Powerful liars

Product Marketing is all about presenting the benefits of the product to the intended user. We do so as positively as possible: we want the product to sell. So we emphasise those benefits, play down the negatives. Particularly when marketing new products, perhaps ones that have yet to come to market, the line between fact and fiction can become a little blurred.

Some companies undeniably step straight over that line and lie. That poses all sorts of problems for the rest of us, either as marketers in the same market or simply as consumers. How can we spot that they’ve crossed it? How can we differentiate good product marketing from big, fat, porky marketing?

Professor Dana Carney, assistant professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business conducted research into lying using two groups of people: bosses and employees. As reported in the HBR this month, they were asked (by a computer) to steal a $100 bill and told that if they could convince an interviewer that they had not taken it: keep it. Professor Carney measured speed of speech, shoulder shrugs, the level of stress hormone in their saliva, how hard they press their lips together and how much their pupils dilate.

It is those shrugs, lips, pupils, speech patterns that we use to judge whether to believe someone or not.
The results were pretty conclusive. For example, a lying “high-power” person would shrug their shoulders on average 1.4 times during the interview, nearly the same as those who were telling the truth. By comparison, a lying low-power person would shrug an average of 4.3 times.

Just taking a “high-power pose”: feet on the desk, leaning back in a big chair, hands behind your head, was enough to raise levels of testosterone and lower that stress hormone, so making lying easier to conceal.

So, as Prof. Carney told HBR: “That guy at the head of the table running your meeting … he’s going to take risks. He won’t feel as bad about lying as you, and you’re going to have real hard time telling when he is.”

My question is: is the same true of organisations?

Presumably the bosses of really powerful organisations feel really powerful themselves and so are going to be really good liars. Might this empowerment infect the lower ranks, and in particular those who communicate with the market? When an organisation comes to putting together its product marketing, or its IPO marketing come to that, if they are tempted to do a little obfuscation and exaggeration, are they going to be able to conceal it well?

If that happens, what might we expect to see when they are lying? Are there analogies for those shrugs, lips, pupils and speech patterns?

Maybe too much noise from the PR department. Maybe too formal a language, a refusal to communicate personally, to take responsibility for what you are saying. Any of these could offer us clues, but if Prof. Carney is right, those powerful organisations are going to be just too good at lying for us to spot it.

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