Author: James Mitchell, Strategist, BBH & BBH Labs
“I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, and no heart.” – Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report
In 2006, Stephen Colbert promised (parodically) to “not tell the news to you, but feel the news, at you.” He coined the term truthiness, a quality applied to something that has a sense of truth, that is true enough to serve its purpose, without actually being factually accurate. It was just a swipe at lazy newscasting, but Colbert had it right – in modern culture the truths we tell ourselves are the ones that best make us feel something. Advertising has long known that, and has told actual truths about its products, wrapped in representational ‘life truths’ that spin off of it. These are narratives, and all parties in the situation know it. So far, so good.
In my second BBH interview in 2010, Planning Director Ed Booty asked me, “do you think people have had enough of the real?” The consensus we got to was that people could never have enough of the real, but that media forces have worked to inflate people’s expectations of what the real can deliver. Remember: this was at time when Endemol’s solution to the stagnation of ‘reality show’ Big Brother was to put ever more abrasive and conflicting characters into the mix, and people had begun to call it out as a circus. Since then, the response from entertainment has been a whole string of programmes with a new definition of truth: The Hills, Jersey Shore, Geordie Shore, The Only Way Is Essex. Watching them is like reading The National Enquirer; within their own ecosystem they are true, and they offer the most value when you read them as true. Deep down, you know them to be false, but the spectacle tacitly asks you to suspend that to get some value from them. They are truthy. The old masters of this form, the wrestling (“sports entertainment”) industry have a term for this – kayfabe. Successfully engaging with kayfabe can be a lot of fun.
Note: Not an actual undertaker
The combination of the extremes of fiction and the rawness of reality have left us wanting the impossible – a fantastical truth. At the same time, ever since Cluetrain we’ve come to realise that our collective ability to dismantle a narrative is potent, and hungry. A tough gig for anyone who wants to tell their truth in the most engaging way possible. Remember when James Frey got ripped into A Million Little Pieces by Oprah? It turns out that parts of his story were just that, a story, and it was unforgivable.
Even when the cause is ‘just’, the scent of manipulation is hard to deodourize. In the past month, we’ve seen KONY 2012 explode and be exploded – partly from speculation about the company’s finances, partly from questions about the appropriateness of the solutions they offered to the problem, but in equal part from the sheer slickness of the manipulation. It was too glossy for the message it was trying to put across, too much like an episode of MTV’s Made, rather than a call to action. The response to this criticism might be “that’s the format our target audience responds to, so that’s what we have to use,” but the savagery of the counterattack suggests that young people still respond to message as much as medium.
Then there’s Apple. When public radio show This American Life chose to broadcast an excerpt of monologist Mike Daisey’s show The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs in January, they got their highest-ever ratings in the show’s 17-year history. That’s because Mike’s monologue is the story of his experiences in Chinese tech factories, including Foxconn, one of Apple’s biggest suppliers. Because it describes the working practices that go into making the tech we use even as we consume blogs like this one. The narrative arc and the expertly crafted pathos could only come from a practiced storyteller – and therein came the problem, because Daisey used a storyteller’s toolbox – deletion, distortion and assumption – to the point where the story just wasn’t true any more. It was a cobbling together of things that happened to Daisey, things that used to happen but don’t any more, things he’d heard about from others but had no proof of, and simple fabrication. And Daisey has been eviscerated by much of his audience. This American Life has never felt so mortally wounded – to the point where Ira Glass and his team produced an entire episode called simply Retraction, and pulled the original from the podcast feeds.
Where does that leave the practice of marketing? Advertising deals in truthiness because it uses things that didn’t happen to get audiences to think of what could happen, and to feel the ‘truth’ of a brand’s world. And this was Mike Daisey’s defence on This American Life: “this isn’t about me lying to you or anyone else. This is about me doing everything I could to get the media to pay attention… Did I go too far in that effort? Maybe. That’s for others to judge.” The truth didn’t quite cut it, so he used made up facts in order to get to what he thought was a higher truth – the story of labour practice in other countries. And to be fair, it worked well enough to enchant the audiences on his tour, the normally journalistically rigorous This American Life, and everyone that listened to it – including the New York Times.
But what these events teach us is the care we must use when we wield the power of story. That when you have an audience that wants life to be larger than life, they should know where and when the enlargements and the brightening of the colours is occurring. There have been calls for cosmetic adverts to have an “airbrushing watermark”. We don’t need to go that far for story: rather, we just have to watch where we’re putting the truthiness. We have to map the zones in the media space where absolute truth is expected – yes, spaces like facebook and twitter – and treat people with what they deserve there.
But the biggest lesson of all lies further upstream. As marketers for brands, we’re usually telling stories about ourselves. So if we want to tell any story we can – all we have to do is make those facts be true by causing them to happen. If you’re Starbucks, don’t just talk about how friendly you are – get your employees to write customers’ names on their takeaway lattes. If you’re Johnnie Walker, don’t just talk about progress – put a real investment into the Keep Walking Project, and make progress happen.
The people have spoken, and they’re not satisfied with truthiness. They don’t just want brands to tell them stories. They want brands to take part in the rewriting of reality, so that the stories they tell each other can be that much more amazing.