Monday, May 12, 2008

Is deceit ever permissible?

Is it okay to lie? Sometimes? Is deception okay if it’s for a noble purpose?

The folks at New Zealand’s Land Transport Safety Authority are arguing that it is. The goal of making New Zealand drivers safer justifies the means, they say.

Recently, the LTSA began running commercials with a woman sitting stiffly looking at the camera. She speaks in halting language, affected, it seems, by a stroke or something. She talks about how she didn’t know about “side curtain airbags before my accident”. Clearly, her brain was damaged by a side-impact collision.

Except, she wasn’t real: It turns out she was an Australian actress who was portraying—convincingly, I might add—a woman who suffered brain damage from a car accident.

LTSA says there’s nothing wrong with the commercial, and that it’s no different than ads that depict crashes. They argue that since they don’t actually crash cars for collision commercials, and use actors, this is no different.

It’s way different.

People know that collision ads are fake. They know that the people are all actors, that the ads are intended to make a point. But the current ad uses fakery to deceive people into feeling personally for the “victim”. That doesn’t make people change their behaviour—it makes them resentful of the deception, of being tricked.

Maybe in retrospect it would have been too exploitative to use a real crash victim. But if it was, then using an actor to fake being a brain injury victim is just plain wrong. There are better ways to present information than to try and trick viewers.

Update 30/6/08: After briefly disappearing from TV screens, the ad is now back. Does this make things worse? Meanwhile, an anti-smoking commercial featuring a man who suffered oral cancer form smoking, and who can barely talk with his partial tongue and finger over the tube in his trachea, has made people ask first, is it real, and then they make fun of it. It looks as if the faked crash victim commercial may have had a greater affect than what I originally noted above.

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