I have always been bothered by public lies that nobody could possibly believe. It is widely believed that such lies are harmless, since nobody could possibly be deceived by them. They are harmful, however, because their use suggests that lying doesn’t matter— it’s trivial, something everybody does, and nobody should expect truthfulness when a lie will serve. The culture is already far too accepting of transparent lies. Politics is the most prominent example. Because the public expects candidates for high office to lie about their intent, they are amazingly forgiving when campaign lies become apparent. And because we knowingly vote for well-meaning liars (or so we think), some really dangerous, corrupt liars not only get elected, but can survive public exposure as liars. After all, say their supporters, enablers and henchmen, it is only a matter of degree.
Transparent lies, therefore, numb us to the hard stuff. They make us cynical, and the make us tolerant of liars. Then there is the possibility that the spokesperson who utters an obvious whopper really does think we’ll believe it. That’s an insult, profoundly disrespectful, and we should resent it.
The Ethics Scoreboard had a feature called “The David Manning Trivial Liar of the Month” to highlight the public lies nobody could possibly believe. It was named for Sony’s “defense” when it was revealed that the movie critic, “David Manning,” who they advertised as raving about lousy Sony films like “The Animal” (Starring Rob Schneider as a guy who accidentally has animal DNA grafted…oh, never mind.) was a fake invented by their marketing division. Sony said, in essence, that it was no big deal because everyone knows those critical raves in movie ads are mostly lies anyway. I didn’t carry the feature over to Ethics Alarms, because the kind of transparent, shameless, “I’m going to say this anyway even though it will have America rolling its eyes” lie the feature was designed to condemn didn’t come around every month. Naturally, the minute Ethics Alarms debuts, here comes the Kellogg people with a classic.
Suddenly, boxes of Kellogg’s breakfast cereals like Cocoa Krispies have a huge yellow label across the front proclaiming “Now Helps Your Child’s IMMUNITY.” Next to the banner is an announcement that the cereal is soaked with antioxidants, upping the daily vitamin requirement provided by a serving from 10% to 25%. This has attracted the attention of the FDA , consumer advocates, and nutritionists, who say that the claim that a bowl of Cocoa Krispies that have been sprayed with extra vitamins can improve any child’s immunity to disease is either “dubious” or “ridiculous,” depending on whether you want to be nice about it. USA Today quoted Marion Nestle, nutrition professor at New York University, as fuming, “The idea that eating Cocoa Krispies will keep a kid from getting swine flu, or from catching a cold, doesn’t make sense. Yes, these nutrients are involved in immunity, but I can’t think of a nutrient that isn’t involved in the immune system.”
The immunity claim isn’t Kellogg’s obvious lie, however, as hard as that may be to believe. This is, also quoted in the USA Today story:
“It was not created to capitalize on the current H1N1 flu situation,” spokeswoman Susanne Norwitz says. “Kellogg developed this product in response to consumers expressing a need for more positive nutrition.”
Right. It is just a coincidence that in the middle of a swine flu epidemic, with dire predictions of world plague and the Dustin Hoffman movie “Outbreak” playing on every cable system, with parents sending their kids to the doctor as soon as they sneeze, scared silly by news reports of perfectly healthy children catching the H1N1 flu and dropping dead in days, Cocoa Crispies suddenly takes up a third of its box with claims that the cereal boosts immunity.
To be fair, it is obvious that Norwitz was trying to be deceitful, which is usually the antithesis of an obvious lie, since deceit depends on using the truth to deceive. She said the product wasn’t “developed” to exploit the H1N1 scare—no, no, it was “developed” because consumers wanted more nutrition. But nobody asked her why the product was developed. They asked her why Kellogg’s was making the dubious immunity claim, and her answer that Kellogg’s wasn’t intentionally capitalizing on H1N1 fears, and that assertion, despite her attempt to qualify it, insults our intelligence.
What should she have said? She should have said this: “We know parents are concerned,with the current flu outbreak and all the publicity it is receiving, about their children’s heath and their vulnerability to the virus. Since we had recently increased the antioxidants added to our cereals, it seemed to be responsible to make sure parents knew about it, so we provided the banner. Antioxidents do contribute to immunity against disease. Did we think this would sell more cereal? Sure. We’re in the cereal business.”
But no. She and her employers didn’t have the integrity, honesty, brains, or respect for us to say that. They chose instead to play word games, and ended up with a foolish misrepresentation that even the most gullible couldn’t believe.