Let’s Be Honest: Shady Advertising Tactics Just Don’t Work Anymore

This past weekend, Audi and Volkswagen learned the hard way that you had better live up to the promises you make as a company. If you don’t, you’ll probably get caught. 

That’s exactly what happened to the German car manufacturer on Sunday when CEO Martin Winterkorn admitted that his company had “cheated on their emissions tests with nearly half a million TDI diesel cars.” This could lead to as much as billions of dollars of fines and even criminal prosecution. On Monday, their stock dropped 23%.

To make matters worse, this revelation on Sunday was followed shortly by new Audi ads, which aired during the Primetime Emmy Awards and Sunday Night Football, that testified to the company’s U.S. slogan “truth in engineering.”  

While the fallout for a disconnect between what you promise and what you deliver isn’t always this dramatic, this latest scandal is further proof that in today’s world, it pays way better to be transparent than dishonest. 


There’s an old maxim that “honesty doesn’t pay”. This may have been true in the age of broadcast marketing when you could buy people’s attention with enough money to spare, without fear of oversight or repercussion. 

Things changed with the advent of the internet and digital marketing. Now money isn’t a barrier to entry and everyone has the power to share their idea. That was a good change, but it does mean that companies have to work way harder to get people to commit to their brand. A big part of that is building a relationship with consumers and the trust that comes with it.  

People are more suspicious than ever of big businesses trying to sell an idea dishonestly, as they have been burned more and more by the kinds of reversals that Volkswagen pulled this past week. This is all great news for startups who have an inherent advantage in the market of building trust, but only if you empower that fact in your messaging and in the story you tell about your brand. 

Telling the story of your brand is the key to setting yourself apart in such a saturated market and it’s the quickest way to build trust, too. Startups are way ahead here because the some of the elements that make for the best kind of story are inherently built into their identity. 


The most important part of a good story is some kind of struggle or challenge to overcome. Startups face challenges every day. The challenge to get recognized, the challenge to beat the competition despite impossible odds, and above all, the challenge to succeed in a market that sets you up for failure from day one. 

It’s easy to see why consumers would empathize with this kind of narrative if given the chance. If you make the audience part of your success story, if you make them part of the process by asking for feedback to help you develop a better product then they’ll invest themselves in your success as a company. Not only that, but they’ll trust in your ability to deliver if you trust them enough to ask for their help. 

It’s so much easier to believe in an underdog (the startup) than that shadowy conglomerate because really you’re just like them. You’re trying to live the dream and that’s something that everyone wants to see happen. That’s a story that needs to be told. Don’t hold back, don’t deceive. Be a company that you can believe in and others will believe in it to. Not only will this help you avoid the kind of scandal and financial mire that Volkswagen has found itself in, but it will build up your sense of your own brand, your own culture, and your audience’s positive perception of you. 

— ZK

Ed Lynes13p5Comment