Companies have no qualms telling straight-out lies

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Companies lie to protect themselves and show no shame when they are caught out.

I’ve been working as an investigative journalist with CHOICE for two years now and one of the biggest learning curves (along with getting my head around the details of Australian Consumer Law) has been understanding the way companies relate to the truth.

Prior to joining CHOICE, I worked at SBS News and I wrote primarily about the federal government on issues such as immigration, asylum seekers, refugees and politics.

Dealing with government departments and ministers’ offices is like dealing with a slippery sponge – you ask direct questions, you look politicians straight in the eye, and say, ‘Tell me, did this happen?’ And how do they answer?

They duck, they dodge and they weave, they give you long, convoluted replies to totally different questions than the one you asked; they give you half an answer, leaving out key information. They do everything they can to not tell you what you want to know. But they do it with an art, a sly grin and pretending they have answered your question all along.

Time and again while working at CHOICE, where the subject of my work is primarily companies behaving badly instead of governments, I have found that companies have no qualms about lying to my face. They don’t bother to even pretend, or evade you, they just straight out lie.

Companies have been caught out using facial recognition cameras in their stores and have told the media, without missing a beat, that they weren’t using them – only to later have to admit that, guess what? It was true – they were!

Companies have insisted that events didn’t happen, when I’ve had proof that they did, or have claimed we didn’t email them to give them a chance to comment on a story, when I have the email chains to show otherwise.

Often these lies are told to protect themselves or to paint CHOICE in a bad light to the rest of the media. When you point out that they are lying to you, they either double down or just go silent. Either way, there is no hint of shame.

It was naïve of me to think, initially, that everyone must have some kind of ethical standard, or at least something resembling a vague relationship to the truth. I certainly don’t think that any more. Every company claim or statement I hear is now taken with a grain of salt.

These companies and their willingness to lie to the media and to everyday consumers only highlights the need for strong, independent investigative journalism that holds corporate power to account in Australia.

Because, if we don’t put in the time, effort and resources to watch and keep them accountable, who will?

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One of the many reasons I subscribe. I’m angry that we citizens have to step up to fill the government shaped gap (evident with many charities, climate council, protection of natural resources) but here we are…

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The features that these people from government and the private sector have in common are:

  • those you speak to have been selected for their ability to prevaricate, if not convincingly at least without discomfort,
  • they are part of large multi-layered organisations where accountability is hard to pin down and
  • speakers believe that they must protect/defend the organisation which they have committed themselves to (the greater good and all) and they feel justified doing things as myrmidons that they often wouldn’t do as individuals.

On the inability to trace accountability you only need to look at the robodebt affair where documents were redacted but nobody did it, misleading material was produced with no author, respondents say they didn’t have responsibility or use the Nuremberg defence, “I was only following orders”.

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Commercial advertising generally is obfuscation and telling lies.Unfortunately it’s now become acceptable to consumers who expect advertising to be this way. The problem is that it creates a culture where telling lies is acceptable and this is the base for the problem. It’s impossible to draw the line and so each step in time creates more extreme behaviour accompanied by more tolerance.

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Welcome to the world of corporate communications and media training.

Most larger businesses have corporate communications personnel who are experts in ensuring that their company messages get out, no matter the circumstances or environment. They are guided by their legal teams (either their own internal counsel or external advice) not to admit fault or accept liability. This means that they 'duck, they dodge and they weave, they give you long, convoluted replies to totally different questions than the one you asked’.

It isn’t only companies which have communication teams, there are government departments (at all levels) and politician which also have them (often referred to as policy advisors or ‘spin doctors’).

Gone are the days of everything being black and white. Corporate communications work in the grey and paint everything they do in grey.

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That of course is entirely rational and entirely reasonable. Fault and liability will be determined in court later on, if it comes to that.

If you yourself (not some evil government or corporation) are involved in a car accident, you are instructed not to admit fault or accept liability.


I think some of responses here may have missed the point that was made in the OP i.e. to make a distinction between government and corporation.

  • government - does have qualms about telling straight-out lies - because the consequences are worse if they get found out and they will be accountable to the people every 3 or 4 years (as inconvenient as it is for them) - and hence uses evasion etc.
  • corporation - does not have qualms about telling straight-out lies

As much as I am a critic of government (as many here would know), I think further going down the government rathole may be a distraction from the actual point of the OP.

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Watching Gruen should be on the curriculum from Primary School onwards so everyone grows up understanding the manipulative dishonesty of commercial advertising. I subscribed here to share thoughts with people who can think for themselves.

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Admirable ambition.
Through its evolution the Gruen series has raised many ethical questions concerning products and marketing. It demonstrates many principles of effective marketing and what are at times questionable choices.

My take is it’s left to the viewer to pass judgement on the qualities, uncertainties and relative value of the content as presented. We use our adult moral compass to decide, and not the program. Advertising of certain products targets the pester power or desires of younger ones. This suggests little ones see life in different ways to adults. Possibly Gruen for Juniors might need to be developed and will find a ready audience. Also for some of us grown ups who prefer not to be all grown up all of the time. :wink:

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Gruen is mostly designed to entertain as an inside joke on the advertising industry rather than inform or educate.

Back in antiquity when I was at school, we read Vance Packard’s “The Hidden Persuaders”. It described the psychology of advertising and consumer manipulation. It would be no less relevant today.

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That’s probably true. I just would like people to be taught critical thinking so they can apply it in their lives. I think it helps you make sensible decisions e.g. where the truth lies and who to trust.
Thanks for the tip @CaptJack - Vance Packard’s “The Hidden Persuaders” Google Books sounds like an impressive book and an interesting guy!
Anyone who can write a book on this topic in 1957 relevant enough to still be prompting new editions in 2007 is worth tracking down.
[Packard sounds like a pioneer with great foresight when you look at some of his other books still topical today e.g. The Waste Makers, The Status Seekers, The Naked Society. If interested in these you can click on the Google Books link above then click on the More By Author tab.]

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I decided, a long time ago, that no companies can be trusted.

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“The Space Merchants” Pohl & Kornbluth is more fun.

It’s fiction - but only just. For those who have read it or who are generally interested in the power of the corporation and wondering about relevance have a look at this:

Ex-minister of NSW parliament Victor Dominello has this to say about Clubs NSW.

Mr Dominello said the lobby group had a “sense of hubris” about its influence in New South Wales and because of the success it had in killing off poker machine reforms proposed by then-prime minister Julia Gillard a decade ago.

Ms Gillard eventually ditched the plan after a campaign coordinated by ClubsNSW in its national guise, Clubs Australia.

“They saw the power that they had over Julia Gillard,” Mr Dominello said. “And they basically said to me, in no uncertain terms, ‘We will do to you what we did to Julia Gillard.’”

Read the story here.

Or that old chestnut “I don’t recall”

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Something that really annoys me nowadays is how public service departments, when asked very reasonable questions about topics of public interest, respond with a paragraph of bland corporate babble, rather than answering the question.

These people have forgotten that they are the public service, not the government service.

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They might be simply giving you the best information available. Are you able to provide examples of questions you have asked and the responses you received?

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A post was merged into an existing topic: Royal Commission into Robodebt

A polite reminder on the focus of the topic from the OP.

Accountability of business is important, on different terms to government and achieved in very different ways. For others there are opportunities to direct observations on how Government and it’s service functions through existing topics specific to individual areas of concern.

I think it must be very stressful for honest public-facing employees, government or private, to not be able to provide clear information. It’s probably more than their job is worth if it’s found out that they went against ‘orders’.

That’s a very broad judgement. Guess you’re self-employed but unincorporated then?
I understand Choice is a company, although it’s non-profit. I trust them with most things - maybe not the tasting department budget, especially around Easter.

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The saying “short-term gain long-term pain” is wired into to the brains of most people. The prospect of pain in the long-term is too far away for most people to be unduly concerned about. To some extent it is the same with e.g. life insurance or superannuation. Why should I be fussed about things that might happen so far away in the future? Who knows what could happen between now and then. Why worry? Not me!

The business models of some companies are based on burn and churn. Burn out the staff and when they leave or churn replace then with another disposable resource. When the company goes bust due to its business model being unsustainable that’s OK. The business model can be reincarnated in a different guise.

Few companies adopt the “short-term pain long-term gain” model. These are the companies who place ethics and their people first. This is hard work in the short term but the pay off in the longer-term is satisfied customers and stakeholders, and the long-term survivability of the company.

Of course, these generalisations are subject to market factors such as the monopoly of the big four banks. They can focus on short-term gain since there is no other competition.

As far as Government is concerned, there is no obligation to answer a question with a response that actually answers the question. Just as you get to choose the question they get to choose the answer. The waste of time that is Question Time in the Federal Parliament is prime example. The politicalisation of the public service occurred some years ago thanks to the efforts of successive Coalition governments and there is no longer such a thing as frank and fearless independent public service. Choice’s efforts to keep the bastards honest, and to recognise companies that do the right thing, is what keeps Choice going.

So the world is made up of good stuff and bad s–t, and once you accept that you can manage your way as best you can. Buyer beware is good advice.