What does a post-factual world mean for research?

Image of the post author Kadence International

A few years ago, Ralph Keyes coined the term ‘post-truth era’, suggesting that we have reached a stage when the weight and impact of facts and the truth are losing ground. Instead an emotional appeal, personal beliefs and opinions can have more gravitas and impact.

It is true that social media, alternative media and satirical news sites, like the Onion, have helped foster this new paradigm. However, this year is perhaps the first time we have seen such a phenomenon on such a wide and political stage. Earlier in the year, in the UK, the Leave campaign won the referendum to leave the EU, in part, on a platform of stopping sending £350m a week to Brussels. Never mind that this fact was proved to be wrong, the campaign continued with the message. The fact that the message wasn’t true took a back seat to the political pull of the message.

Perhaps, though, the biggest sign of the arrival of a post-factual world is the level of lies, half-truths and pure fabrications launched by the Trump campaign in the 2016 US Election; all of which fueled him to become the new President Elect. Politifact – the fact checking website – recently declared that 80% of Trump’s statements were proven to be false, half true or a complete lie; a new record for political campaigns.

But the point isn’t that what he is saying is false, the point is that the world seems to care less about it. Again, and again media commentators have highlighted that any one of these falsehoods or extreme exclamations would have sunk past political campaigns; and yet, in 2016, it appears the world is more willing to put up with a lie, as long as it sounds good.

“In 2016, it appears the world is more willing to put up with a lie, as long as it sounds good.”

In the place of rational, logical fact, emotion and ‘gut’ has taken sway. This was most clearly highlighted at the Republican National Convention where, Antonio Sabato Junior, in the face of his argument that President Obama is a Muslim was proved false put up the defense of ‘I have the right to believe that [he is] and you have the right to go against that.’

On the world stage this means that more extreme figures, such as Trump and Farage, can begin to command real political power. But it also has implications for market research; an industry built on the unearthing, proving, and delivering of facts; of finding the truth and reporting it. If Antonio Sabato Junior can refute the facts of the US Election; what is to stop your client from taking the same view; ‘I have the right to believe that [something different] and you have the right to go against that.’

This is not to say that facts have had their day. Rather, perhaps we have come to a place where people want more than facts, they want edutainment – education and information, as long as it’s entertaining and theatrical. One of the best edutainers might have been Steve Jobs. Rather than simply explaining the features of a new product, in the words of Carmine Gallo, he would ‘dress the stat’. An iPod wasn’t ‘1gb of memory’; it was a ‘1,000 songs in your pocket’. The same information, but dressed to entertain. The bringing together of facts with existing knowledge; context and emotion.

The focus then for market research is to dress our stats. To build it up with the existing knowledge of the client, factor in the context of the business situation and deliver the presentation with an appeal to emotion as much to reason. Rather than presenting cold facts, we have to connect back to the client and the personal opinions they hold rather than propounding stark alternatives; which in a post-factual world can be happily glossed over.

At a time when the market research industry can be accused of naval-gazing over the latest new methodology or way of using social media and mobile; perhaps more time should be spent on how to present the results of these methodologies in a way that connects with our client’s own personal versions of the truth and delivers it with emotion.