We’ve become inured and shouldn't be.

Posted Nov 02, 2017

MaxPixels, CC0
Source: MaxPixels, CC0

We’re all aware that we’re often pitched to. So we try to sift through the hype to find nuggets of validity. Not easy.

One of the more trusted such nuggets is if a product or company has won a prestigious award. Well, I have a client who works for a company listed as one of Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For.” He told me that all employees were “strongly encouraged” to give the company top ratings on Fortune’s questionnaire. So could it be that the “Best Companies” award is, in part, for the companies that most strong-armed its employees?

Here are other examples of hype that we may be insufficiently girded against:

Making it appear simpler than it is

It seems that every how-to article offers 5 or so steps, secrets, or keys to losing weight, finding love, better sex, landing a job, conquering procrastination, being charismatic, etc. Such advice often relies less on solid data than on real or “composite” anecdotes, or “If I did it, so can you.”

Of course, there’s a Grand Canyon of difference between the author, who has the efficacy to produce a well-published article and the typical reader. And when we think about all the how-to articles and books we've read, and the Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and Oprah segments we've watched, have we usually implemented their magic formula? And even if we did, did it improve us as much or as easily as implied?


Of course, advertisements are known hype machines. How often is a “disruptive” innovation really “disruptive?"” How often is something described as “awesome” or amazing” really awesome or amazing?

Some types of ads particularly deserve a shout-out.

  • Companies whose commercials imply or state that their employees are their most important product. At the same time as such commercials are running, many of those firms are automating jobs or converting full-time benefited positions into part-time temp gigs. Would companies do that if people were their most important product?
  • Most commercials prey on emotions but the wedding ads’ effects seem particularly hurtful, for example, the onslaught of ads in bride’s magazines that urge spending big on “your special day.“ That spending, in total, can exceed even a solid down payment on a home, the benefits of which last far longer than five hours or even a weekend blowout.
  • Watch a travel commercial and you might see an awestruck couple staring at some ruin. What percentage of the time were you awestruck staring at some ruin or other piece of history? Or you’ll see a couple cavorting pre-orgasmically in turquoise waters. Think of all the beach trips you’ve been on. What percentage of your vacation was spent like that?
  • Particularly hypocritical are commercials for movies or plays. The scripts tend to be anti-capitalist (The good guy is usually of modest means, the bad guy is rich) but to get more of that “reviled” capitalist lucre, movie producers are zealous practitioners of advertising hype. It seems that every email I get urging me to come to a play calls it “a blockbuster,” “hysterically funny,” etc.
  • The other category of ads I find especially troubling are for pharmaceuticals. Big Pharma spends billions to have some telegenic patient abetted by a comforting narrator intone the drug’s benefits. The narrator’s voice gets faster and more monotonic as a paragraph of dire but almost impossible-to-read warnings appears briefly, including, “Results may vary.” (usually in the negative direction.) Often, a low-cost generic drug is as effective and because it’s been available far longer, its safety and side-effect profile are far better understood.

Government, college, and us

We so often hear politicians claim to careful with our tax dollars and to be fighting fraud and abuse. Yet government’s budget continues to grow, some would say metastasize its inefficiency. Do you feel you get good value for your federal, state, and local income tax, sales tax, property tax, gas tax, tolls, etc?

For example, many people consider Head Start to be education's most important innovation. Despite it having had a half-century now to refine and despite the billions of dollars spent on it, when President Obama ordered a meta-evaluation of Head Start, the effects were found to be near nil, far from a breakthrough. What did government do? Expand funding for the long-hyped program.

One more example of government hype: Every time candidates' statements in debates are fact-checked, many are deemed dubious if not outright wrong. And if we counted the number of evasive answers, there wouldn’t be much left in the true-and-on-point column.

Then there’s college. With the possible exception of a home, higher education is most expensive purchase most people ever make. And of course, college not only costs big in money but time. Average time to a bachelor’s is 5 years and only 59% graduate even if given six. A Ph.D typically takes 6 to 10, with commensurate-level employability far from assured. You’d think that colleges would answer to a higher authority. After all, they proclaim themselves to be founts of thought and ethics. Yet Madison Avenue would be proud of colleges’ manipulations: Pictures of happy graduates with anecdotes of them beautifully employed are far more prominent than the graduation rate, professional employment rate, or average improvement in thinking skills, let alone the price tag including likely cash aid. The cost may be buried so deeply in the website’s bowels that few prospective students ever descend there. Hype behind the ivy.

Even we as individuals are guilty of hyping. Could anyone honestly claim that most resumes, LinkedIn profiles, and dating site self-descriptions and mugshots would pass a deception detector test?

The Takeaway

By definition, half of things are below average and very few are exceptionally good. There are achingly few breakthroughs.

If we care about integrity, we should be more accurate in how we describe what we're pushing. And each time we’re pitched a superlative, before believing it, think back to all the hype that previously sucked you in.

By the way, I’ve tried to walk my talk, to not be guilty of hype in making these assertions. If you think I've been unfair, I welcome your comment.

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available on Amazon. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net.