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Little White Lies: What Good Are Fact Checkers Anyway?

Today in Negative Retail News, New York State’s attorney general is investigating the makers of popular caffeinated energy drinks like Amp, Monster and 5 Hour Energy for playing a little loose with their facts and ingredients. On the other side of the grid, nearly every opinionator across the board—and yes, that includes Fox News—has pointed out a series of glaring inaccuracies in the speech that Republican VP nominee Paul Ryan gave at his party’s convention last night (while also noting that his presentation was impressive and that he hit all the right notes for the home team).

How do these stories relate? They both highlight the role of the independent fact-checker, and they raise a series of questions about the value of accuracy and transparency in public relations. So:

  • Does the additional of “herbal supplements” like guarana allow 5-Hour Energy and Monster drinks to contain “undisclosed” amounts of caffeine large enough to raise eyebrows?
  • Are they particularly dangerous when paired with alcohol?
  • Are big soda makers like Pepsico and Coca-Cola downplaying the unhealthy aspects of their most popular get-up-and-go products?

And:

  • Did Paul Ryan serve as the best-known Republican representative on the bipartisan debt commission that he just excoriated President Obama for ignoring?
  • Did he in fact vote against the very proposal that he seemed to suggest the President should have followed?

The answer to all these questions is yes. But in the interests of the brands in question, does it even really matter?

Even those who happen to prefer Mr. Ryan to Mr. Obama in both temperament and ideology would have to admit that he balanced his speech on an incredibly slippery slope. Yet, as the inevitable counter-argument goes, they all do it, so it’s a wash–even a halfhearted partisan can surely point to a recent case in which some prominent member of the other major party made a statement that was not entirely true.

The Romney campaign turned that principle into a neat little soundbite this week, announcing that “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers” while simultaneously slamming Obama on multiple occasions for twisting the facts. In other words, the rules don’t apply to us–Now play by the rules!

The same holds true for the carbonated caffeine dealers–we have a feeling that their argument in private would amount to: Everybody knows that our drinks aren’t healthy in the strictest sense of the word, and we’re not even really advertising them as such. Again with the slippery slope.

Our conclusion? Getting caught in a little fib could be a big blow to a brand’s reputation. But most of the time companies and politicians get away with it because they know they can. If they do get caught, they will probably suffer little more than a slap on the wrist. For companies that bring in billions each quarter, this is a mere pittance.

Time and again the benefits of little white lies have been proven to outweigh the risks. Who loses? The public.

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