Probably the best definition of selling I’ve ever heard came from Wizard of Ads© partner Steve Clark, who said: “Selling is the transference of confidence from the seller to the buyer.”

Well, advertising is selling, isn’t it? Therefore, advertising should create confidence in the prospective buyer.

Good advertising does. Much of it does not. Why doesn’t all advertising create confidence?

Because people assume that the advertiser won’t say anything non-complementary about himself, his products, or his services when he’s paying for the ad. The public is always going to be skeptical of anything an advertiser says.

Should they be skeptical? Can advertisers be trusted? Humm. Let’s look at some.

Can consumers trust an advertiser that doesn’t tell the whole story?

Is not telling everything a lie of omission?

Most ads are factual, but incomplete. Hardcore fraud is illegal, but consumers have learned to be suspicious of one-sided presentations. Many deceive by implication. Many deceive with “weasel words.”

And beware the “*.” Whatever follows usually means “forget everything else in this ad. Here’s how we still intend to screw you.”

Can consumers trust an advertiser that contradicts what they already know to be true?

According to Al and Laura Ries “The ground rules for a successful advertising campaign start with acceptance. Accept what your brand already owns in the mind and move on from there.” A few pages later in The Fall Of Advertising And The Rise Of PR they also said “The true function of advertising is to reinforce an existing perception in the mind.”

A statement that your beliefs are wrong isn’t going to persuade you to pull out your wallet. Any claim that runs counter to your preconceptions of the world is treated in your mind as a lie.

(Note: I’m predicting the failure of Coca Cola Zero. In the mind of the consumer Coke is “the real thing.” So how does the consumer’s mind perceive the “real Cola taste with zero calories? As the phony real thing?)

(Question: Are there too many varieties of Coke? According to Coke spokesman Scott Williamson “We work hard to minimize that by making sure all of our brands have distinct graphics and marketing.” Good work, Scott. Lie to me in a different type face.)

The keyword is verisimilitude – “the appearance of truth.” It’s not enough to tell the truth. You have to tell it in a believable fashion.

Are these claims believable?

“We’ll loan you thousands of dollars… even if you have bad credit.”

“Make thousands stuffing envelopes at home.”

“Buy my cash flow system and quit your day job.”

“If you have a job, we can put you in a new car.”

No. They are not believable. They don’t “ring true.” They have no credibility. Customers will conclude they’re probably lies.

And no one can change your mind, either. At least, not until they’ve acknowledged the validity of your current beliefs, and then given you additional information to help you come to a new conclusion.

Can consumers trust politicians?

Every politician basically says, “Trust me.” Few of us do.

Politicians know how to project the image of being expert, being sincere, and being on your side. Like many other advertisers, politicians flatter their targets by complementing their intelligence and taste.

Cartoonist Dan Perkins, (using the pen name Tom Tomorrow), takes on the absurdity of American politics in his weekly comic strip, “This Modern World.” Dan says that people naturally “distrust advertising and politicians.”

Can consumers trust an advertiser that lies by association?

Evidence has taught us that there are entire industries that habitually lie. And it’s not just highly capitalized energy companies or their big international accounting firms (Enron / Arthur Anderson).

“If you’ve been hurt I’ll fight hard to get you the money you deserve for your pain and suffering.” A Braun Research survey of 401 random adults in March of this year indicates that 79% of Texans believe advertising by personal injury attorneys encourages people to sue even if they haven’t been injured.

Can we trust the pre-views of coming attractions to deliver the movie we’re going to plunk down dollars to see? Can they give us some sense of what to expect? Or, do we secretly believe the movie industry would tell us anything to sell another ticket?

What about car dealers? Stock brokers who call us at home? Long distance telephone service providers who call us at home?

Can consumers trust an advertiser that speaks in superlatives?

Amazing. Astounding. New. Improved. Bigger. Stronger. Faster. Highest power. Highest quality. Most secure. Least expensive. Revolutionary breakthrough. Better than you ever dreamed.

Why can’t we trust people who exaggerate?

Because exaggerations are lies.

Can consumers trust an advertiser that speaks in vague generalities?

Quality, beautiful, efficient, huge, none better.

OK, what quality? How does one measure it?

How beautiful? How does one measure it?

None better? Isn’t that another way of saying “we’re the same?”

To gain credibility, be very specific. You can be specific and still engage the imagination. “The vaulted ceiling is eighteen feet at it’s peak – so tall even Michael Jordan couldn’t jump that high.”

Can consumers trust a braggart?

A Fosdick Ad Readership study of 14,000 business-to-business ads shows that ads boasting about the company were four times as likely to receive low readership scores.

Companies who talk about themselves are like the guy at a party who won’t stop talking about himself. Eventually people get turned off and leave in boredom.

Congratulating yourself automatically keeps you from speaking of things of interest to your potential customer. “We’re number one!” doesn’t work. “Here’s how we can help” just might.

Customers don’t care how long you’ve been in business, which associations you belong to, which awards you’ve won, or your size vs. your competitors.

As my partner, Roy Williams has said:

“Heads look down and hands begin to write every time I say it in a public seminar, so I always give people time to write it down. It’s one of those things that’s so obviously true that people are surprised they never thought of it on their own. “Bad advertising is about you, your company, your product or service. Good advertising is about the customer, and what your product or service will do to change the daily world of the customer. Talk to the customer – in the language of the customer – about what matters to the customer.”

Can consumers trust an advertiser that advertises in a biased medium?

DON’T advertise in media outlets that don’t match your goals or standards.

As a Democrat, would you believe anyone who advertised in a Republican newsletter?

As a Christian would you believe anyone who advertised on an atheist web site?

Can consumers trust you?

Today’s customers aren’t just buying what you’re selling, they’re also buying you. With all of the reasons not to trust advertisers, how can you be perceived as honest?

Start by reaching the customer through the most truthful channel of all – her own experiences.

Find things your customer has experienced, and refer to those things in your ads.

Promise a shopping experience that you can, and do, deliver. We call this the Personal Experience Factor.

Get satisfied customers to give you unscripted testimonials. These raw, unrehearsed, and totally believable comments from other people will always have more credibility than polished and produced messages from the business owner.

And then?

Tell the truth. Tell the whole truth. Even the non-complementary parts.

According to the Sloan School of Management at MIT purchasers will trust the recommendations of a sponsored web site if it’s clear the site will recommend competitors products. MIT’s professor Glen Urban calls this “trust based marketing.” “Give them as much information and advice as they need to make an informed decision,” Urban says, “even when it’s not necessarily in your company’s best interest.

The more truthful you are, the more comfortable, safe, and unthreatened potential customers are with you. They are more likely to purchase because they worry less about getting their money back, getting their purchase repaired, getting it delivered in a timely fashion.

Call it honesty. Call it believability. Call it sincerity. Call it verisimilitude. It all comes down to this: help your potential customers to trust you, and they will buy with confidence.