Is It Ever OK to Lie to Your Audience?

Lying to, or misleading your audience in a health communication or social marketing campaign is just plain wrong.

Not lying to your public shouldn’t be a controversial opinion, but every once in a while I run into a public health professional that thinks lying or obfuscating the truth is justifiable so long as it leads to the desired action.

Exaggerating or fudging statistics may help you with adherence to your desired health behavior right now, but when your public finds out that you’ve lied to them, they are more likely to reject the behavior going forward.

My Dermatologist Lied to Me (and other betrayals):

Last week I had my annual skin cancer check with my dermatologist.*  At the end of the appointment I asked her what I could do to protect my skin from sun damage.  She recommended I wear a daily SPF 60 or higher on all portions of my skin exposed to the sun or fluorescent lights.  I stopped her and asked two follow-up questions:

  1. How practical is that considering that you have to reapply sunscreen and
  2. Was she actually telling me that indoor lights can cause skin cancer?

She told me that I wouldn’t have to reapply the sunscreen, and that I really did need to use it to protect against sun exposure even if I wasn’t going out in the sun, and that “some people think” the lights we’re exposed to in our offices and homes can cause skin cancer.

She was lying to me, but she was doing it to get me to adopt a healthier behavior.

PLEASE NOTEThere have been absolutely NO scientific studies showing either a causation or a correlation between normal indoor artificial light exposure and skin cancer.  In addition, you do need to reapply sunscreen every 90 to 120 minutes, regardless of sun exposure or outdoor activity.

Why it Doesn’t Help in the Short-Term or the Long-Term:

As I left the appointment I realized that I had just experienced what I’ve read vaccine-hesitant parents complain about in studies: Physicians are so desperate to get the parents to adopt the behavior that they sometimes resort to lies and mischaracterizations, which only makes the parents more skeptical and increases the trust gap between physician and patient.

The behavior we are trying to get our audience to adapt may be the decision that’s “right” for them.  It may be one that will save them a cancer diagnosis or a tragic death in the future, but they have to adopt the behavior freely and lying invalidates that.

Lying to your audience is remarkably short-sighted.  A shocking statistic may get people to notice your campaign, but when it is exposed as being untrue or exaggerated the outrage and lack of trust that follows will undo any good your campaign has done.  This is particularly important for the digital media components of public health and social marketing campaigns.  To see the immediacy of the online blow-back from exaggerated statistics, we need to look no further than New York State’s popular Drink the Fat campaign to see this effect in action.

On a basic level, no one likes to be lied to and when we lie to our publics we tear down any trust we have built up with our audience.   When I say, “we” I’m speaking about health communicators and social marketers as a whole.  While the immediate impact may be felt only on your campaign, the controversy affects the trust that people have towards public health professionals in general.

What do you think?  Is lying or fudging the numbers in a public health campaign ever acceptable?

*All clear, no suspicious spots!

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References & resources:

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