How to combat fake news by giving your brand a ‘totally authentic’ and ‘utterly un-boring’ voice

Jon Goulding, CEO of Atomic London.

Jon Goulding, CEO of Atomic London.

It’s a brave or maybe even delusional person who thinks they have the answer to the problem of ‘fake news’, writes Jon Goulding of Atomic London, a creative ad agency that has worked on campaigns for the likes of Unilever, the Royal Opera House and Madame Tussauds.  

The proliferation of misinformation and disinformation in recent years is now an accepted part of digital life. And it has spilled over catastrophically into the world of the real, so that even in times of extreme political uncertainty, with the lives of millions potentially affected, politicians feel emboldened to play fast and loose with the truth.

During the televised leaders’ debate, CCHQ briefly rebranded as ‘Factcheck UK’, persuading many that what was effectively a government account was actually an independent fact-checking body.

‘Fake news’ laws created in other countries have begun to resemble tools for restricting press freedom. And the New Scientist reports that people share fake news online even when they know it isn’t true.

Clearly, the situation is a difficult one. And solutions often become part of the problem. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and even basic psychology can supply us with clues as to how to address the ‘fake news’ trend.

Think, for example, about why people lie. There’s desire to feel important, evasion of responsibility. But all children work out very early in their lives that lying is an effective way, mainly, to get attention. The bigger the lie, in most cases, the more attention you can be confident of getting (and often, paradoxically, the less likely you are to be called out).

And this lies at the centre of the ‘fake news’ phenomenon. Put public morality to one side for the moment: ultimately, fake news is about being seen and heard.

A trend like this is insidious partly because it seems to punish honesty.

‘We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead’ is objectively more attention-grabbing than ‘Roughly speaking, we send the EU about £250 million a week, but the economic impact from leaving the EU is likely to be far larger than any savings we might make from no longer having to pay this membership fee, so, if anything, the NHS will struggle more, not less.’

Politicians, in future if not already, will have to lie just to be heard so long as others do. It’s a truism that it’s far easier for one person to corrupt an entire team or community than for one person to bring everyone up a notch.

But peddlers of untruths don’t have a monopoly on attention.

From a creative communications agency perspective, great creative work, continues to attract the attention it deserves.

And if you subscribe to the idea that individuals and brands all have something exceptional about them — even if they don’t realise it — then surely in life and in the communications business, a policy of total authenticity combined with a commitment never ever to be boring begins to sound like something of a better solution.

Take Virgin. They don’t mind upsetting people. In fact when they arrived on the scene nearly 50 years ago, they went straight for British Airways and have been happy to play the villain ever since.

They’re unapologetic. They’re unashamed. They’re indisputably authentic and rarely boring. Even now, they cause disruption and do so in a true-to-Virgin way. And their founder is a reflection of the brand that is also a reflection of him.

This — being authentic but not dull — is easier said than done, of course. And it’s only a solution, from the perspective of an advertiser, rather than the solution to a problem that is partly to do with technology, partly to do with politics, partly to do with morality, and much more besides.

But at a time when the public is actively seeking out honest brands, there is an enormous commercial incentive to find an authentic way to compete with the misinformation all around us.

Those who find a way might just benefit enormously — and begin to reverse a worrying trend as well.

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