Friday, June 13, 2008

The Dangers of Inauthenticity

Is inauthenticty a word? Maybe in the spirit of Stephen Colbert, it is now. We need something for the opposite of authenticity. That's the word. Here's an example.

I caught on SA a news story from the US about a high school 'scared straight' stunt where students were told their classmates had died, only to discover later that it was a deception intended to 'shock' them about the realities of drunken driving.

Quote from the article:

    On a Monday morning last month, highway patrol officers visited 20 classrooms at El Camino High School to announce some horrible news: Several students had been killed in car wrecks over the weekend.

    Oceanside Unified Schools Superintendent Larry Perondi discusses the DUI program as a student looks on.

    Classmates wept. Some became hysterical.

    A few hours and many tears later, though, the pain turned to fury when the teenagers learned that it was all a hoax, a scared-straight exercise designed by school officials to dramatize the consequences of drinking and driving.

    As seniors prepare for graduation parties Friday, school officials in the largely prosperous San Diego, California, suburb are defending themselves against allegations that they went too far.

    At school assemblies, some students held posters that read, "Death is real. Don't play with our emotions."

    Michelle de Gracia, 16, was in physics class when an officer announced that her missing classmate David, a popular basketball player, had died instantly after being rear-ended by a drunken driver. She said she felt nauseated but was too stunned to cry.

    "They got the shock they wanted," she said.

    Some of her classmates became extremely upset, prompting the teacher to tell them immediately that it was all staged.

    "People started yelling at the teacher," she said. "It was pretty hectic."

    Others, including many who heard the news of the 26 deaths between classes, were left in the dark until the missing students reappeared hours later.

    "You feel betrayed by your teachers and administrators, these people you trust," said 15-year-old Carolyn Magos.
On one hand, I applaud the school for teaching their students to distrust authority figures and question the veracity of what they are told. Not that high school students need much encouragement in that area, but it's always a good lesson to reinforce. So bravo to the administrators for that.

But there's something even more deeply disturbing here that relates to my job. I realize I haven't blogged about work recently, but I'm going to start doing it again, so bear with me.

Manipulation is something that is so ingrained into so many people for so many reasons that it can become justifiable to them in instances like this. The administration's argument, that the ends outweigh the means, is faulty. I could post statistics that show being honest and straightforward with kids (and people) is the best way to influence their behavior. I could post a rant about schools manipulating their students (as soon as you're born, they make you feel small.) But instead consider it from the side of authentic communications, in which my company has become a major thought leader.

The fact of the matter is the old model of manipulate and obfuscate doesn't work. At some point your deception will be discovered, and the ends do not justify the means. Ever. Some marketers view the public as children to be manipulated. Traditionally, this thinking may work. It may get headlines. But like the student response to this deception, is the backlash worth it? If the administrators had instead sat down and shown them something equally shocking but not deceptive, for example, photos of DUI victims that you can easily find online, they would have achieved their goals without the need for lies and without the inevitable negative backlash and loss of trust.

The quote by the girl at the end really sums up the risks and dangers of inauthenticity: "You feel betrayed by your teachers and administrators, these people you trust."

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