Is Burger King’s trouble really a whopper?
In a few years, when historians chronicle our era, the phrase “fake news” may have a place in their writings. If it’s not the most repeated phrase in recent years, rivaling “You’re dumb,” it is one of them. The phrase certainly put pressure on “truth,” a once immutable concept.
And if you go even further back in history, the principle of “caveat emptor” or “buyer beware” as a legal principle predates yellow journalism by at least a few hundred years. We might think disinformation is a new trend, but didn’t a manipulative vertebrate fool Adam and Eve many years ago?
Nevertheless, authenticity and transparency are well known hallmarks of PR. They are critical to success in customer service, employee and media relations, and reputation.
Honesty Day and the Truth
Last year to mark Honesty Day (April 29), veteran PR pros welcomed the truth. “Truth is that just Public relations that endure,” Michael Smart told us. kglobal’s Daniel Rene said, “Those of us who have decided to pursue a career in public relations know that if we don’t tell the truth, we can’t exist.” And Chris Hamilton, SVP, Media Relations, at Current Global, added, “In media relations … honesty must be the most important currency for any company, brand or company.”
However, some PR pros apply a caveat — there’s that C-word again — when mentioning authenticity and transparency, especially during a PR crisis. Be as transparent and authentic as possible, communicators will say. In short, the truth has degrees for some.
For example, we know that part of the PR job is to highlight the best aspects of products and services. Omission of the negatives is permissible in most sectors except highly regulated ones. where messaging is supervised. On the other hand, some companies get away with it and/or it takes years to prove guilt.
How far can we stretch the truth?
For PR, marketing and advertising, what is a reasonable amount of facts before they are considered lies? For example, how many products and companies describe themselves as “industry leaders”? A lot. They all can’t be and everyone knows it. Is that a lie, or do we accept a fair amount of fudge as acceptable?
In fact, one of the first things children are taught in elementary school when the concept of advertising is introduced is how to manipulate images.
For example, this ad featuring a shiny, juicy holiday turkey isn’t what it appears to be. The bird’s skin looks particularly shiny and delicious in this TV commercial. But you wouldn’t want to eat it, our teachers tell us, because it’s coated in the same shellac that gives wood a rich, brownish hue. So, as children, we learn that not everything is what it seems.
As adults, we know that truth has degrees. When we see the straight razor commercials, we know they’re not going to produce as close a shave as everyone wants touch your skin.
Even one white lie is too much
Of course, this is where the sloping slope argument comes up. One little lie leads to more, bigger lies.
Remember the 2018 uproar when Hope Hicks allegedly admitted that PR requires little white lies? More recently, few in the West appreciated Russian officials, who described their February 24 entry into Ukraine as “special military operation‘ instead of an invasion. Of course, the US never fought the Korean War. It was officially like that a police action.”
One place where truth stretching can become very dangerous is in the food sector, shell-on turkeys notwithstanding. In fact, we’re figuring out the difference between lying and reasonable stretching of truth through food. And it could add up to a couple of inches.
It’s good to be the king?
A group of plaintiffs is Sue Burger King, who claims his Whopper ads are fake. The Whopper isn’t as big as it appears in the advert, it says in court documents, filed March 28 in Florida. Also, Burger King told the big lie (no, not This one) since 2017, the class action lawsuit alleges. Also, almost every item on the menu is falsely advertised, they claim.
Perhaps what’s special about this suit is the timing. Part of the complaint notes that ads claiming a whopper is so big it falls over the side of a bun are particularly unfair when food prices are inflated. The suit claims the Whopper looks 35 percent larger in advertisements than it does in person.
But doesn’t Burger King’s stretch match the turkey ad example above? Again nobody really believes The whopper is as big as advertised, right?
Perhaps the point is that any truth-telling in food advertising is unacceptable. The UK, a country that knows its kings and queens, sued BK in 2010 for making misleading statements about its Chicken burger size.
And remember Subway’s embarrassment when it admitted in 2015 that its foot-long, six-inch subs weren’t quite as long as they claimed. By settlement of a class action lawsuit, now Subway measures subs regularly. Interestingly, prior to this case, Subway’s training manual noted that his bread wasn’t always quite 12 or 6 inches long, and that was fine.
It is clear that the truth in PR must be as strict as it is in some parts of the food sector.