How good is the general public at recognising PR guff?

I’ve just put down ‘The Secret State’ by Heather Brooke and it makes for very interesting reading. For those of you who may find her name familiar, she’s a journalist who was instrumental in revealing the MP expenses scandal. She has a lot more to say on the matter of freedom of information and public accountability through the availability of timely and relevant information.

According to her, a key reason for our current political mess is the use of Public Relations to feed nonsense to the public. This includes the use of ‘statistics’ with a variety of methods used to undermine the usefulness of any data. (I intend to read Dr. Ben Goldacre on the use of statistics in British health as he was the one who pointed out some everyday examples during the ‘Night of a Billion Stars’ show I went to recently.)

Brooke is specifically questioning the role of PR in a democracy; one might argue that PR is acceptable in Private commerce as its primary role is to achieve sales, whereas the obligation on the Public services is to provide information. I myself have worked in an industry that generates a copious amount of PR material, and I recognised all the forms of PR she mentions, namely:

Pseudo-events, Deference to authority, Appeals to fear, and Claims of infallibility.

But you only have to look at ads on telly (one of my favourite sample sources) to see all four of the above in use. Do people recognise for instance-

  • That a ‘Laboratoire pour excellence Dermatologique’ is just a sham body, used to lend plausibility to a skin product that otherwise is indistinguishable in a cramped market? (Deference to authority)
  • That smelly breath was a scare created deliberately as a marketing ploy to shift Listerine, for which there originally was no market? (Appeals to fear)
  • That a company posting “Upto 99.99% results” never posts what the lower end of the spectrum is, nor what the frequency of the top results to median and low results is, nor indeed what the ratio of good results to poor results is? (Claims of infallibility)
  • That mid-term sales, pre-winter sales, post-summer sales and all the other sales advertised bear very little relation to the original purpose of sales and have rendered the term obsolete? (Pseudo-events)

There are countless examples, but do we spot them all? The key is to remain cynical and question everything.

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