What should you do if you mess up baking a cake? Here’s what a BBC food blog advised. One finalist in The Great British Bake Off show suggested that you can either flip the cake upside down, or disguise the cracks with a topping. “A liberal covering of frosting,” she wrote, “hides a multitude of sins.”

So frosting becomes the cover up on the cake crime. While that may be a harmless deception, I didn’t expect frosting to be at the centre of a debate on honesty and lies. Not until I learned about a recent announcement from Kraft.

In this case, the question is whether a liberal covering of frosting creates a multitude of sins.

No matter what they sell, all brands traffic in trust. Consumers need to have confidence in the quality of the product or service, its claims and its advertising. You want to believe that the company selling to you operates with integrity, and deals with you in good faith.

Trust is at a premium these days. Every year, Edelman conducts an international survey to arrive at a trust barometer. In Canada, trust in institutions (business, media, government and non-governmental organizations) is at just 54% for the general population vs. 74% for what Edelman calls “the informed public”. The 20-point gap is the widest in Canada since Edelman started doing this survey.

What about trust in brands specifically?

Another survey last year by Pure Branding, a consulting and research firm in Massachusetts, looked at perceptions of corporate and brand transparency. Almost two-thirds of respondents (65%) said most brands lie at least some of the time. Consumers are more likely to buy from (and often pay more in the process) companies they perceive as transparent. A failure to be open and honest, the survey concluded, can harm a brand’s reputation and a company’s bottom line.

That shouldn’t be surprising. If a company lied to you, would you find it innocent or funny? Would it breed future trust?

Well, what if the company actually encouraged consumers to lie? To their children? That okay?

Kraft seems to think so.

This June, they introduced Kraft Salad Frosting, which is just its Kraft Ranch Dressing disguised in a frosting tube. The stated goal: help parents get their kids to eat their veggies.

Upping your lie game

The dressing has not changed. It doesn’t taste any different. It’s made the same. The only purpose of the packaging is to lie.

Kraft didn’t just defend the concept of lying to your children; they outright promoted the idea and joked about it. That’s front and centre in their campaign.

  • Kraft created the hashtag #LieLikeAParent and is asking parents to share their best parenting lies on Twitter. All for a chance to win a limited edition tube of the “frosting”.
  • In their announcement, Kraft stated that “lies are a common ground for parents”, and that they’re “giving parents a hand in upping their lie game”.
  • Kraft’s head of marketing was quoted as saying that “Innocent lies parents tell their kids help alleviate the pressures of everyday parenting, and if it gets kids to eat their greens, so be it. Simple innocent lies are not only part of parenthood, but a true tactic used by parents everywhere. Salad ‘frosting’ is one lie you won’t feel bad telling your kids.”

Kraft is right about one thing. Parents aren’t always 100% truthful with their kids. We praise a crayon scrawl as a work of art. Fudge bedtime when they can’t tell time yet. Tell them a shot from the doctor won’t hurt. Shorten the estimated arrival time during a long car ride, so they stop asking over and over. Flush a dead goldfish while they’re out and replace it with a new one.

Some of these are to spare their feelings, and some are out of self-interest. Parents can justify all sorts of white lies. I’m not pure. I just don’t expect, say, a pet store to market the goldfish switcheroo idea, #YourKidsWillNeverKnowTheDifference.

That’s what Kraft is doing. I don’t want to treat my kids like they’re rubes – or have companies set me up to do that.

Making kids doubt themselves

Lying to your kids has consequences. A study by the University of California, San Diego found that children who have been lied to by adults are more likely to cheat and lie about it.

The authors, who reported on the research in Developmental Science, said: “The actions of parents suggest that they do not believe that the lies they tell their children will impact the child’s own honesty. The study casts doubt on that belief.”

An article in Psychology Today suggested that parents who lie to their kids ultimately hurt them deeply. This is from psychologist Kate Roberts:

“When a child knows the truth, and when his parents contradict this knowledge, the child ends up doubting himself. They cause their child to choose between trusting themselves and trusting their parents. This is not a choice a child can make and remain intact and healthy. Researchers have found that children are not gullible and can in fact sense when parents are lying to them, causing them to distrust the very people who are their caretakers.”

Which is why I take issue with Kraft.

Their dressing/frosting announcement was met with a degree of backlash in coverage, but some industry experts were on board. From a column in Adweek: “Lying isn’t the best example of good communication, but it’s an unspoken fixture in parenting. We lie with love. With a cake icing pouch and a little clever rebranding, an old favorite like ranch dressing becomes kid-friendly ‘salad frosting’. It’s a benevolent brand of deceit.”

Is it?

By the way, if Kraft is interested in helping parents to “up their lie game”, here’s a suggestion.

CNN reported that 2 tablespoons of Kraft’s ranch dressing has 110 calories, 11 grams of fat and 290 milligrams of sodium. That compares unfavourably to two tablespoons of actual vanilla frosting, which has slightly more calories (140) but half the fat (5 grams) and one-quarter of the sodium (70 milligrams).

So if you really want to #LieLikeAParent, tell your kids that Kraft’s ranch dressing (by any label) is good for them.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

June 19, 2019

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