On Bullshit

On the surface, it probably seems absolutely appropriate for a site that reviews books relevant to the advertising industry to feature something titled “On Bullshit”. What better for the folks of Madison Avenue, whose fame for slinging it on television, print, radio, the internet and our cell phones is more legendary than all the cowboys and farmers in ten thousand road productions of “Oklahoma!”?

But the surface, as anyone familiar with advertising knows, can be misleading. For Professor Frankfurt’s little book is actually a serious investigation of the nature of lying, deceit, dissembling, mendacity, puffery and humbug. And in the process what may have seemed a silly enterprise digs deep into the nature of what we mean when we bullshit, and what our use of it says about us.

And speaking of “humbug” (because it’s a good place to start) – when Scrooge excoriates his fellow Londoners with the term in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, he is not merely exclaiming randomly in some quaint 19th century manner. Citing Max Black’s “The Prevalence of Humbug”, Professor Frankfurt explains that “humbug” means…

“Deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” (p. 6)

In other words, when old Ebenezer bursts out with “humbug”, he’s not saying “idiots!” or “for crying out loud!”. Instead he’s making a specific assertion about the honesty of the people around him. He’s saying “You’re just pretending these feelings about Christmas. You don’t believe them any more than I do, and yet you have the audacity to accuse me of being cold-hearted. And while you may not literally be lying, you’re doing something dishonest and deceitful nonetheless.” Quite a word, humbug, isn’t it?

Dr. Frankfurt finds similarities between bullshit and humbug and especially seizes upon Black’s words “short of lying” to make the case that while bullshit may not involve the pretentiousness inherent in humbug, it does, like humbug, exist in some weird netherworld between the truth and a lie.

And this is why this book is so important to people who do what we do.

Ultimately Professor Frankfurt’s argument is that bullshit is different from a lie, is “just short of lying”, because a lie is a reaction to the truth, only exists in the context of it (one knows the truth when one lies, one is aware of telling something that is not the truth when telling a lie), while bullshit is absolutely untethered from the truth in a way that a lie is not. The truth may exist, it may not, the bullshitter may or may not know the truth; bullshit has, in a sense, no real relation to the truth. Truth is irrelevant to bullshit.

This is particularly important for advertisers because of where Dr. Frankfurt takes his argument in the last third of the essay. For although bullshit is divorced from truth, he believes that people still desire validation. That in a society where opinions are voiced not in reaction to truth but without concern for it, Americans still seek some legitimizer or authenticator. And their solution?  “Sincerity”. Or said another way, the belief that what I’m saying is valid because I believe it. That if I really believe what I’m saying, if I feel it resonates with me – regardless of whether its true or moral or fair – then it is, in a sense “correct” – whatever the hell that means anymore.

And the importance of that insight lies not only in its accuracy, but in the staggeringly large consequences it has for the culture, and especially for marketers. Because we have always played a sort of game of chicken with truth. How long could we stretch a claim before it snapped, how large could we inflate a declaration before it exploded? Let he who has not polished a headline cast the first stone.

But I believe advertising has – public perception notwithstanding – largely been executed in the context of truth. And if truth is no longer relevant – and I think Professor Frankfurt makes a good case that it is not by his astute analysis of a word which has such wide-ranging usage – if personal “sincerity” is the standard by which all is judged, then what do we do?

For it is one thing to create advertising that looks for new ways to frame a conversation about a particular truth, about something we can agree upon, in order to show one’s product in the best possible light. It’s quite another thing when there’s no truth worth re-framing at all.

On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt was published by Princeton University Press on 01/10/05 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller ( find one here).

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