Two-Faced Brands

Comcast’s marketers want customers to choose its offers while its government affairs team tries to limit their choices. Can brands really have it both ways?

This cognitive dissonance was recently apparent in Fort Collins, Colorado, where Comcast helped sponsor and deliver a ballot initiative to deny the city’s rights to offer a broadband network. Similar limits are already in place around the US, thanks to lobbying and funding from a small handful of telecom providers.

The campaign against the city contained all of the sorta/kinda truths that we’ve come to expect in politics, as well as business. It said that any new service might rob other services for funding, which is true insomuch that all municipal services compete for a finite bucket of money. Ads claimed that a municipal ISP would necessitate a tax increase, which it could, technically, if voters actually approved it first.

These claims were intended to convince voters to deny themselves the ability to make informed choices.

Democracy and capitalism need a free market for ideas in order to work. While the challenge for market participants has always been to separate the truths from falsehoods, it’s gotten tougher as the creativity of communicators has improved (a “yes” vote on a ballot can twist language to actually yield a “no” against something), the cash spent to propagate messages can artificially amplify one message over another (Citizens United, anyone?), and the growth of social media platforms has replaced the media functions of fact checking and transparency with opinions and secret agendas.

That’s not a free market, but rather one that’s biased, impeded, and ultimately ineffective. In a world wherein “fake” news is not only tolerated but believed, there is no “real” news; when information is little more than content, it’s a destructive weapon, not a constructive tool.

Caveat emptor was always intended to be a protection of last resort, not a preferred choice for the function of markets.

Voters rejected Comcast’s ballot initiative, which means consumers in Fort Collins may well have another ISP choice sometime down the road. Will they remember Comcast’s efforts to deny them that freedom? Could its campaign actually end up encouraging public support for a competitive alternative?

Worse, could it add suspicion and resentment of monopolistic tendencies to the general perception of its brand, thereby making other, unrelated alternatives like cord-cutting seem more reasonable?

It’s like Comcast’s government affairs department was trying to win a battle that would help Comcast lose the marketing war…and then it lost the battle anyway.

Companies, like politicians, need to rethink what gets propagated into the marketplace of ideas. The “winning at all costs” model for elections and sales is far less valid than it once was; people are using technology, and relying on one another, to connect promises with outcomes, and doing so faster and more brutally.

They’re beginning to see again the connections between being citizens and consumers, and between the different “faces” that institutions present to them.

Though our society has dismantled the many of the institutional and traditional “elite” behaviors that once protected markets (while limiting them, sometimes unfairly), the onus falls to the creators of content to step up and stand for honesty, consistency, and clarity.

Oddly enough, the best way to navigate today’s marketplace is the same as it was when Adam Smith first imagined it: Don’t sell your “side” of a story. Tell the truth, and empower participants to make their own decisions.

Let’s hope that Comcast will learn the lesson that informing people is more effective and sustainable than manipulating them.

[This essay originally appeared at Recapitalism.net]