Showtime’s New Series is Built on Deception and Bad for America

Writing about marketing and business is more fun when sharing excellent examples and great creativity.

However, just as important, sometimes we have to learn from what’s not excellent. A new “comedy” series from Showtime is a glaring example.

Authenticity and transparency are important go-to-market levers. Consumers want that in their products and services. Citizens want that in their government. We don’t always get it.

Part of the reason is that we all, even implicitly, allow it to happen.

Credit: Showtime (sho.com)

Take Showtime’s new series with Sacha Baron Cohen, Who Is America? According to the network, the series “features his first new characters in 15 years, which are so believably performed that they can exist in the real world.”

Let me translate: these “believable new characters” are fraudulent impersonations of purportedly real people, designed to trick targets into participating in on-camera interviews.

With all the challenges we face as a society, why does Showtime feel the need to pay for and promote “gotcha” deception?

Regardless of how his creative output is received, let’s acknowledge that Mr. Cohen is a brilliant talent. In past incarnations he’s been able to make fun of and skewer public figures and others across the political spectrum. One again, he’s an equal opportunity entrapper, targeting all sides of the political spectrum, as evidenced by perusing video clips and teasers released by Showtime.

But what’s the point of tricking public figures and citizens into video interviews so they can be ridiculed for Mr. Cohen’s and Showtime’s commercial benefit? Yes, the Senator Bernie Sanders “move the 99% into the 1%” bit is laugh-out-loud funny. That’s not the point. Funny doesn’t make it right. We need our elected officials working for America, not falling victim to deceptive publicity opportunities.

On their website, Showtime says this about the series: “Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen explores the diverse individuals, from the infamous to the unknown across the political and cultural spectrum, who populate our unique nation.” However, this is not a documentary or legitimate journalistic effort. It’s also not a law enforcement matter that would require undercover tactics. In reality, Mr. Cohen explores by deceiving people, perhaps in part to make political statements, but for sure to make a living.

Give credit to Mr. Cohen and his team for getting past gatekeepers, vetters and the unsuspecting to secure these interviews. Maybe the “victims” should have done a better job – who knows. It’s easy to criticize, but realize that any one of us could also be tricked.

Done properly, there are roles for comedy and tongue-in-cheek communications in marketing and business. Have a proper strategy and solid marketing discipline though (check this blog’s archive for posts on that). For example, it was mostly obvious that IHOP wasn’t really changing its name to International House of Burgers.

Robust, intense competition is a hallmark of the American enterprise. In contrast, deception, misinformation and trickery are not generally accepted business operating procedures. Consumers and B2B buyers typically reject those kind of tactics. When they sneak through, the purveyors of such tactics usually get their comeuppance eventually.

We have safeguards for when competition is alleged to be unfair, deceptive or criminal. It’s not clear what protections are in place for the kind of entrapment and deception practiced by Mr. Cohen and Showtime.

Just because they can make money this way doesn’t mean they should. It may be good for their business, but it’s not good for America.

Harvey Chimoff is a versatile marketing and business team leader who believes good marketing sells. Contact him at StratGo Marketing, a plug-in marketing department resource for company leaders.

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