Yesterday, as I was going to prepare a banana-pecan milkshake, I reached for the vanilla. It wasn't hard to find it in our pantry: the white and red box is the same brand we've used in my family (and my wife's) for decades.
This time, the box looked a little different, though. Honestly, I don't know when it changed, but it had a big sign on the top right corner "NON GMO". Okay... Curious, I looked in Google to see if there's GMO Vanilla. There's not.
Then, I went to the fridge to get some orange juice. It boasted the "NON GMO Project Verified" label. There are no GMO oranges currently in existence.
So, technically, that orange juice has No GMO's on it. The orange juice brand is telling the truth. But it is (and feels) dishonest: every orange juice brand is also NON GMO because there are no GMO oranges.
It's creating a distinction when there's none. It's finding a reason to charge more for a product when there's none. Marketing genius? Probably. But also highly unethical.
The same happens in the financial industry. Every year, mutual fund companies spend millions of dollars touting their funds with "5 Star" ratings as if such ratings meant anything in relation to future performance (hint: it doesn't). Sure, technically, they're correct in that those stars have "some" meaning. But not for the future.
Or how the largest brokerage and "financial advice" providers create flashy, emotional advertisements where they (almost) claim to put their clients' interests first, while at the same time fighting with tooth and nail the very law that would mandate them that they do and paying millions in fines every single year. Sure, those ads don't technically say that they fiduciaries, but they sure "appear" to say that.
Dishonest truths. Hiding behind technicalities (like a certain president some 20 years ago) to pretend to say something, when in reality, they say something completely different.
But, why? Why do marketers, CEO's, the media and more are resorting more and more frequently to dishonest truths? Could it be because the lack of scientific (and financial) literacy? Could it be because they sell and are hardly ever questioned? Could it be because they fit into our worldview, our fears and biases? I don't know. But I hope that, someday, marketers realize that dishonest truths are lies, and that lying to your clients is not only highly unethical, it's bad for business. Because, I hope, that we'll learn to discern the truthful labels from the deceitful, the honest labels from the "quick-buck" ones.
And, most of all, I hope that we all become more educated consumers and investors.