True but Misleading

By Nat Eliason in Marketing

Published or Updated on Jan 09, 2017

In March of 2015, I became a best-selling author.

Hearing just that, what all did you assume? Maybe that I had a book published, it was in bookstores, it hit the top of the charts and was listed in that respected NYT column of best-selling books. That’s what the statement is designed to make you think, and unless you’re particularly savvy, you may have fallen for it.

What it actually means is that I self-published a very short ebook on Amazon then used a few schemes to pump it up to the top of the free marketing ebooks for 3 days. Being a “best selling author” in this case means almost nothing. Anyone could do it. It’s a true but misleading statement designed to make you impressed, have you take me more seriously, or position myself as an authority.

This habit of leveraging true but misleading statements isn’t limited to authors, of course. Here’s a (soon to be) delicious packet of Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate which I drank an embarrassing amount of the last two weeks:

Notice the message in the middle? “As much calcium as an 8oz glass of milk.” How does that make you feel? Are you excited to suddenly realize that your hot chocolate is actually good for you? You should be! That’s exactly what the message is there for. It’s not like they’re going to say “this has more sugar than your recommended daily allowance and just because it has this one good thing doesn’t mean it’s good for you any more than a Big Mac with an extra piece of lettuce added.”

Another example. Say you have a self-employed-entrepreneurial-type friend, or sudden bar companion, and in a (possibly intoxicated) bid to impress you they “let slip” that they made $50,000 last month.

Now, that number may impress you initially, and may make you deeply question your decision to go into the family horseshoeing business, but you should also notice that he or she left something out. Was that $50,000 revenue? Or profit? And was that what their business made? Or what they took home? It could actually be that their company made $50,000 in revenue while spending $75,000, and the entrepreneur is unable to pay themselves and took home nothing, not even enough to buy one of your finely crafted horseshoes.

“My site has 100,000 users” could mean “100,000 people have signed up but only my mom uses it daily.”

“I typically work out 4 days per week,” might mean “I did 4 days per week a couple months ago, but the most I did this week was carry boxes of hot chocolate to my car.”

“I’m fine on 6 hours of sleep a night,” usually means “I occasionally sleep 6 hours a night, then binge on sleep later or on the weekends.”

These last few have been fairly benign, but there are also more misleading versions where something is said to make you feel a certain way, and while what’s said isn’t false, the feeling that you get certainly isn’t genuine.

We saw this in the “as much calcium as milk” example, but here’s another one: Fat-Free. Anything that naturally has fat but has been turned “Fat-Free” is categorically worse for you, but because of the (thankfully dying out) belief that fat = bad, people are tricked into thinking that Fat-Free = good. So you see Fat-Free and think healthy, when you should be thinking diabetes. Sugar-free and gluten-free are no less concerning.

The challenge is recognizing these true but misleading statements when we encounter them. If they’re in a domain we’re familiar with (e.g. marketing and health for me, like the examples I’ve given) then it’s easy to spot, but if it’s a domain we’re unfamiliar with, it’s harder. If a Stanford student told me she had 20 research paper bylines, that sounds impressive, but I’d have to be naturally skeptical that there’s some hidden depth to those metrics that I’m unaware of. Maybe in this era of “everyone gets a trophy” you can get a byline from being an excellent coffee deliverer.

As a heuristic, we can assume that any form of marketing or volunteered data is going to be at least somewhat true but misleading. Anything on packaging should be suspect, as should anything on someone’s LinkedIn, resume, business card, Tinder profile, or whatever someone seems eager to share with strangers, especially in large groups.

Then the challenge is, if you do have to do some degree of marketing, how do you balance the desire to be effective with the desire to completely honest (if you have such desires). I don’t think it would do me any favors to project the least impressive metrics of this site, but I also don’t want to lie to you. I could say “This site gets up to 45,000 readers a day!” but that only ever happened in one 24 hour period. Saying “This site gets over 400,000 readers a month” is much more honest, if you allow me that it’s only happened the last few months (though with very stable daily visitor numbers).

Now, for daily life, though, it’s a rather noble goal to try to not make true-but-misleading statements. If you can resist the urge to lightly embellish how you present yourself, you’re a more honest and, likely, more interesting person. It’s similar to the problem with huckster marketing: it’s better to start low and build up legitimacy, rather than demand it right away. “Whoa, that’s really cool” is much better than “ah, that’s what they really meant.”

This was part of what drove me crazy about the digital marketing world. Everyone was using the most impressive (but misleading) numbers they could to try to impress everyone else using their own most impressive-but-misleading numbers (including me), and eventually it all started to feel dirty and fake. I felt the same problem in the Pittsburgh startup scene. Everyone was trying very hard to be impressive and an authority (including me) with very, very little behind it.

But as you develop more awareness of true but misleading statements, you can have some fun with them. Get in the habit of sniffing out true but misleading embellishments, and start digging in. If it’s a website, label, or other form of marketing, try to imagine what the least generous interpretation of what they’re saying might be. If someone says they’re a best-selling author, press them on it. If someone is spewing impressive numbers, see if you can figure out just how massaged they are and what they might be trying to hide.

No promises on being invited back to cocktail parties, though.


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