Advertisers blur the line between truth and fiction, which isn’t hard anymore
Well, we’ve just gone through a strange patch where a couple of prominent athletes, Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o, admitted telling some big lies.
Wait, they weren’t lies. They were “stories,” right? Stories that enhanced their “personal brand”?
Marketers and advertisers today are obsessed with the idea of “storytelling.” So is there a difference between storytelling and lying? Does the ad campaign you’re working on tell a story, a lie, or both?
When we’re young, we’re told lies as stories all the time. The Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly fat white guy (an image mostly perpetuated by Coca-Cola.) The stories of these figures all require some complicity from adults as myth-spreaders.
The key, I believe, is that we want to believe the stories we’re told. Everyone likes a good storyteller. Picture a gregarious person in the corner at a party, holding court. If they’re in the middle of spinning a good yarn, we hang on every word. We don’t tend to hold them prosecutorially to the truth.
But for marketers, the line between truth and fiction has always been a little fuzzy. Brands embrace fiction when their true story isn’t nearly as interesting. We make up facts about the origin of products to give them a little color, and exaggerate the claims and benefits of using the product. It’s all in good fun unless someone gets hurt or pissed off.
So where do the lies begin? Any number of places: Some jargon-heavy PowerPoint deck or strategically empty creative brief. Clients who think their product is simply “best-in-class,” or they offer “great service,” and merely stating those points in ads is enough to convince people. Or it’s a lie disguised as a story, for example: Bottled water that features illustrations of artesian springs on the label, but contains city tap water. And so on.
People generally know advertising claims are BS when they sound too good to be true. That’s why advertising, as its most subtle (and usually most creative), backs off its promises, puffery, and claims, choosing instead to focus on emotional resonance with customers. And when it works, it works well.
But the web and social media have given rise to more areas for brands to “tell their story” and infinitely more methods to tell it. Here’s the problem: Marketers are working harder than ever to pass off fiction as truth. We’re seeing so-called “brand journalists” tell one-sided stories of brands, transparency be damned. There’s certainly no impartiality, and likely no fact checking.
An advertising instructor of mine once preached, “Do something that doesn’t look like an ad.” TV shows, news articles, blog posts, fake Twitter personas; they’re all now being used as ways to disguise advertising. And as real journalists become lazier, news outlets become cash-starved, and reporting becomes increasingly shallow, the door is open for brands to look more credible by comparison.
Marketers, just like Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o, have enablers. As consumers, we want to believe brand stories. As advertisers, we want consumers to fall for brand stories. So the notion of “storytelling” is here to stay.
Still, though, we’re competing for attention. And with real life getting odder every day, and more people confusing real news with stories from The Onion, we’ve got work to do. Marketers either need to become savvier liars, or more effective truth-tellers. I’m fairly certain many people can’t tell the difference anymore.
And the truth is, that’s a very frightening thought.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
Visit his copywriting website, see his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.
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