Pub. Date:
Taylor & Francis
Lies We Live By: Defeating Doubletalk and Deception in Advertising, Politics, and the Media / Edition 1

Lies We Live By: Defeating Doubletalk and Deception in Advertising, Politics, and the Media / Edition 1

by Carl Hausman


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First Published in 2000. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780415922807
Publisher: Taylor & Francis
Publication date: 11/18/1999
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Carl Hausman is a journalist and educator who has written and published widely on the topic of media ethics, including nineteen books. He is an associate professor of writing at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. A former television talk show host, he frequently lectures on mass media issues.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Term Warfare

How to Lie
with Words

When Bill Clinton was asked in 1992 if he'd ever smoked marijuana, he told reporters that he had never broken the laws of his country. That sounded like "no," but of course it wasn't. When the press finally decoded the evasion, Clinton admitted that he'd smoked marijuana in England, although he (ahem) never inhaled.

    That was the tee shot for a Master's Tournament of presidential wordplay. Over the next seven years, Clinton responded to allegations of an affair with a denial of the duration of the affair, making that denial sound like a denial of the affair itself, and secured his place in history by inventing a definition of the mechanics of sexual relations that we'll mercifully skip here.

    During roughly the same period, evasive wordplay seemed to become the method of choice for a variety of people who had a vested interest in clouding the truth. In general, advertising, public relations, and political communication in the late 1990s have deteriorated to a blur of mouse type and stilted wordings constructed to pry open loopholes. Perhaps the 1990s will be known as the decade of doublespeak. Or maybe the fact that a president was impeached partly on the basis of prevarication will mark 1999 as the year the backlash took hold.

    Interestingly, those of us in the business of decoding chisel-speak and propaganda feel vindicated! (And even, dare I say, useful.) The victims we used to corner at cocktail parties and pummelglassy-eyed with our theories about the mechanics of language now seek us out. How, they wonder, can a long-distance company get away with burying hidden charges in a slag-heap of tricky wording? Why, they lament, do the claims of our elected leaders so often dissolve into muddy puddles of prevarication?

    The answer is that we've trained liars to exploit us by rewarding them with our money, or our votes, or both. The industries of influence—honest, dishonest, and in the gray area—are huge, and when we make decisions we're up against a well-financed army of persuaders.

    Liars climbing up the learning curve discovered that we've become too time-starved to untangle complex claims, and so accustomed to being lied to that we reflexively roll over and expose our bellies when confronted with misleading information. That's the bad news.

    The good news is that, like the anchorman in Network, we're mad as hell and we won't take it any more. Look around: People are fed up with tricky tacked-on fees that double their car-rental bill, or 10-10 telephone numbers that use evasive language to hide the fact that, in all but a very specific set of conditions, their rates are among the highest in the Wild West of telecommunications. We're exasperated by credit card companies that bury expensive interest rate changes in the fine print, stores that claim big discounts derived from "suggested" prices that no one ever really pays, hotel chains that offer attractive weekend packages "from" $40 a night, but offer that price only in one hotel, in a small city, where very few travelers would want to go, and merchandisers who imply their products are American-made when, in fact, they are not.

    I have even better news. Decoding half-truths is easy. All you have to do is learn how the chiselers do it and adjust your defense accordingly, in much the same way you install a deadbolt after a reformed burglar shows you how to slip a cheap lock with a credit card.

    I've attempted to separate the techniques of lying into three categories: lying with words, lying with numbers, and lying with images. Each category has about a half-dozen techniques. While there are many other variations on each theme, I'm going to keep my set of terms simple because a complex collection would be too cumbersome to be of practical use. While these categories are my own inventions, note that they do reflect techniques identified in the formal study of propaganda, logic, and critical thought.

    Words are tricky devices because a) they carry bulky baggage, and b) English is a sloppy language. The first point relates to the fact that a word carries a literal meaning and an implied meaning. The words "liberal" and "conservative" are perfect examples, because they often lose all meaning when someone uses them to describe someone else—turning the words into weapons. When a political candidate sneers that his opponent is a "liberal," we're not sure exactly what it means but we know it's not good (especially if it's accompanied by a modifier like "card-carrying"). And when someone calls someone else a "conservative," what he usually is insinuating is that that person is a "neanderthal." In this way, words convey simple, but misleading, meanings and when directed at uncritical readers or listeners their effect is very powerful. Our side is made up of "freedom fighters." Their side consists of "terrorists."

    Words can sound sinister and be used to bolster a point even when there is no literal meaning attached to them. When I was in elementary school during the height of the Cold War our teacher read us stories about the terrors of communism. One particularly vivid passage detailed how political dissidents were taken to party headquarters to face God-knows-what in "closed cars." Because I was already a difficult person, I asked my teacher what a "closed car" was. With the windows closed? With the doors closed? Don't most drivers keep the doors closed when they drive? My teacher was annoyed and more than a little flummoxed. She told the class she didn't know exactly what the reference meant, but that I should have sense enough to know that it's something bad.

    As for English being a sloppy language, consider Hamlet's needling of Ophelia:

    H: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

    O: No, my lord.

    H: I mean my head upon your lap?

    O: Ay, my lord.

    H: Do you think I meant country matters?

    O: I think nothing my lord.

    H: That's a fair thought to lie between maid's legs.

    Puns, wordplay, and double-entendres exploit the elastic meanings and relationships between English words. Shakespearean wordplay would be meaningless in some other languages. But what's good for sarcasm is bad for accuracy, and the same elasticity that allows for puns also opens the door to obfuscation.

    With those points in mind, let's look at how language can be used to mislead.

Technique #1: The Tortured Definition

The strategy used here is to get around telling the truth by redefining one of the words that determines the truth. Torturing a definition is a powerful strategy because people usually don't check all the premises on which you've based your argument, and if they do—and you're caught—you can always claim honesty because the results actually do follow from your mutated definition.

    That is precisely the strategy Bill Clinton followed in redefining that particular act we are not going to talk about. But since this is a family-oriented book, I will illustrate the tortured definition with a Macy's ad. Macy's has a habit of imaginatively redefining key words in its newspaper ads. You'll notice in figure 1.1 that the big type trumpets savings of "20-50% OFF ALL JEWELRY." I trust you did not miss the distinction between ALL and ALL. In the fine print we learn that ALL jewelry means everything except "best values, watches, fashion jewelry, bonus dollars off sale prices."

    Another ad offers (in the big type) "20% off merchandise STOREWIDE." But check out the fine print in figure 1.2! The definition of storewide is considerably narrowed in the mousetype. The offer excludes entire departments, including designer cosmetics, fragrances, handbags, furniture, and women's shoes; entire lines of clothing collections, such as Levi's; and complete categories of merchandise, including watches and fashion jewelry. No doubt about it, that's a pretty confusing ad. But I'm sure that there was no intent to mislead here and that Macy's is completely HONEST

    My personal favorite in the tortured definition category is the imaginative signs posted by some gas stations on Long Island offering gas for $1.06 a gallon. When motorists attracted by the bargain pull in and ask for the attendant to fill the tank with "regular" they get a more expensive gas. The $1.06 stuff is called "economy" or some other made-up name that you don't get unless you ask for it and, of course, nobody does. (The Nassau county legislature recently passed a bill outlawing this practice.)

    Torturing a definition is a vastly useful technique, and we'll examine its application in many of the industry-specific chapters in the second part of this book. (Wait until you find out how stores define "American-made.")

Technique #2: Reduction to the Ridiculous

To use this technique, oversimplify an issue to the point of absurdity and then point out the absurdity of the resulting oversimplification. With this strategy you can completely mischaracterize an action or opposing point of view, while still claiming a basis in fact. Moreover, you can pull this off while making yourself appear analytical.

    New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg used a classic reduction strategy against his 1994 election opponent, State Assembly Speaker Chuck Haytayan. Briefly, the story is this: Haytayan, along with many others in the assembly, voted for construction of a $28.6 million underground parking garage at the Trenton, New Jersey, State House. The garage was built to provide parking for state lawmakers, the press, and members of the public who visit the State House and the adjacent library and museum. The complex also included some office space and a generating plant.

    To make a long story short—and that's the problem with the whole truth, it tends to be the long version of events—Lautenberg took the cost of the garage and dividing it by the number of parking spaces came up with the figure of $26,000. Lautenberg then used that figure to imply that Haytayan had gratuitously built himself a $26,000 parking space. TV ads showed a head shot of Haytayan with the caption "Politics as usual," and another caption, "$26 thousand for a parking space."

    Reduction strategies are particularly useful in politics because they provide a shorthand, bumper-sticker recounting of events, and take a grain of out-of-context truth and puff it into a dune of duplicity. Did your opponent vote against any bill that contained a provision that could be viewed as beneficial to children? If so, characterize your opponent as anti-child. In a particularly ironic juxtaposition based on this strategy, Bill Clinton characterized Bob Dole as being against the elderly because Dole voted against Medicare. The annoyingly detailed long version was that Dole did initially vote against Medicare because his party was advocating a competing, but basically similar plan, called Eldercare. When Medicare won the battle of the plans and worked its way into conference committee, Dole voted for it. But the damage had been done.

Technique #3: The Evil-Twin Word Substitution

In this technique, you confuse people with a similar-sounding word. You either benefit directly from the confusion or use the technique to mischaracterize someone else's position.

    Evil-Twin name deceptions are effective because we are so inundated with names of people and organizations that they all sound pretty much alike. One enterprising reptile in California exploits this factor with over 200 sound-alike charities registered under his name. He gives them names similar to legitimate charities. When callers who don't know the precise name of the real charity call directory assistance looking for the telephone number, they are often directed to the bogus sound-alike and are squeezed for donations when they call.

    Even organizations as moral and high-minded as tobacco companies are not above using the Evil-Twin technique. Big Tobacco recently bankrolled a series of ads opposing a proposed per-pack sales tax on cigarettes. The commercials featured furrowed-browed actors, earnest and troubled, clucking about the proposed "tax on working people." Obviously, one way to interpret that phrase is that the tax is a tax on people who work for a living, a reading that makes marginal sense at best, given that many smokers are unemployed because they can't crawl out of their iron lungs or unhook their life-support systems. But I'm sure the intent of the commercial is to confuse the viewer into believing that the measure is a "tax on working," or an income tax, that most hated of all levies.

    Believe it or not, even trial lawyers sometimes stretch the truth with an Evil-Twin substitution. One group of liability lawyers gave themselves a high-sounding name that smacked of concerned citizens investigating auto safety. The group staged its own safety tests of a car that conveniently acted in a very unsafe manner when videotaped, and then distributed the tapes to television networks. They then used the network-aired tapes in court when they sued the manufacturer.

Technique #4: The Incognito If

This is probably the most versatile of all verbal deception methods because it can be used to obfuscate the truth in virtually any circumstance. All you need do is forget to mention one contingency in the sale, agreement, or offer. If you're caught, you can argue—with some justification—that no ad or offer can reveal every detail. In fact, you can even mention the Incognito If, but entomb it in esoteric contract language, or simply shovel some fine print on top of it.

    Incognito Ifs serve the primary function of luring suckers into the tent where the high-pressure sales tactics begin. For example, while on an undercover reporting assignment, I attended a sales pitch for condo time-shares. The initial come-on was this: I had "won" (lucky me) a "free" trip to Europe. All I had to do was attend a "brief orientation to the time-share concept."

    The following Incognito Ifs were hidden in the offer:

• While I actually could get a free plane ride to Europe, I had to stay at—and pay full rate for—one of the time-share company's absurdly overpriced hotels.

• I had to provide the time-share company with three time periods over the next year during which I could take a one-week vacation. They would not let me pick one in advance; I had to be prepared to accept one at the last moment.

    Given the above conditions it would have been difficult for me to take advantage of my "prize" and expect to do any better than if I'd funded my own last-minute trip to Europe. But for the time-share company, the mission was accomplished: the suckers, myself among them, were lured into the tent, because in order to "win" the contest, you had to endure the entire day's hard-sell. (We only learned of the Incognito Ifs attached to the prize at the end of the session, which incidentally was akin to something inflicted on prisoners of war. We weren't allowed to break for lunch, and the salesman was reluctant to let us out of the room, even when my wife feigned the onset of a diabetic coma.)

    Here's an Incognito If technique for getting car buyers into the tent. Can you spot the opportunities for slipping an Incognito If into this commercial aired by Nissan?

They tell me that if I buy the Camry or the Accord, they're gonna give me a hundred dollars.... So what's the catch.... There's no catch! Just test drive a Nissan Stanza first. No sweat, easiest hundred I ever made, right?

    This was part of an ad campaign called the Nissan Challenge, and the real challenge was collecting your hundred dollars. The Federal Trade Commission put a stop to the campaign, pointing out that in order to collect the money, the consumer had to:

    a) purchase the Accord or Camry

    b) take delivery of it within a week

    c) submit proof of the purchase to Nissan within a week

    d) not buy the Accord or the Camry on the same day as the test drive.

Technique #5: Logical Leapfrog

The study of logic is complex and rigorous, which of course is why no one ever studies it. But at the heart of almost all analyses of misleading pseudo-logic is a concept that's easy to grasp: the phony cause-effect relationship. Repeat after me: Just because Event A followed event B, this does not necessarily mean that Event A caused Event B. By the same token: Just because Event A and Event B are somehow statistically linked, it does not necessarily mean that one causes the other.

    For example, I once covered a local politician's crusade against adult bookstores. I flagged as illogical a statement by the politician that went something like this:

There had been three rapes in the city last month. Three men arrested in the separate cases had also admitted to frequenting an adult bookstore. If we close the adult bookstore we will reduce rape.

Maybe there is a cause-and-effect relationship between adult bookstores and rape; but to infer a cause-and-effect relationship based on happenstance is illogical. (The politician took umbrage at my observation and gave me a taste of Reduction to the Ridiculous when he accused me of "being in favor" of adult bookstores and came damn close to implying that I was a supporter of rape as well.) A more likely assumption is that rapists have a predilection for visiting adult bookstores. That's not the same thing as cause and effect. It's also possible that the events were purely coincidental.

    Sometimes there are underlying linkages that seem tantalizingly like cause and effect and, therefore, appear persuasive on the surface. Opponents of capital punishment often point out that murder rates are highest in states with the death penalty, which is true. That sounds a lot like saying that capital punishment is not only ineffective, but also contributes to murder. But you might argue that people in states with capital punishment support it in reaction to the high murder rates. There's a Latin name for this fallacy: Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. This means after this, therefore because of this in English, which of course doesn't sound nearly as impressive. Genuine cause-effect relationships certainly do exist, but they're not easy to prove. Cause-effect arguments are also used in statistical pseudo-reasoning, the subject of the next chapter.

    But before moving on, let me point out that there are several other ways to use words to evade logic. Testimonials, for example, are often inherently illogical. The presence of a celebrity usually does nothing to bolster a claim, but we're a sucker for celebrity testimonials. Witness the ultimate absurdity of an actor making pseudo-medical claims after informing us that he's not a doctor, but plays one on TV.

    A testimonial can rightly be called a propaganda technique, meaning (my definition) the promotion of a point of view using one-sided, illogical, and hollow arguments. Another variety of propaganda is name-calling, a technique used successfully in many political campaigns.

    George Bush slyly mated name-calling with the Evil-Twin Word Substitution technique when campaigning against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Bush called Dukakis a "card-carrying member of the ACLU." The term "card-carrying" was an obvious holdover from McCarthy days when "card-carrying communists" were in season. Whether or not voters remembered the precise derivation of the term, they knew it connoted something sinister.

    Such insinuations are possible because the English language is very elastic. Luckily, numbers—the subject of the next chapter—are precise, definitive, and not subject to shading. And if you believe that, let me tell you about my college days when I, too, did not inhale.

Table of Contents

1 Term Warfare: How to Lie with Words7
2 Damn the Statistics: How to Lie with Numbers19
3 Seeing Is Believing? Don't You Believe It! How to Lie with
4 I'm from the Government and I'm Here to Confuse You45
5 I Lie, Therefore I Am: The Existentially Ambiguous Image
in Politics55
6 The Vying Game: Cooking the Books in College Rankings63
7 The Veiled Variable Rides Again: Tricks of the Trade in
Financial Institutions71
8 There's a Special on Fine Print in Aisle 9: The Tricky
Business of Retailing79
9 Driven to Distraction: How Car Retailers Confuse the
10 Reach out and Confuse Someone: Baffle-Gab on the Phone
11 You May Already Be a Sucker! Misrepresentation by Mail105
12 Brave New Bamboozle: Tricky Business over the Internet115
13 Reality (Sound)bites: How Made-for-Media Pseudo-Events
Distort Our View of the World123
Ten Lists of Ten Guidelines forBecoming a Better Consumer of
How and Where to Complain: A Resource Guide for Consumers141

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