Brands claim what(ever) they want. Do they need to prove it?

Netflix has been gleefully throwing numbers at us recently.

In the first week of December, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, speaking Monday at UBS’s 2018 Global Media and Communications Conference in New York, said that ‘The Christmas Chronicles’, starring Kurt Russell as Saint Nick (that premiered on Netflix on Nov. 22, 2018) was viewed by Netflix members 20 million times in the first seven days!

Netflix Content Boss Downplays Disney, WarnerMedia Streaming Threat – Variety

Then, on December 29, 2018, Netflix posted the now-much-debated, much-derided tweet about how successful its Sandra Bullock starrer, Bird Box, was.

Variety, that reported the context around the tweet first sought Netflix’s explanation on what ‘watched’ meant. Netflix declined to share any information.

Then, they did, as if they had a change of heart!

‘Bird Box’ Viewed by 45 Million Members in First Week, Netflix Says – Variety

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner has an interesting take on the ensuing controversy around comparing Netflix’s 45 million to theatrical income – that it is not apples to oranges comparison. And this sort of change IS the disruption that the entertainment industry should take cognizance of, instead of merely wondering how to get more people into the theaters.

I have long imagined a future where we get first-day release of Indian films also on our phones and TVs, while they premier on theaters at the same time. So, what Netflix does is straight up my alley.

But what Netflix says is not.

Netflix ‘claims’ numbers like 20 million and 45 million. It is not backed by any proof that it releases. It is not audited by any 3rd party, to verify the claim. It is simply a number thrown by Netflix, known for its rigorous use of data, that we are supposed to take on face value. We are supposed to believe that Netflix is telling us the truth.

Whether it is true or not, the number-throwing gig by Netflix fits within the ‘Social Proof’ bias. In ‘The Choice Factory: 25 Behavioural Biases That Influence What We Buy’, Richard Shotton explains Social Proof.

And explains how to use it in business.

In a way, the ‘news’ of Indian films doing 100/200/500 crores worth of business is geared towards ‘social proof’ too. “If so many people saw the film, it must be good and I need to see it too!”.

So, whether or not Netflix is telling us the truth (they could prove it easily since they are known for their legendary focus on data, but the fact is they don’t want to prove anything. All they seem to want is to merely throw a large number at us, to impress us to watch the film), they are engineering social proof to get more people (more than 45 million) interested in the film. The larger point from a communications perspective is that (if you pause and not think about the veracity of the claims for a minute) they are making a bombastic claim with no backing.

Paytm made a similar claim earlier this week when they announced, ‘India’s most sincere bank is here”. Your first question may be, ‘Says who?’. Says Paytm!

Paytm Bank claims of being India’s ‘most sincere bank’, already!

Politicians are the kind of people who used this self-certification to great effect. It emotionally affects people and the politicians hope that it affects enough to get votes and build a narrative.

Now, brands have started using it too!

This is a far cry from the days when FMCG brands used to make a bold claim and base it on a user survey with 50-100 participants! And add a lot of fine print details on some obscure study/survey to back up that claim in the headline.

More on that bombastic claim from Parachute: Who exactly ratified Parachute Advansed’s bombastic claim of ‘World’s Best Hair’? Take a look at how convoluted and utterly bizarre the supporting data is, for that claim! But the fact is, they at least bothered to add that 🙂

Or, this delightfully funny fine print from Pillsbury.

Now, even that fig-leaf of credibility is off.

But why? And how? I could argue that the reverse should be true – that is, brands get extra careful before making such tall claims without proof because unlike pre-social-media times, now a LOT of people can question such claims online.

But, in a period when such statements can be rebuked, questioned, dissected and debated on social media (and mainstream media, more so on social media), brands seem less coy in using this tactic!

When social media was not around, brands could have used this to great effect because even if people have doubts about it, they could not share it far and wide – it could only spread via word-of-mouth in the physical world. But now, even with the power in people to spread a counter-point far and wide, Netflix and Paytm still get to offer such statements that are not validated by a neutral source.

Understandably, the Netflix claim is being contested by a LOT of individuals online and a LOT of media outlets. ( Verge | Business Insider )

The Paytm claim is being discussed by a LOT of people on LinkedIn and Twitter. (Remember that Paytm Bank has been using the ‘most sincere’ tag even before it got blocked by RBI. It rings particularly hollow after the block and once they got back!)

So, is it the lack of consensus and the cacophony of counter-questions that is making brands bolder in offering such statements? That is, there is no leader in spearheading such statements to a conclusion – just a lot of individual voices talking in many smaller circles online. Perhaps all those voices add to the claim’s social proof bias too, in Netflix’s case. And to the added visibility in Paytm’s case.

A brand makes a claim to build its perception around it:
“Netflix’s new film is seen by 45 million people, so you should too”
“Paytm is India’s most sincere bank. So you should trust the bank”

There is no basis to trust the statement on face value.

A lot of people question it and muddle that perception, but in circles far smaller than the brand’s own massive reach (Netflix’s Twitter reach, and Paytm’s reach via an all-edition Times of India front page advertisement).

The brands in question largely remain silent, having stirred the pot and basking in the ensuing visibility.

As I mentioned earlier, politicians do this with alarming efficiency. So, these are interesting times for brand communication too!

PS: If you are yet to see Bird Box, on Netflix, I highly recommend you do. Very good watch because of a really interesting concept, and a good companion piece to Emily Blunt & John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place.

After you have seen the film, I also recommend a short story, Different Kinds of Darkness, by David Langford.

The premise is very, very similar, but also intriguingly different in one aspect – the perpetrators in Bird Box are presumably not from Earth, while the perpetrator in Different Kinds of Darkness is a human!

And even in Bird Box, you can apply the logic of Different Kinds of Darkness to build some immunity to the people who are struggling for survival because the way it is shown, there IS some time between the first exposure and eventual turn.

So, do start with Bird Box and then move to Different Kinds of Darkness.

The short story is available in audio, read brilliantly by Levar Burton… or as text, on Lightspeed Magazine.