Category Archives: deception

Paid posts and the psychology of deception


Yesterday we dropped into a debate with Chris Brogan about the ethics of paid blog posts. Chris is on the advisory board of IZEA, a company that enlists bloggers to write about brands in exchange for payment. Some feel this is OK. Others, like us, think buying online opinions is an ethically challenged gray area of marketing communications.

The real problem, of course, is deception — we can argue as to what degree, but there is no question that paid posts deceive by elevating a topic artificially and by inserting opinions more favorable because they have been bought. (This is one reason why Google seeks to ban paid posts from search results.) Even with disclosure saying a blog post is “a sponsored conversation,” the conflicts of interest and levels of confusion are high.

Does Joseph Jaffe really like his Panasonic TV enough to write about it?

Or is Joseph tweeting because Panasonic is his client, for whom he organizes blogger junkets to build online reviews of Panasonic gadgets? And does Keith Burtis realize, in the exchange above, that he just stumbled into a paid conversation?

Degrees of deception are nothing new. Back in 1996 Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Virginia, asked 147 people to keep a journal of all the lies they told in one week — with surprising results. Lies are extremely common in human communications; in any seven days, we tend to deceive about one-third of the people we talk to one on one. Men and women lie differently (men tend to be more egotistical, lying to inflate their personas, while women are more likely to deceive to appease hurt feelings). The wildest finding was that the intent of most lies was to be helpful. We use falsehoods to make others feel better. We even may need lies to boost our own self-esteem.

So what’s wrong with a good lie?

All communication contains a spectrum of truth vs. fiction, but the closer we get to untruths the more cognitive dissonance we encounter. Since humans need to sort their way through life by making judgments based on outside information, we often rely on others to tell us what is going on in the world. Dishonesty can make us feel better; it can also be dangerous by skewing the facts in ways that lead to wrong assumptions. We may have an evolutionary bias toward the truth; cave men who lied about sabre-toothed tigers may have gotten their friends eaten, and only the skeptical survived to pass down genes.

Advertising, of course, is often filled with stretched truths; this may be why media have demanded for a century that advertising be clearly labeled, so that consumers can judge the communication with a grain of salt.

Lies and half-truths surround us. This probably explains why people fight so much over politics, since there may be no right answer. It also hints at why paid posts are so controversial. In a world of imperfect information, it strains our mental data intake to learn that supposedly authentic opinions online may, or may not, be skewed by cash changing hands.

Photo: Riot Jane