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  • April 23, 2023
  • Chuck Osborne

Perception vs. Reality

When I was starting out in my career, I remember distinctly the first time a mentor told me that perception was greater than reality. I bristled at the concept; reality should matter more than mere perception. Unfortunately, that isn’t how the world works. 

A few years after that, I remember the first time I heard the word “branding.” It came from the marketing department of my employer at the time, Aetna Retirement, which is now part of Voya. We were being trained on how to project the correct corporate image and being schooled in how the company wanted others to see it. It literally made me sick to my stomach. 

That is not hyperbole; overt branding exercises make my skin crawl. Why do I have such a reaction? Have you seen the movie “Knives Out?” If not, I highly recommend it. The heroine in the movie cannot tell a lie. Every time she lies, she vomits. I can relate. Since I was young, I have always had an innate difficulty with dishonesty. I am not saying that to brag, as there are times when this has not been a good thing. One of the most consistent pieces of negative feedback I receive is that I lack tack. That is the downside of always being honest. 

At best marketing is about telling only the positive side; at worst it is about projecting image over substance, or even flat-out lying. My marketing friends will disagree with that statement, and fair enough. I do have many friends in the marketing field, and I should be clear that I do not think of them as being dishonest. Some of it is perception – is the glass half full, or half empty? Marketers will always go for half full, and frankly I do, too, most of the time. 

Most of us recognize this and have become somewhat immune to marketing’s charm when it comes to commercial goods. However, in the age of social media, we have all become marketers. Previously reserved for corporate executives and public figures, personal branding has become pervasive. What image do we want to present to the world? Our society has become so occupied with branding that we no longer believe that perception is greater than reality; we now seem to believe that perception is reality. Some even argue that reality does not exist. 

We see it everywhere in our culture and it is coming to a head. There is an anxiety crisis in our society today, which many experts blame on our reaction to the pandemic. A Boston University School of Public Health study suggests that the rates of depression in the U.S. went from 9 percent to 29 percent during the early months of the pandemic and continued to climb to 33 percent. 

Obviously I’m not a psychologist, but it does seem that when perception is no longer anchored in reality, then it isn’t anchored at all. That means one has become adrift. One example today is the proposed regulation by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which will essentially mandate conversion to electric cars. This regulation is all about perception with no anchor in reality. 

There is a great deal of focus about the fact that our electric grid simply cannot handle the added load of a mass conversion to electric vehicles. That is an excellent point, but to me, the problem is in the branding. Electric cars have been branded as “clean,” which means that nonelectric cars have been branded as dirty. This makes for a simple decision between “clean” and “dirty,” when the truth is far more complex.  

Are electric cars actually a net benefit to the environment? I honestly do not know the answer to that question, but I know it needs to be explored, and I have yet to hear anyone do so. I also know that electric cars are not clean, because batteries are not clean. What’s involved in battery manufacturing? What about the mining of the minerals involved? The power in those batteries is only as clean as the grid from which it was pulled. 

The truth is, there is no such thing as “clean” energy. That is branding talk, not reality. This is why it is so important to fight back against the idea that reality does not actually exist: Our environmental problems are real, which means that this is too important to be a marketing campaign. They should not be exaggerated, nor should they be downplayed, or politicized. The solutions need to be explored honestly and thoroughly. Will the cure be worse than the disease?

Perception may always be greater than reality, but we need it to be anchored in reality. If we are going to actually face the challenges of our society, then we need less branding and more honest, grown-up conversations aimed at real solutions, not sides. At least that is my perspective. 

Warm regards,

Chuck Osborne, CFA 
Managing Director