, a voice is heard crying in the wilderness that there is still adequate selling-power in honest, straightforward advertising. The average man has more common-sense and better taste than the advertiser often credits him with having. People may succumb to the oft-repeated lie, but slanted statements eventually produce in them apathy and disillusionment. There is a resentful feeling that they are being pushed around. They want desperately to know “what is going on.” They are hungry for the truth.
How such feelings may affect the response to advertising was dramatically illustrated in a story told originally in a trade publication and well-known to advertising men. The advertising manager of a department store in Iowa was ill, and his new assistant was doing his best to keep things going. The proprietor, noted for his bluntness of speech, walked into the office.
“Young man,” he said, “I want you to stir up some interest in the water-proof garment department. The fact is, we have a lot of raincoats that we’ve got to get rid of. They are shopworn and some of them are cracked, and we’re offering them for little or nothing. Now we’ve got to get the people to buy them. There are some good ones in the lot, but if we can’t sell them, we might as well dump them in the river.”
The young man assured the “boss” that he knew exactly how to do it. The next morning the storm broke when the merchant opened his paper to read the store’s advertisement for the day. There they were —his own words in bold-face type across the page.
“To tell the truth we have a lot of raincoats we’ve got to get rid of. They are shopworn and some of them are cracked. We are offering them for little or nothing.”
Down went his fist on the table, rattling the dishes, and spilling the coffee.
He read on: “There are some good ones in the lot, but it we can’t sell them, we might as well dump them in the river.”
Arriving at the store, still fuming, the merchant headed for the advertising office. His partner met him on the way and asked, “Have you heard about the raincoats?”
“Have I? I’m on my way to kick that fool out!”
“Then you haven’t heard’,’ remarked his partner. “We couldn’t handle the crowd. Every raincoat we advertised was sold thirty minutes after we opened. That advertisement was a wonder. Seemed to please people by its absolute frankness.”
The chance remark of an attorney in an American courtroom had wide repercussions. It ignited the spark of a great movement. Brushing off a charge of inaccuracy, he was heard to say: “Why of course all advertising is exaggerated. Nobody really believes it.”
The utter absurdity of this statement impressed a listener in the courtroom. If nobody really believes it, what’s the use of advertising? Yet, every exaggeration or distortion of tact does indeed tend to destroy confidence not only in the advertisement but in all advertising and all business. The millions of dollars spent in advertising are wasted if nobody believes it. So began a long and successful campaign for truth in advertising that led eventually to the Better Business Bureau with its organized effort to unmask fraud and deception.
Truth is the primary purpose of the Better Business Bureau. Truth is its weapon. The local branches of the bureau do not prosecute the swindler or the deceptive advertiser. They merely expose him. Investigation-analysis—publicity—is the sequence which brings truth to light, and forces him to desist or retract publicly. Extensive records are kept by the bureaus for the protection of investors, customers, and newspapers who might be involved. Through these powerful means, Better Business Bureaus in nearly a hundred cities of the United States are .protecting the reputation of legitimate business and helping to sustain the credibility of all advertising. Many Rotary clubs have helped to bring them into existence. Many Rotarians are active as managers or as members of their local boards.
Volumes would be required to catalogue the. tricks—some crude, some subtle—through which advertising deviates from the truth. One common kind of deception was illustrated in the radio program of the American comedians, Amos and Andy. Exultantly, Andy brought home a fraudulent insurance policy, impressive with its gold seal and blue ribbon. It promised a thousand dollars to his heirs. Amos examined the policy carefully, and then remarked sadly: “It’s no good, Andy. The big type gives it to you; and the little type takes it away.”
Business men whose behavior in their personal transactions is above suspicion succumb sometimes to a sort of poetic or artistic license when it comes to approving advertisements. Only a constant zeal for truth can make them alert to discern possible deviations. The following questions may help Rotarians to detect some of the misleading devices that creep into advertisements:
Is the format of the advertisement used to underplay important, but less attractive aspects, of the business offer?
Do pictures or descriptive phrases used, give an objective description of the article?
Are terms like “scientific proof;’ “cold facts’,’ “inside figures” used to bolster loose statements?
Are testimonials by celebrities in other fields honest evidence of technical superiority?
Should paid testimonials be used?
Do comparative statements such as “formerly $10” or “up to $100 values” describe exactly the reduction in prices of individual articles that has occurred?
Is every person concerned with issuing the advertisement thoroughly aware of his responsibility to the whole public?
The responsibility of advertising is to inform the customer so that he may purchase more intelligently. This purpose is not accomplished by claims or implications that the advertiser is underselling his competitors. Such aspersions are as unfair in respect of competitor relations as they are generally inaccurate and misleading.
They cannot always be exposed, however, as readily as was the salesman who boasted that “our paint is used on eighty per cent of the cars in America.”
Impatiently the buyer interrupted him: “Your rival says in his catalogue that his paint is used on seventy per cent.”
“What did I tell you?” retorted the salesman. “We’ve got him beat by ten per cent.”
Comparisons are stupid as well as odious if they distract attention from the merits of the product advertised. Yet, how often this happens. Two well-known department stores condescended to berate each other recently over the merits of a new style of fountain pen. One store advertised that it had been the “first in the world” with the great invention. The other swung back: “Do you own a horse and buggy model?” Next week, the reply came: “When Johnny-come-lately tries to put Johnny-on-the-spot on the spot, what happens?” All very clever and amusing, but hardly encouraging to the customer, whose confidence in the product ebbed with the rising tide of competing recriminations.
Of course, there is no way of drawing up a balance-sheet to show the losses to advertisers as a whole that result from misleading advertisements. The incident of the shopworn raincoats was a parable—even though it actually occurred. The misleading advertiser may trade for a while on the confidence created by others, but his reputation is likely to suffer more than theirs, so that in the end it will not pay him to advertise at all. Indeed, there is evidence that in actual practice crooked business shuns publicity of any kind.
But advertising after all is only one phase of business -an echo which translates into public expression the pitch of integrity attained in plant and office and other departments. The echo rebounds from one department to another. A concern which tries to tool others is likely to end by tooling itself. If the advertisement is untrustworthy, what can be expected of the salesman’s expense account or the stockroom inventory? If the pitch is false throughout, it can mean ruin.
Many business men have realized the critical importance of integrity throughout their organizations by making this question, “Is it the truth?” – a test for every decision and transaction in their business. They have instructed every employee to use it habitually. They have not allowed the shitting sands of fashion nor the clamor of competition to divert them from the need for plain facts and exact statements in every business relationship. They know that it pays to be truthful. Nor are they disturbed in this conviction by the play of subtle minds. “”What is truth?” said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer. The answer is clear enough, for it is not honest error, but deliberate misstatement and misrepresentation, that destroy confidence.
It is told of Socrates that one day when he was bathing, a young man came to him and said, “Master, I have traveled a long distance to see you. Will you teach me what is Truth?”
Socrates invited him into the water; then put his head under and held it there until the young man struggled and gasped for breath. When he indignantly demanded to know the reason for such treatment, Socrates replied: “When you want Truth as much as you wanted air just now, you will find it.”
A passion for truth in every detail and every aspect of the daily round in business or profession can only be cultivated slowly and methodically. Yet how much the business or profession will benefit from it! Once the subterfuges and misrepresentations are swept ruthlessly away, good faith and confidence will lay open the path to greater service.
How could your club help to improve the standards of advertising in its trading area?