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Dear Volkswagen: Exaggeration? Not so bad. Deception? Never okay

The business world—and the journalists who cover it—have always rewarded a healthy bit of hype. Best Ever! New and Improved! Now with enhanced whatevers!

Actually, the love of the big claim goes far beyond the business world and is interwoven throughout society. Donald Trump’s current popularity is only the latest example of bombast, er, trumping reality.

But we do have limits, as the scandal at Volkswagen shows. So far, the company’s stock price has fallen almost 20% since it admitted on September 18 that it had installed software that allowed its cars to fake their performance on emissions testing in order to fool the EPA.

No one knows what will happen to the $221 billion in sales car company—the world’s largest—going forward, and whether the deception stretches all the way to the CEO, Martin Winterkorn. But one wonders what would have happened had the company opted for exaggerating its results rather than falsifying them.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating that any performance standards—particularly those that affect safety and health—should ever be presented with anything but the full truth. But this move was so brazen, so breathtakingly full of chutzpah, that it is hard to imagine VW’s brand recovering for a very, very long time; nor, one imagines, will its culture.

The plot goes far beyond one or two people hiding out in a cubicle and must have involved hundreds of people building such a system and making sure it was implemented inside of 428,000 cars. One wonders what the company might have been able to accomplish instead if it put all that brainpower toward meeting emissions requirements rather than circumventing them.

Consider the alternative: VW tried—and failed—to meet the EPA’s emissions standards, after saying that they believed they had diesel engines that did the job. The EPA (which, it’s worth noting, relies primarily on self-tested data) would have—hopefully—tested its engines, found Volkswagen deficient, and fined the company. It would have been costly, yes, but it wouldn’t have been all that surprising. And VW’s credibility wouldn’t have been destroyed in the process. After all, exaggeration, for better or worse, is just how the game is played.