In an industry obsessed with human truth, surrounded by a world in love with fiction, does advertising need to leave the facts behind? Asks Mel Arrow, Strategy Director and Partner at BBH.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States of America. Meanwhile in England, poor old Lord Sugar is still summoning egotistical entrepreneurs into the BBC boardroom and wanging on about how he once sold aerials out the back of a van in the 14th series of The UK Apprentice. Trump and Sugar, both stars of the same TV franchise, but only one won the biggest prize of them all: leadership of the free world. And just like that society changed. 20th January 2017, the day of Trump’s inauguration, the day a reality TV star became President, marks the day that the lines between reality and fiction in modern society were officially blurred. But, to be fair, we should’ve got a whiff of it with Arnie…

Did The Blurring happen because we started playing on our phones so much that the fiction just seeped in without us noticing? Memes are how we communicate, flirt and stay in touch. Bus journeys are portals to space, the Sahara Desert, or whatever you happen to be watching this week. Fiction fills our eyes, ears, brains and our every waking moments. Or perhaps The Blurring happened because fiction is escapism and escapism has become even more appealing now that there’s so much to escape from in the world? Or maybe it’s because today’s fiction has never felt so real? Stranger Things isn’t just a TV show, it’s a font, it’s tshirts, it’s a VR experience, it’s a pop up shop, it’s those kid actors that seem to be at every red carpet event way past their bed time (is it just me who’s worried about this?)

As marketeers, we’re told to find human truths. Things we know to be irrefutably real, insightful and concrete. Yet, the world  around us is embracing fiction more than ever. So why would we restrict ourselves to the human truths, when we could be tapping into the human fictions as well?

Some of my favourite pieces of recent BBH work have been inspired by fiction. The Three Billboards inspired Justice4Grenfell campaign borrowed the passion, guts, grit and the very same posters featured in the film’s plot, applying them to a real world issue. The KFC advert for chicken and rice; one big in-joke for Game of Throne fans, where a KFC staff member mimics the character Hodor’s crowning moment. It’s powerful. It humanises brands. It makes them look like fans, tapped into popular culture, and on the same wavelength as the very people they’re trying to attract. In one fell swoop, they become the audience, not the people trying to gain one.

Speaking of fiction, I like books, and here is a lovely quote from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry;

What is essential is invisible to the eye.

Today’s most compelling marketing strategies might not derive from a consumer research report. It might not be quantifiable in data. Because when the President is a former reality TV star, posting foreign policy on Twitter. When the biggest game of 2019 will see real people with real phones running to real locations to fight fictional characters from the fictional Harry Potter universe. That’s when you know, there’s as much human truth in fiction as there is in fact.



5 Responses

  1. James Clifford and George Marcus argue that anthropologists should embrace fiction when writing ethnographies, in their book, Writing Culture (1984).

    However, fiction doesn’t just mean the opposite of the truth.

    “To call ethnographies fictions may raise empiricist hackles. But the word as commonly used in recent textual theory has lost its connotation of falsehood, of something merely opposed to truth. It suggests the partiality of cultural and historical truths, the ways they are systematic and exclusive. Ethnographic writings can properly be called fictions in the sense of “something made or fashioned,” the principal burden of the word’s Latin root, fingere. But it is important to preserve the meaning not merely of making, but also of making up, of inventing things not actually real.” (Clifford and Marcus, 1984, p.6)

  2. This is great – we *must* loosen up our approach. The agency of now is sluggish at creating genuine moments of joy because of a rigid desire to have emotional responses rooted in a clearly defined, “sensible” strategy. But when we don’t always know why we are moved adhering to this strict policy greatly hinders moving creative and allows less emotive ideas to surface on the basis their strategy *looks* more solid on paper. Can Strategists clearly define the strategy that leads to the emotional response from the Mona Lisa? Does it make it any less valid? We must loosen up as Melaine suggests, let the fun back in; become more human and less corporate in our approach. As we look for more certainty in our creative, we stifle it. Just because big agencies become lumbering corporations, it doesn’t mean they have to start thinking like lumbering corporations.

  3. Should brands really be using pop culture references though?

    You say it humanizes them, but I feel it mostly it’s like watching your dad trying to dance. Technically he’s succeeding but its uncomfortable for everyone around him to watch.
    The BBH post on Brands Not Hot made the point wonderfully clear, that brands and marketers are the laggards, jumping in after gran, and just not really getting things.

    I would love my brands to be cooler and more relevant, but jumping on existing pop trends just feels lame.

  4. I like the conversation, however, there are many brands whose products have an objective reality (Trump included) that can also be ignored if we avoid some universal truths …Palm oil, sugary drinks, for instance. Perhaps a question might be is fact less effective than fiction?

    Political marketing is The Blurring, and that gave us ads like Willie Horton.

    Ad agencies much like Facebook aren’t really equipped nor built to tell objective truths (brand journalism), and when agencies delve into myth making we typically produce the narratives of the hegemony. Dilly Dilly is just a frat joke made by a king with a silent queen next to him (as if women do not choose to drink bud light). In short, the producers/makers at agencies tend to be privileged white men or think like them. I’m not sure I want to see more of their tales on fiction to be honest. Not when the world is waking up to our diversity and the truth about products are a click away. I am a fan of course of multiple truths (KFC colonel) but let’s be real, consumers have fragmented and are making more of their own brand fiction these days. That’s perhaps far more effective than agencies trying to dream up alternative universes for products.

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