The Age of Pub-Lishing: Can Brands Rebuild Trust Through Truth?

Peder Severin Kroyer - Interior of a Tavern (1886)

Peder Severin Kroyer - Interior of a Tavern (1886)

There has been a good deal of soul searching of late around echo chambers and ‘filter bubbles’, the demise of expertise and the death of truth. The Facebook algorithm makes our social media presence a Hall of Mirrors, endlessly reflecting back to us our own sentiments and sensibilities. Our information comes from a broader variety of sources, but expresses a narrower range of views. We’re only reading the news we want to read; seeing the perspectives we want to see. Reports go unchallenged; opinions go unsubstantiated; statistics are used selectively; data is interpreted liberally; experts are no longer trusted; facts are no longer checked. Provocation, understanding and truth lie before us on the floor bleeding.

It’s an era when opinions voiced with the directness, candour and bias of a pub conversation are given the breadth of distribution and authority of traditional publishing. It’s the Age of Pub-Lishing, when we have blurred the distinction between pub-talk and publishing; between private and public. And therein lies a societal challenge. On the one hand, we want to sustain free speech and the rights of individuals to express themselves; on the other hand, we want published material to be factually accurate, decent and respectful of privacy.

So how should the world of brands and marketing respond to this new environment?

Well this ought to be an area where brands can help. Because they’ve been here before. In their earliest days brands operated in commercial contexts cursed by charlatans, sharks and snake oil salesmen. Indeed back then brands built their reputations and success on consistency, reliability and responsibility. ‘It’s the same as the one I bought last time.’ ‘I can depend on what it says about itself.’ ‘I have legal recourse if anything goes wrong.’ From the outset brands were sources of trust.

I once visited the archives of one of our oldest high street banks and was struck by the dusty, leather-bound ledger books from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. On page after page of elegant script, bank officials had certified that ‘Mr or Mrs Smith is good for £x of credit’; and Mr or Mrs Smith had signed their name, or in some instances made their mark, to indicate assent. The ledgers were testament to the fact that banking specifically, and business in general, is fundamentally an act of trust. Indeed the word ‘credit’ derives from the Latin ‘credo’: ‘I believe; I trust.’

In the modern era we may have taken for granted this primary role of brands as ‘trustmarks’. Increasingly we have asked brands to do more interesting things: to suggest and symbolise attitudes and associations; to represent and reflect lifestyles and values. And to achieve these ends, brands have often dealt in artifice and aspiration, dreams and desires. They have on occasion been cavalier with the truth.

Meanwhile we have watched our long-term brand trust scores deteriorate and wondered how we can ever reverse the decline.

Of course, we spend a good deal of time nowadays seeking to define the Purpose of our brands. What might be the broader societal value of our commercial enterprise? Why are we here? Often we come up with quite high-minded expressions of our reason for existence. We want to give people the power to share, to enhance global happiness, to nurture the human spirit. We want to save the babies… Perhaps we should consider more modest, and yet more pertinent, articulations of our brands’ public roles and responsibilities.

Nowadays trust, expertise, knowledge, fact and insight are rare commodities, precious cargo. Commentators talk freely about the world being ’post truth.’ Surely in this environment brands would be doing a considerable social good if they were just consistently honest, decent and true; if they brought simplicity to the complex, confidence to the uncertain; if they delivered insight and intelligence to the intimidating and new. In short, in an era of fear, uncertainty and doubt, brands can re-earn trust through truth.

So if you’re really committed to your brand having a higher social Purpose, why not begin with the fundamentals? Don’t aim at mystification; aim at illumination. Don’t seek to add value; seek to reveal it. Don’t shout about lifestyle; amplify truth.

And when you’ve done that, then maybe your brand can start delivering some of the provocation and challenge that our self-selecting social media diets no longer provide. That would be doing us all a service.

No. 109

Sometimes Truth Is Out-Of-Focus

'What is focus - and who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?'
Julia Margaret Cameron

It’s two hundred years since the birth of the experimental photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and there are two exhibitions in London celebrating her work. (The V&A until 21 February; The Science Museum until 31 March)

Although Cameron came to photography late in life (she first took up a camera at the age of 48), she was a pioneer in the understanding of photography as an art form. Most of the early enthusiasts regarded photography as a science that should concern itself with accuracy and precision. Cameron aimed to ‘record the greatness of the inner as well as the outer man.’

Certainly many of Cameron’s portraits have an intimacy that still resonates today. She shot in profile or face-on, making astute use of lighting and shadow. Her sitters have a stillness, a seriousness, that suggest the private, individual, interior life. It’s as if she’s caught them on their own in a room looking in the mirror.

Cameron came in for a good deal of criticism from the Victorian photographic establishment for the perceived ‘mistakes’ in her work. There were blotches and swirls resulting from the uneven application of chemicals and smearing when the plates were wet. And many of Cameron’s images were slightly out-of-focus.

Mrs Herbert Duckworth

‘What in the name of all the nitrate of silver that ever turned white into black have these pictures in common with good photography? Smudged, torn, dirty, undefined and in some cases almost unreadable, there is hardly one of them that ought not to have been washed off the plate as soon as its image had appeared.’
The Photographic News

Cameron believed that her technically flawed images conveyed greater emotion, truth and impact. And some of the more enlightened critics of the time agreed.

‘Mrs Cameron was the first person who had the wit to see her mistakes were her successes and henceforward to make her portraits systematically out-of-focus.’
Macmillan Magazine

The state of being in-focus is of course a technical matter. But it is also something that is socially determined; something that is felt.

In a fabulous scene from Woody Allen’s 1997 movie, Deconstructing Harry, a camera crew is having problems shooting the actor Mel, played by Robin Williams. After inspecting their lenses, they conclude that there’s nothing wrong with their equipment. It’s Mel that is out-of-focus.

‘Mel, I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’re soft. You’re out-of-focus…I want you to go home; and want you to get some rest. See if you can just sharpen up.

I have a lot of sympathy for Mel. Sometimes we just don’t seem to be in tune with everyone else. We’re out of step, misaligned. Sometimes we feel out-of-focus.

Could the communications and marketing industries learn from Julia Margaret Cameron? Would we ever willingly seek to be out-of-focus?

We are for the most part cursed by an obsession with polish and perfection. But this very finesse may diminish our ability to communicate authenticity, integrity and emotion. Conveying truth is not the same as conveying fact. Facts are hard, precise, unyielding. Truth is a matter for intuition, interpretation and imagination.

We could also learn from Julia a singularity of purpose, a determination in the face of critical pressure.

My mother was a keen amateur painter. She worked in oils using a palette knife, a method taught by the TV artist Nancy Kominsky (Paint Along with Nancy was a big deal in the UK in the 1970s). I once came across her painting a series of seagulls on a rock. There were four or five of them all in a line, pointing in the same direction. It looked to me as if they were queueing for a bus. I told mum that this wouldn’t happen in nature; that things are less regimented in real life. She told me she didn’t care. This was the picture she wanted to paint.

No. 65