Where the truth lies

The industry's latest pitch: credibility.

Truth is a scarce commodity, in business as elsewhere. Nearly a decade after Bre-X Minerals Ltd. blew up in Canada's worst mining debacle, an Ontario court is still trying to establish what happened. Nortel Networks Corp.'s financial statements — even after being audited by Deloitte & Touche LLP — have failed to accurately depict that company's finances. I've come across errors in news reports and court documents, and frankly, I suspect even religious texts (purportedly stemming from the gods themselves) may contain misleading information. Everyone from Aristotle to Proust has chased truth; none could be said to have laid claim to it. As Saul Bellow put it: “A man may say, 'From now on I'm going to speak the truth.' But the truth hears him and runs away and hides before he's even done speaking.”

Standing on a subway platform recently, I noticed a poster bearing a comforting message from Advertising Standards Canada, the advertising industry's self-regulatory body. It depicted six people holding up signs featuring a single, potent word in bold lettering: “Truth.” The ad informed me that thanks to something called the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, I can “believe in advertising.” Among other things, the code clearly states that ads cannot contain inaccurate or deceptive claims, even if they're insinuated rather than made explicit. Ads also must not omit relevant information. Unrealistic pricings and comparisons are prohibited. Scientific claims cannot be distorted. Competitive differences should not be exaggerated. In other words, advertisers are bringing us the Truth, and nothing but, and all we need to do is Believe. Why visit mosques or cathedrals, read great philosophers, or put faith in independent clinical research? Truth, according to the ASC, is piped directly to you via advertising.

This was great news. Previously, I'd laboured under the misapprehension that ads were merely pitches from people who want to sell me things. I had assumed women do not, in fact, find men who drink a particular beer and wear certain brands of deodorant irresistibly attractive. I'd doubted that one could develop rock-hard abdominal muscles by using mail-order devices 10 minutes a day. And I wouldn't buy anything just because Gretzky or Shatner said it is totally awesome. Now, thanks to ASC quality control, I could shed my cynicism and see the world in a new light.

I soon came across an ad from British Airways. It showed what purports to be an aircraft with a queen-size bed, large pillows, a nightstand with flowers and a Persian rug. This furniture sat in what appeared to be a private room that spanned the entire width of the fuselage, lending credence to the airline's claim that it offers a “business class like no other.” But I've been on aircraft before, and something didn't seem right. I checked on the airline's website and couldn't find the depicted accommodations on the deck plans of any of its aircraft. British Airways did not respond to an inquiry. Was I being misled?

Then I took a second look at the ASC's “Truth” ad. On closer inspection, it seems the code “helps ensure that the ads you see are truthful, fair and accurate.” It doesn't say that they are true, and the word “helps” is pretty ambiguous. And despite its claim that you can “believe in advertising,” the ad neglects to mention the code doesn't apply to media from outside Canada. But wait — aren't Canadians deluged with media from elsewhere? Why didn't the ASC mention that?

Maybe ASC staffers interpret truth differently. Still, at least the organization has a process by which consumers can complain about ads. I've sent in one explaining why I think the “Truth” ad is misleading. Statistically speaking, though, the chances of my complaint being recognized aren't that great: last year, the ASC found just 4.6% of the nearly 1,300 complaints it received to be legitimate, at least in their opinion. The few ads found to contravene the code involved obvious inaccuracies that are not subject to interpretation (such as when MDG Computers Canada Inc. promised a free router with computer purchases, but didn't deliver) or were deemed demeaning to women — neither of which apply in my case. I also can't help thinking that the ASC might have a conflict of interest in examining its own ad. Still, I'll let you know how it goes.