Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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November 15, 2005
the return of "the epistemology of puffery"

A recurring theme of the current autumn may be the renewed relevance of my idle summertime thoughts, especially those that seemed at the time unblogworthy (and probably remain so) but then deserving perhaps of a cryptic contemporaneous reference for purposes of my own internal record keeping.

I idly have theorized to myself then and now that what continues to be overlooked too often in public discussions of "pre-war intelligence," "manipulation" thereof, etc. is the role played in 2002-03 by the possible infiltration as never before of marketing or commercial speech concepts into political speech.

The administration's thinking may have been that a considerable leavening with B.S., exaggeration and factual omissions is allowable and even assumed by consumers of government statements. So the thinking would go, the public is composed of media savvy message customers who understand all claims by politicians to be a variety of "seller's talk" to which standards of truth apply only loosely.

The website of Professor Hugh Rank includes some great pages of his "Persuasion Analysis" of the technical aspects of commercial and political speech. Rank breaks down a sales pitch into a five step formula. My review of the formula brings back memories of reading the news from fall 2002 through spring 2003.

Rank quotes a line from Ivan Preston that I expect to hear any day now from the podium at a White House press briefing:

The law holds that people who act reasonably will automatically distrust puffery, will neither believe it or rely upon it, and therefore cannot be deceived by it.

Is this still "the law"? Preston published the above in 1975. It is true that last year a court let off the Ford Motor Company for alleged misrepresentations as to safety, like so:

Such statements are either mere corporate puffery or hyperbole that a reasonable investor would not view as significantly changing the general gist of available information, and thus, are not material, even if they were misleading.

All public companies praise their products and their objectives. Courts everywhere 'have demonstrated a willingness to find immaterial as a matter of law a certain kind of rosy affirmation commonly heard from corporate managers and numbingly familiar to the marketplace – loosely optimistic statements that are so vague, so lacking in specificity, or so clearly constituting the opinions of the speaker, that no reasonable investor could find them important to the total mix of information available.'

Can legal rationales from the commercial speech or advertising realm plausibly be transferred into the realm of war and national security? How far can the principle of caveat emptor go? How much of a game of factual Hide the Ball do we automatically assume the President or VP is allowed to play with us? If customers in the marketplace for Ford Explorers have access to Consumer Reports, what comparable mechanisms could customers in the "marketplace of ideas" possibly hope to have when offered a speech by Colin Powell or an NIE? "Meet the Press"? Seymour Hersh, Robert Fisk, Sibel Edmonds, Scott Ritter and Joe Wilson? Blogs?

In any event, the rationale cited by Preston is what one naturally would expect to be the working assumption arrived at if you imagined there existed somewhere a government in which a war were planned in a few sessions around conference tables in meetings attended by 1) one group of aging civilian executives from the corporate sector and 2) another group of Young Turks with media relations backgrounds.

The former group would have vague recollections of board meetings that they sleepily sat in on at times ranging from the Gerald Ford to the Bush I eras, in which, once or twice a year, some pedantic legal compliance officers droned on about the legality of statements in securities offerings and perhaps direct marketing campaigns.

The members of the latter group would have a more solid grounding in newer, trendy concepts like "branding." While they might not be up on all the niceties of the debates about brands and truth-telling, they at least would have a firm grasp of the bedrock fundamentals of sales, such as, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."