Katie Mullen

Reaching “Peak Bullshit” and Where We Go From Here

I’m a college graduation speech junkie. When you ask interesting people to share life lessons, not surprisingly, it can make for some pretty great stuff.

My favorite of 2013 was Jon Lovett’s address to the graduates of Pitzer College, which the 30-year-old former Obama speechwriter later excerpted in a piece for The Atlantic called “Life Lessons on Fighting a Culture of Bullshit.”

You had me at “bullshit,” Jon. Being that the recession created skeptics out of even the most trusting among us, I’m willing to bet his point of view will strike a cord with you too. It’s kind of hard not to agree with statements like this:

“One of the greatest threats we face is, simply put, bullshit. We are drowning in it. We are drowning in partisan rhetoric that is just true enough not to be a lie; in industry-sponsored research; in social media’s imitation of human connection; in legalese and corporate double-speak. It infects every facet of public life, corrupting our discourse, wrecking our trust in major institutions, lowering our standards for the truth, making it harder to achieve anything.”

You can see where I’m taking this as it relates to brands. Phoniness is becoming a liability and, conversely, there’s more opportunity than ever for brands that are honest. In a McKinsey & Company article about the rise of socially conscious consumers, the growing importance of brand integrity is spelled out in the stats:

“At the same time, consumer trust in corporations has declined by 50 percent since the crisis. Consumers now trust only one in four companies on average. The dearth of trust in the marketplace makes it an agent of differentiation. As a result, the correlation of trust to brand equity has increased by 35 percent in the past three years. Trust, once an afterthought, can even help companies enter new market categories.”

Jon Lovett not only recognized a similar demand for sincerity in his commencement speech, he argued that it’s led us to an important cultural tipping point:

“I believe we may have reached ‘peak bullshit.’ And that increasingly, those who push back against the noise and nonsense; those who refuse to accept the untruths of politics and commerce and entertainment and government will be rewarded. That we are at the beginning of something important. We see it across our culture, with not only popularity but hunger for the intellectual honesty of Jon Stewart or the raw sincerity of performers like Louis CK and Lena Dunham. You see it across the political spectrum, from Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts to Chris Christie in New Jersey to Rand Paul in Kentucky.”

Marketing can’t create trust in this environment, it can only magnify it. More and more, people are looking into the practices and policies of the companies they choose to hand their money over to. Do they treat their employees fairly? What are their environmental policies? Where/how are their products made?

That’s why I think Jon’s parting advice to the Pitzer graduates is as relevant to brands as it is to individuals:

“All you have to do is avoid BSing yourself — in whatever you choose to do…be honest with yourselves, and others…reject a culture of insincerity by virtue of the example you set.”