Joe PaternoLegendary head coach Joe Paterno led the Penn State Nittany Lions from 1966 to 2011. In 2007 Paterno was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and in 2011 Paterno won his 409th game, becoming the winningest coach in Division I college football history. To people who lived in University Park or attended Penn State, Paterno was an icon of almost religious status.
On November 4, 2011 a grand jury report accused Paterno’s former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, of sexually abusing eight young boys. One month later the number of victims was increased to 10. On June 22, 2012, Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of 45 of 48 criminal counts and on October 9, 2012, Sandusky was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison.

Just a few years later a poll of over 1,000 adults was conducted by the survey research firm Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion. Surprisingly, only 55% of Americans questioned knew that Penn State head coach Joe Paterno was not accused of molesting children – 45% of those polled believed that Paterno was the attacker.

By this point, Paterno had already been removed from his post at Penn State and had died of complications from lung cancer. But the truth didn’t even matter posthumously. Perception is reality and Paterno’s legacy was forever tarnished.

Did you know that Al Gore never said, “I invented the Internet”?

During an interview on CNN’s “Late Edition” with Wolf Blitzer, Gore’s exact words were, “During my service in the United States Congress I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.”

You are free to interpret that statement as Gore claiming responsibility or you may choose to see his statement the way the myth-busting site Snopes.com does. Their interpretation is that Gore “…was not claiming that he ‘invented’ the Internet in the sense of having designed or implemented it, but rather that he was responsible, in an economic and legislative sense, for fostering the development the technology that we now know as the Internet.”

Regardless of what Gore actually said (or meant), and regardless of how you look at it, the damage was done – the common belief is that Gore said, “I invented the Internet.” Because perception is reality.

Did you know that Sarah Palin never said, “I can see Russia from my house”? The quip was actually made famous by Tina Fey on “Saturday Night Live” when Fey parodied the then-vice presidential candidate. But regardless of who actually said the words, they followed Palin throughout her short-lived national political career.

It’s a common belief in the marketing world that “Perception is Reality.” That is, what people perceive is what establishes their reality. In a more practical sense, if we believe Starbucks coffee is better than the unlabeled stuff then it is better – we will go out of our way to find Starbucks and pay more money for it even though we really have little way of knowing if it actually is superior, or even different, from cheaper coffee.

If we believe a Volvo is a safer automobile than the others we could drive, then it is – at least in the showroom. We will pay a higher price for the car because of its perceived value of enhanced protection. Of course the true determination of whether the car is actually safer is established by investigators after an accident but that occurs long after the product has been selected and purchased.

In 1897 Mark Twain published one of my favorite books, a travel guide titled “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World”. In it Twain writes, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

Truth might be stranger than fiction but often times fiction is more interesting, more exciting, more replicable, and ultimately more powerful and compelling than the truth. And those who don’t embrace this reality of branding and perception do so at their own peril because perception is reality.

Just ask Sarah Palin. Or Al Gore. Or Joe Paterno.