I know Lance Armstrong may seem a bit off topic, but bear with me, this is actually a post about propaganda.
There is a dead serious comment (UK speak for op ed) at the Guardian about what a sap Lance Armstrong was for ‘fessing up to using performance-enhancing drugs while competing in the Tour de France. Key sections of the article:
Lance Armstrong’s doping admission to Oprah was a public relations nightmare in the making. While we can all agree that Lance would have been better-off not cheating at all (or at least confessing sooner), it’s fairly clear that once he cheated and lied, he probably should have kept lying if he wanted to maintain his public standing.
Yes, Lance’s favorability took a hit with the American public in the past year, but – even after the Usada report revelations in October 2012 – this drop in public approval was stabilizing prior to Oprah. His net favorable rating (+favorable minus –unfavorable) dropped 75pt, as doping rumors became louder and louder, from +76pt, in 2005, to +1pt, in October 2012.
Yet, by early January 2013, only 37% of American sports fans believed he should not get credit for his career accomplishments – including his seven Tour de France victories (sic). This compares with October 2012, when 49% thought Armstrong should give his medals back…
Whatever Armstrong’s strategic goal – to return to competition or just to begin a process of rehabilitation that makes him less toxic as a public figure – the trade-off would only be worth it if Armstrong’s favorability could recover. But this stain on his favorability is likely permanent: 63% of Americans say it’s unlikely Armstrong will be able to restore his reputation.
The decline in popularity is undeniable. It may be permanent, but humans are notably poor at predicting future emotional states accurately.
But the more important thing about this article is the lack of reflection on this phenomenon. This is a manifestation of halo effect, which is where people tend to see people as all good or all bad based on the attributes they notice. That’s why pretty people are assumed to be smarter than not-pretty people (trust me, lots of studies on this). Now that Armstrong admitted he did something bad, he’s all bad. No credit for being willing to confess and endure the consequences, no credit for the good his foundation has done.
And of course, the Armstrong reaction explains completely why we have CEOs tell egregious lie after egregious lie and they get away with it. I’m waiting to see some fixture at a right wing think tank argue that SEC disclosure is a bad thing because the fact that executives are supposed to (according to all good free markets types) care only about maximizing shareholder value and lying more would help boost stock prices. If telling a big lie is better than being truthful, then telling big lies all the time should be seen as being desirable. And we seem to be well along that path even before we have articles extolling that strategy.