Pemberton & Whitefoord Partner, Adrian Whitefoord, reflects on when lying, or bending the truth, becomes an acceptable creative tool.
"As a long-standing devotee of National Geographic, I confess to a childish sense of anticipation each month when I pluck it from its envelope and rifle through its pages, making a mental note as to which order I will devour the content. After a tasty entrée of adverts for zoom lenses, divers watches and binoculars, I get down to the main course, the articles themselves. Rarely am I disappointed, in-fact this month my mouth was watering before even cracking the spine. The front cover had me, with “Why We Lie”. The title gave pause for thought; the reason why I like this magazine so much is that it talks to me directly in a language that is highly palatable.
I believe in it.
Recent UK political events seem to have culminated in the general public being served an unappetising set menu: baloney for starters, a main of pork pies followed by a hearty portion of fudge. Sadly, those responsible for dishing it up are either in a position of power or seek to be.
Dishonesty invariably gets found out, but often not before damage is done. This can certainly be the case in the design industry. But why should we concern ourselves with ‘Why We Lie’ and how does our attitude to lying populate our profession?
Every time we pick up a brief, an obligation passes between designer and client. We are entrusted with the future well being of a product, service or brand. We enter a virtual contract in a bond of trust.
If integrity is essential, misrepresentation unacceptable and lying utterly unthinkable, why is it so commonplace?
The statistics in the National Geographic article make for sobering reading. Apparently most of us lie at least once or twice a day. A whopping 31% are told for personal or financial benefit and 22% are due to personal transgression. However, 5% of lies are intended to help people and 2% of lies are to avoid rudeness. So lying is not all bad… just the vast majority of it!
When does lying, or bending the truth, become an acceptable creative tool? In essence, when we are ‘in on it’. Nobody believes that when they open a pack of McVities Digestives, a kitten will emerge; we accept the fib because it is amusing and cute. However, when we purchased a bottle of Dasani ‘purified water’ (from Coca -Cola) and tap water emerges, the ‘fib’ is a deception. We are not ‘in on it’ and it is decidedly unacceptable.
Classical art is not averse to bending the truth (not without consequences). Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait of Anne of Cleves hoodwinked Henry VIII into a doomed marriage, which was never consummated. Many are the Lords, Ladies, heads of state and monarchs that have fraudulently harnessed the medium of portraiture to enhance status or prowess.
The principles behind the Surrealist movement were based on visual lies or inappropriate juxtaposition, often in the guise of ‘denial of function’. Think of Man Ray’s ‘Gift’ and Rene Magritte’s ‘Ceci n‘est pas une pipe’. Surrealism is inherent in modern advertising and we have become slightly anaesthetised to its effects. No one today would bat an eyelid at Marcel Duchamp’s moustached Mona Lisa but at the time it caused outrage. Perhaps we forget how potent these anti-establishment lies were when first conceived.
The ASA (Advertising Standards Association) is currently running a powerful radio campaign, stating that any ad that is found to misrepresent, will be banned outright or removed from the air if it leads to offence. The ASA is a renowned self regulated, respected body that provides essential quality control for the advertising industry. Yet its website states: “products and their packaging…are generally excluded from the Scope of the Code.” Shouldn’t consumers with grievances in the realms of design, have access to a comparably familiar body, especially now that the Office of Fair Trading is no more?
An item of packaging is capable of instilling an element of trust in a product and while it is perfectly acceptable to portray it in its best light, it would be unethical to project virtues that the product does not deliver and to mislead via spurious claims or inaccurate imagery. The same is true of a corporate identity when relating to a company service. Restraint and a commitment to honest representation should be applied by the design industry itself, long before legal boundaries are breached.
We live in a world of misinformation, disinformation, fake news and cyber fraud. We have at our fingertips the communication tools to create and educate or spread discontent and chaos with equal impunity.
Let’s bin the baloney, pork pies and fudge and try to pursue a healthier diet.
Design, at its best, represents counter-chaos. It builds, communicates, informs, enhances and creates structure. It tells the truth.