In early January, Lumosity, one of the most recognized providers of online brain training, executed a $2 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for making unsupported claims to the public through its marketing, including that by playing Lumosity’s online games, one can protect against dementia and improve performance at work and in school.
How did Lumosity allow these deceptive advertisements to happen? In a recent interview with KQED Science, Lumos Labs CEO Steve Berkowitz explained troublesome marketing decisions such as offering prizes in return for users’ success stories without disclosing this fact on its website, as symptoms of rapid growth and product passion. “As a young company, what you’re doing, people are very passionate about the product,” Berkowitz said. Now “we’re focusing on making sure that the things that we’re doing have a basis in fact.”
Communication consultants and marketing agencies are an invaluable asset for companies that publicly advertise. We conceive corporate personas, anticipate and squelch crises and author messaging directed to precisely targeted audience members. Another hat that we wear is that of trusted advisor. Once the marketing agency has developed an honest relationship with the client, the advisor can then “hold the mirror up” to the client. Although a large part of our responsibility is to position clients for their desired market position, we must also find the balance between how the company desires to be perceived, with where it currently stands – and advise accordingly.
When a marketing agency proves themselves as a trusted advisor, and not merely a “yes man” or “yes woman,” two powerful things occur. First, you command respect from your client when you provide them honest advisements. Second, while it is impossible to know company leaders’ intent when it comes to false advertising, establishing a relationship based on trust and honesty with the client will provide a space for dialogue on sensitive issues.
As communications advisors, we ensure that the client’s public promises are honest in relationship to their current market position. For companies in the for-profit sector, profit maximization is but one objective, and profit is only realized when the public decides to trust the brand and its products. The promises, the assertions of fact – these are what the public relies on when choosing which company to trust over a competitor. The currency in which the communications advisor primarily deals is honesty. We promote the strengths; we acknowledge the challenges – but we never spin.
Some companies knowingly cast advertisements into the stream of public consumption with the intent to deceive its audience, and other companies genuinely believe their product and its promises to be truthful. The decision is made easy for a communications advisor when the company knowingly disseminates false promises, but, before things get to the point of no return, understand that at times, company leadership may suffer from corporate vertigo and can lose perspective on their own products and services.
When the brilliant minds of entrepreneurs are set to the daily task of innovating, their job is to forecast and create things that do not yet exist. While the entrepreneur is vision-casting, the advisor’s place is to see the company as it exists through the eyes of the public, while constantly positioning for market survival and advancement. It is through the partnership of the company and communications advisor, that the passage between “now” and the next “game changer” is navigated smartly, beginning with honesty.