October 16, 2020 - 7:00am

Imagine a smoothie made with baked beans. Disgusted? Horrified? You’re supposed to be. Even the greatest bean aficionados like myself have a gag response.

Which is why Innocent Smoothies this week pretended to launch a bean smoothie, alongside a new smoothie with oats in. I can imagine the play-by-play in the marketing focus groups. Oats in a smoothie sounds a bit weird. How can we get people to open their minds? Let’s extend the ‘Overton Window’ for smoothie ingredients by proposing something outlandish. Bean smoothies make oat smoothies seem normal.

Innocent even teamed up with Heinz to make it more plausible. So far, so April Fools Day.

But what’s the exit strategy for a fake product launch? When do you admit you made it up? On the first click-through, surely?

No. That’s when Not-So-Innocent-After-All did something that makes me so angry I want to pour their overpriced fruit sludge over the heads of everyone in their marketing department. They lied about lying. This is the tweet they are now promoting into my timeline:

Click through to their Twitter bio and you will see that the original bean announcement is their pinned tweet. Challenge them on this, as various people have, and they reply “No it isn’t”. Or “The first thread was a typo” or “It was a rumour someone started to discredit us.”

Now, I have liked the jokey tone of Innocent’s brand and packaging since the start. I was here for the funny messages about life on the bottom of the bottles and the quirky observations about recycling and the knitted bobble hats. My children still giggle at the “no pencil cases” or whatever it is on the ingredients list of their kids drinks.

But fake news, and with it the subversion of truth, is one of the existential challenges of our information age. The fundamental basis of a democracy — a common understanding of a shared reality — is under threat by a combination of state and non-state disinformation warriors, egged on by our own political leaders. Fake news is not a tactic for your quirky new brand strategy.

Innocent’s defence is pretty simple: we knew no-one would believe us. The fake product launch tweets are still available, so no-one will really get confused. Everyone will be able to laugh along. This is pitiful. The joke is this: “No-one has a clue what’s real any more and you can’t trust anything you see on the internet, ha ha ha”. Is that really the band wagon you want to load your drinks onto?

Yes: Donald Trump has shown us that you can get away with it. You can brazenly deny your own words, even when presented with video evidence of you saying them. But for a brand to copy that behaviour for the lolz? It’s grotesque.

And don’t say that this doesn’t matter because it’s only smoothies. Brands matter. Brands exist — they make money, and they bolster institutions — because they build trust. Trust, embodied in the brand, acts as a simple heuristic for us all. It’s a mental shortcut: will the meal taste good? Will the paint stripper work? Will the news be accurate? You don’t need to check, if you trust the brand.

Brands are, in effect, a line of institutional defence against the era of fake news. So if your friendly neighbourhood smoothie maker has given up on defending reality, what hope is there for any of us?

Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.