Keepin' It Legal
By the end of this story, some of you will consider me a fool. To make things worse, I'll need to omit some key details because a Non-Disclosure Agreement was involved. If you've never come across them, NDAs are documents which swear you to secrecy on a particular topic. It's like a commercial gag-order and it's standard practice to sign one before discussing a business deal.
Several months ago I was approached by a company who will, thus, remain nameless. All I can tell you is that they're worth a ton of money (in the billions) and they've been around for a good while. They reached out to me via my agent and social-media, wanting to talk. Naturally this was exciting so I agreed to the NDA at once.
I can't lie, I had visions of being hired as a writer dancing through my head. Did they want to buy something I'd written? When the details came through, it turned out they didn't want to buy something I'd written. They wanted to buy everything I'd written.
The company in question had developed a product and were in the process of making a commercial. The product relied on a few technical principles and they wanted me to be the guy explaining them. And I don't mean as an extra - they wanted me to be the face and figurehead, talking to camera about how "new miracle-product X works by Z-ing the Ys which allows it to A the B without compromising C!" My role was to be the on-screen scientist, reassuring people how well it worked in accessible language.
A Blow To The Ego
It's pretty flattering to have a company rich enough to buy the sky asking you to feature in their commercial, but somehow I was able to slam on the anchors and ask a pretty ego-shredding question..."Why me?"
My books have briefly topped best-seller lists in non-fiction, I've been translated into six languages and I've had a positive review in The Wall Street Journal...but I have to be brutally honest about myself: I'm a minor player in the world of science promotion. I'm no Bill Nye or Brian Cox. I've had moderate success and I speak to a medium-sized fanbase, but I'm not a big-hitter. Why did they want me when they could hire someone more impressive and prestigious?
I still don't know the exact details because a company wants to butter you up while buying you out - but from what I could glean it went something like this: someone there had stumbled across my work and liked it. Specifically, they liked the fact that I was a relative unknown. I was even supposed to highlight my obscurity in the commercial and direct the audience to my website. Just think about that for a moment: this company, this behemoth of broadcasting, wanted to stick my website and my name into their commercial. That's a vote of confidence you don't ignore.
Apparently the fact I have a slight outsider status was something they wanted to highlight, not shy away from. What they wanted, presumably, was for people to see the commercial, hear me saying how good the product was, then do a background check by reading my work. Ideally, people would come to the conclusion that I'm a trustworthy science-writer and therefore my endorsement of a product could be trusted as well.
I'd like to think it was partly because I write about scientific integrity, the importance of principle and because I refuse to write hype-pieces. I'm not sure. All I can say is...I was interested. Very interested! How could I not be? This would have been the most publicity for my writing I'd ever received. timjamesscience.com gets steady traffic but this would have increased my viewership numbers by a factor of ten, along with book sales. Pretty soon I could rival Brian Cox!
What Were They Offering?
Aside from the huge exposure the commercial would have given me, there was a lot of money on the table. Lots and lots of money. Like...seriously a lot. All I had to do was get on an all-expenses-paid trip abroad, visit a professional film set and teach some science..basically my job. Not only that, they were willing to have me collarboate on the script, something else I'd be paid for!
Unless you're a writer you can't understand how big of a deal that is. Someone offering you the chance to write something for television? I'd be suspicious of someone who wasn't tempted by such an offer. I love writing and the chance to have control over a script that I would see promoted all over the world was one of those "once in a lifetime opportunities" you hear about but doubt you'll ever be offered. Saying yes to them would have changed the trajectory of my career.
So here's the big question. You haven't recently seen me on billboards and buses. I haven't appeared in a flashy commercial looking all pampered and primped, and I'm not currently lunching with Harrison Ford. Why did I say no? What the hell is wrong with me?
The Science Is Everything
I had a few personal misgivings about the project because I don't think I'm that good of a presenter or actor. I'm also a bit shy (no seriously) about my private life and I didn't like the thought of my face being everywhere. But those were minor concerns. In exchange for the chance to write a commercial and pocket a large check, I'm willing to step outside my comfort zone. No guts no glory, right?
But the big question was: does the science hold up? Am I going to be promoting a product which actually does what it claims? If not, then I'm lying for cash. So, I decided to look into the product and get in touch with the scientists who were cited in the company literature. I asked them to send me their data as well as their honest verdict on what they thought of the product. Two of the three scientists got back to me the same day, providing me with experimental write-ups, as well as brief and professional summaries of what they found. They weren't hyping it or over-selling it, simply stating what the product had been shown to do and which regulations it had passed. And this is where things get a bit murky...
How Good Was The Product?
Without giving details this would be impossible, so I'm going to use a faux example which gets across the gist of what happened without being a full representation. Let's say the company wanted me to promote toothpaste (it didn't - so I guess that's a clue - I wasn't approached by a toothpaste manufacturer).
Let's say this toothpaste claimed to "strengthen teeth". That sounds good. What did the science say? Well, it did draw that conclusion, technically. The toothpaste did strengthen teeth...but only after leaving it on for twenty-four hours, seven days a week, for three months. While it was technically true the toothpaste did strengthen teeth, it only did so when used in a way which doesn't reflect how people use it. So it's not a lie to make the claim, but it is a bit misleading.
Furthermore, there were a few other companies offering rival products with similar claims and equally effective results. What this company's product could do wasn't unique. There's a fair-sized oligopoly vying for dominance of this particular market and none of them have better science than anyone else.
What It Would Cost Me
I would be given a boatload of money for doing the commercial, as well as exposure for my writing, which is something I am proud of. It would be a fun experience and I would get to co-write a TV commercial. All of those are tempting rewards. But there would be a cost.
If I agreed to do it I would be endorsing a product which wasn't quite as good as it seemed. Furthermore, while I wouldn't be lying in a legal sense, people would be chosing to buy this product based on my assurance.
This is the part of the story where I want to claim I was a noble hero who immediately told them to take a hike. But I wasn't. I thought about it. I went through mental gymnastics, trying to tell myself it wasn 't dishonest (because in a sense it wasn't). It wasn't misleading people either because I was merely stating facts. If the public interpreted them one particular way that was their problem, not mine. Plus...I would be handed enough money to wallpaper a house! Literally! Wallpaper a house with the actual paper money...not just wallpapering a house with wallpaper and paying for it...it wasn't that good a joke.
It's A Rich Man's World
I've been poor. I've had the heart-rending anxiety of not having money in the bank and not knowing how I'm going to pay my rent or groceries. I know the embarassment of phoning friends to borrow cash and I know the burning humiliation of having my card declined in a supermarket due to "insufficient funds" - one of the most traumatising sentences you can hear. I'm not about to moralise about how money isn't important or useful. Because it is. Anyone who says otherwise should spend some time chatting to the homeless. Money matters. But I don't think it's the only thing which matters, nor the thing which matters most.
Getting paid for my books is a gratifying feeling. I work hard writing them and the fact society is willing to compensate me for my effort feels good. It also feels fair. Money is a measure of worth so if people are willing to express that via payments, I don't have an objection. I'm paid what the market will bear. Everyone is.
What I don't feel right about is making money unfairly. Making money at the expense of truth is where I have to draw my line. It's one thing to work hard on a book and get paid for it, it's another to lend my name to a product I don't believe is as good as I'm being paid to say it is. That's something I discovered I couldn't do.
It's not like I'm opposed to endorsing products mind you. Hell, if the Mars people want me to say "I love eating Maltesers," then I don't see a problem - I do love eating them. I even snuck a joke into my latest book about Pringles. My conscience rests easy because I like Pringles so it's not going against my moral compass to say as much. But endorsing something because I'm being paid to do so, something I otherwise wouldn't...that doesn't sit right. I'm not judging people who feel different, I'm just telling you how I square it.
A few people I've told this story to (obviously missing out details of the company and product) have reacted with scorn. Some have criticised me for being too proud. Some have talked about how they would do anything against their personal standards if the paycheck was big enough. Some have even said they've lost respect for me over my decision. But what else can I do but stick to my code? To me, scientific integrity and honesty is more important than money. You're allowed to disagree.
The Arthur Miller Connection...Because I *WAS* Going Somewhere With That
During that fateful weekend of soul-searching and contemplation, two quotations kept surfacing from the bowels of my unconscious. One comes from legendary comics-writer Alan Moore, who was offered an undisclosed sum rumoured to be several million dollars to endorse a series of comics he didn't believe in. He turned the company down and had this to say...
"You can't buy that kind of empowerment. To just know that as far as you are aware, you have not got a price; that there is not an amount of money large enough to make you compromise even a tiny bit of principle that, as it turned out, would make no practical difference anyway. I'd advise everyone to do it, otherwise you're going to end up mastered by money and that's not a thing you want ruling your life. Money's fine if it enables you to enjoy your life and to be useful to other people. But as something that is a means to an end, no, it's useless."
That's something I now fully comprehend the meaning of. I had read Moore's words years ago and wondered how I would respond if I were offered a lot of money to do something I didn't believe in. Turns out, I would respond the same way. And he's right. That's a feeling of empowerment I can't put into words. I was offered money to sell my reputation and I said no.
The thing is, I do have a price but it's nothing to do with bank balance. If the company would have allowed me to be honest about the product and not over-sell it, I would have done it comfortably. Why not? Paying me for honesty seems fair. So I do have a price, but my price is my principles.
You're possibly reading this and hating me, consdering me obnoxious, ungrateful and arrogant, probably even stupid. That's fine. Maybe you've got a point. If you feel like you would sell out any principle for money then so be it, I'm not going to tell you that's wrong.
The other quotation humming around my head that weekend was one from legendary playwrite and former Monroe-husband, Arthur Miller. A recurrent theme in Miller's work is personal integrity, represented by the character's name, best exemplified in his masterpiece: The Crucible. The main character is coaxed to put his name to a crime he didn't commit or face the noose. In a powerful soliloquy he refuses to do so and when asked why, responds "Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!"
When I read the play at 14, I remember making fun of it, but now I get what Miller was saying. Our internal sense of principles is one of the few things we have control over. Our considered decisions are the things which come to define us and nobody should coerce them away. When that happens, we lose more than just our reputation, we lose our humanity.
Maybe I was an idiot for turning down the money. Maybe I do put too much stock in my principles. I can't say. What I can say is that I don't regret my decision. At all. Not even slightly. I actually feel pretty good for sticking to my belief in scientific integrity. Would I like to have that money? Sure! But am I glad I turned it down? Oh my good God, yes. I can still put my name to the books I write, knowing that I wrote them fairly and honestly. You can't put a price on that.
I love science, let me tell you why.