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Is honesty really such a bad thing in commerce?

September 25, 2014
Haileybury Buildings - a somewhat dreary front cover design opens up into some surprising honesty from the author.

Haileybury Buildings – a somewhat dreary front cover design opens up into some surprising honesty from the author.

It is often quite striking in the push and shove of commercial life just how much can be achieved as a consequence of deception.

Whether this be a misleading copy line, a dubious sales claim to win a new account or a mendacious “early bird offer”, deception (or convincing people, as Genesis P. Orridge might have argued in the 1981 classic album 20 Jazz Funk Greats) has almost become part of the accepted language of trade.

It can be argued that this is because the “neighbourhood” of commercial language now has a performance grammar of its own. Customers, it seems, have been trained to relate to message rather than substance.

It seems that, as a consequence, they might be unable to determine honesty so instead opt for interpreting the language of message. The message which appears to be most credible is that which ultimately is believed – even if the syntax of message is not grounded in reality.

I was therefore delighted to read this preface from an obscure 1930s book about the history of the buildings at British public school, Haileybury College:

“It was never my intention that these few pages, written in an idle moment for my own pleasure, should see the light of day: friends, however, to whom I showed them urged me…” Thus, I believe, it is customary to begin the modest introduction. In this case nothing could be further from the truth. The friends to whom I showed this book, written with the express intention of publication, begged me, for the most part to burn or otherwise destroy it, saying that no good ever came of holding up the mirror to ugliness, that it was better to turn a blind eye to evils that could no longer be remedied.

Thus wrote Wilfrid Blunt in “The Haileybury Buildings” (1936). He has a certain honesty about the scope of his ambition which I find admirable.

Many years ago, I proposed a strapline for a publisher stating “Books for you, money for us”. It was never used. Although this might be taking honesty a little too far, it does often strike me that the fog of commercial grammar does little but lead to listlessness and brand weariness.



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