David Amerland

Why Do Businesses Lie?

When Volkswagen cheated on its nitrogen oxide emissions tests it did what every company that lies does: it took a shortcut.

Shortcuts, by definition, are a shorter path to a desired outcome. When that outcome has a specific value the shortcut represents a lesser expenditure of energy required to get there which, in marketing speak, means maximizing the return on the investment (ROI). As humans we are hardwired to seek shortcuts. 

This is where our evolutionary characteristics find us at odds with what would be the logically smart course of action to take. 

A lie represents a complexity. In order for it to work it requires a knowledge of the truth and a clear intent to deceive. In order for a lie to work we need to have an understanding of the audience’s perceptions and expectations. We then have to meet them sufficiently for the lie to take. This broader vista we need to constantly keep in focus, always has a lot of variables we do not control. All of this requires energy. More energy as matter of fact than simply telling the truth. 

Both the truth and the lie start off on equal footing. Neither holds, in the first instance, any competitive advantage over the other. But with the passage of time truth becomes easier to maintain. It simplifies things. It allows us to achieve more with hardly any effort. This makes it desirable from an energy expenditure point of view. We encode that desirability into socially accepted morality. 

A lie always has a short shelf life. This only increases the pressure experienced when it is initiated. 

Businesses lie because: 

• They look at what they will gain short term as opposed to what they will lose when discovered.

• Management structures frequently keep key personnel in a role for two or three years, before moving them on, allowing them to expect to not be in the “hot seat” when the lie is discovered.

• There is a climate of “succeed at any cost” that encourages the cutting of corners.

• They assume that the complexity of what they are doing is too technical to be discovered (consider the Libor scandal)

• They assume we will not be willing to consider they might be lying to us. 

Businesses lie, in other words, because they can. They feel they can lie because the culture they have set up supports that perception. 

“Being you” in marketing and branding may not sound as entertaining, complex or initially attractive as any marketing campaign that projects an overworked marketing persona and then uses gimmicks to maintain it, but in the long term it’s more sustainable. It also helps foster a closer relationship with its customers. 

The secret of success for any business is simple: loyal customers and increasing market share. No business can hope to succeed without creating relationships that matter. But for that to happen a business needs to be honest with itself, first and then its customers.    

The world is changing. Not overnight and not all at once, but it is changing nevertheless. In my talks to corporate groups, CEOs, VPs and industry leaders I gleam insights of how this change is happening. What evidence exists. Why some things happen and not others and how we can best take advantage of it all to do better. In Observations I catalogue it all. Brief, to the point and open to discussion. 


© 2019 David Amerland. All rights reserved