With the general election safely in our rear-view mirror, it seems fitting to reflect on political campaigns, where overpromising is a staple of the daily battles that take place throughout the country. Manifestos draw together broad ideological ambitions into concise, neat and memorable policies. But can any of this actually be delivered by government?

Perhaps surprisingly, politicians’ promises often do become reality. A study from QMUL found that, between 1987 and 2005, 88 per cent of government pledges were implemented within the life of a parliament.

If promises aren’t followed, governments run the risk of being regarded unfavourably by the electorate next time they go to the polls. Additional pressure on parties in power comes from the official opposition, which jumps on failures quicker than I jump on chances to get out of daily team meetings. Politicians are held to account for promises, because if they’re caught lying, they can expect to be splashed on the front page of the tabloids or become a trend on Twitter faster than you can say ‘hashtag fridgegate’. It’s not a tidy nor necessarily even a consistent method of ensuring honesty, but it is a system that just about works… or it did, until recently.

The press howl about the rise of social media damaging accountability—Twitter making it harder for people to differentiate between fact and fiction; WhatsApp allowing the spread of falsehoods through encrypted channels, and Pinterest… actually, Pinterest seems okay. In the digital age, candidates for office have been able to exaggerate or sometimes even lie to voters without being held to account. See Boris Johnson promising 40 new hospitals—something that was proved to be untrue—but avoiding the brutally forensic focus of Andrew Neil in an interview. Likewise, Jeremy Corbyn promising nobody earning under £80,000 would pay more tax, yet having a suspiciously expensive spending plan.

Whereas politicians at least face fierce scrutiny from multiple institutions, business leaders are allowed to run wild. If a politician promises you better access to GPs and doesn’t deliver, you can take your vote elsewhere. In a world dominated by powerful tech monopolies, it is becoming increasingly hard to shift your custom.

And CEOs find themselves only accountable to the media, who are increasingly distracted by bananas duck-taped to walls and dystopian exercise bike adverts. Shareholders and stakeholders, who would usually come down on a CEO who was caught misleading the public, are realising it is in their financial interest to let their leaders be flexible with the truth. It creates media attention, drives up the share price, and the media criticism is so fleeting that it is forgotten within a week, if not a day!

Think about it. When was the last time you had something delivered by drone? I’m looking at you, Amazon. Can anyone remember the last time Tesla hit one of their production targets? In 2018, Google CEO Sundar Pichai proudly bounded onto stage to announce Google Duplex, an AI assistant that could make calls on your behalf to small businesses. Eighteen months later, Android’s synthetic voice is nowhere to be heard. This isn’t because Pichai lied—he set expectations too high, only seeing the potential of the idea, not the challenges Google would face in implementation. Yet he dodged any negative consequences.

Not all the big promises are even overt. Tech companies now ritually file patents for barmy ideas, as they know that the media dredges patent applications looking for scoops. Amazon’s flying warehouse, Apple’s vaporiser, Google’s ‘human flypaper’: I’m not making this stuff up! These companies know what they’re doing; they also know that they’re not going to be penalised for this behaviour. These companies especially have taken the ‘big promises, small delivery’ model crafted by politicians and put it on acid.

Although the benefits of overpromising and underdelivering currently seem vastly to outweigh the drawbacks, the risk lies in the fact that this is not a strategy that is sustainable. Punters aren’t dumb and will come to see the reality if a company has a track record of poor expectation management. As soon as customers become disillusioned, share prices falter, investors wise up, and the accountability CEOs have been dodging daintily for so long quickly catches up with them.

Surely it’s only a matter of time before a major statement with minor follow-through action ends very badly for a leader. But in the meantime, it’s a risk they are willing to take.

Liam Pape

By Liam Pape - Senior Researcher

17 December 2019

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