Alternative Facts in Advertising

13th February 2017

It’s only February, but already ‘Alternative Facts’ is set to be the phrase of the year. It’s generally being used as a euphemism for a flat-out lie but this piece is, unsurprisingly, not going to delve into political debates on either side of the pond. The concept of facts as being static, carved-in-stone things is an appealing one. Anyone who works with the nuance of language however knows different – that includes those in advertising and even the glamourous world of ad compliance.


Many moons ago I spent an enjoyable summer working as a London tour guide on an open-top double-decker bus. We went on the standard route around the top historic monuments in central London, including the Monument to the Great Fire of London. Along with the general history of the fire and that if the monument were to topple over then the flame would land square on the spot in Pudding Lane where the fire broke out, there was one other fact that I passed on to punters:


“This is the tallest freestanding stone column in the world.”


Not the tallest column, or tallest freestanding column. Freestanding. Stone. Column.


All the tourists looked suitably impressed, but ask any of them a few moments later what was special about the monument and any word after ‘tallest’ would be forgotten. A completely factual description left everyone present thinking it was somehow the tallest monument in the world. A fact became an alternative fact.


Here’s another example. Say you’re advertising a music speaker. Perhaps you want to really set it apart from similar products in some way, give it a bit of va va voom. You might have some robust data that shows it’s joint number one in terms of how loud it goes. Here’s your proposed tagline:


‘The loudest speaker available.’


And that’s true, isn’t it? It’s joint number one, which means it’s loudest, along with a few competitors. Sort-of true then. As near as dammit.


But if it’s sort-of true, it’s also sort-of not true. And that’s going to be a problem. So how about changing it to ‘The joint-loudest speaker available.’


It’s not a great line is it? How do you make the product sound better without misleading?


‘No speaker goes louder.’


There it is. Completely true and yet still manages to separate your speaker from the competition. A fact has become an alternative fact. Of course there’s nothing stopping your competitors making the same claim, assuming they have the right data, but that’s a worry for another day.


The difference between nuanced wording and an unsubstantiated claim is vast, but it seems like this could be the year where, outside of advertising, those things start to merge. Within the industry it’s talented copywriters, our interpretation of the Code and the robust self-regulatory system that have helped to keep facts factual, even when they’re ‘alternative’. Let’s keep up the hard work.


Jonathan Laury, Communications Executive