Truth vs. Fiction In Advertising

For years, fictional storytelling reigned supreme in the advertising world. I was always envious of fantastical, big budget TV ads, such as those from Guinness beer and Levi’s jeans in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Tall tales and entertaining absurdity.

But we’ve really seen a significant shift in recent years. A lot of brands are taking a documentary approach to storytelling using real people interacting with their products. Or telling stories about product craftsmanship. All with incredible results.

Storytelling has always been a key to brand building, but more and more companies are discovering that telling true stories is more powerful. Perhaps because consumers have grown tired of fictional depictions. Or perhaps because true stories have always been more effective and we’re all just starting to realize it. Even in the film industry documentaries are surging in popularity.

GoPro has brilliantly exploited the real stories approach. One hundred percent of their marketing efforts are put toward finding authentic, consumer-generated videos shot with their cameras rather than make believe stories using actors and big production dollars.

A few years ago, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn conducted an experiment. They called it, The Significant Objects Project. It’s an amazing testament to the power of product storytelling. They purchased objects for no more than a few dollars from thrift stores and garage sales. They enlisted writers and paired them with the objects. Those writers then wrote backstories inspired by the objects and they listed them on eBay. Incredibly, these unremarkable objects suddenly became “significant” objects with greater value.

They sold $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk for $3,612.51. A “Hawk” ashtray, purchased for $2.99, sold for $101. A Missouri shot glass, purchased for $1, sold for $76. A mallet, purchased for 33 cents, sold for $71. 

Their experiment taught them that, “Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively.”

A lot of advertising creatives turn up their noses when they get a brief to create a “product story.” They’re perceived as boring. Nobody wants to film a factory. But real product stories don’t have to be boring. When they’re done right they can set a brand apart. They can add enormous value and create an emotional connection.

Take Apple for example. They’ve done an amazing job telling stories by demonstrating their products in fun, interesting ways. They’ve even gone to extremes to create videos that romance the raw materials that go into their products. This shows their obsession with quality and makes us feel a stronger connection to them. 

The Man Who Walked Around The World is another example. It’s a long form video created a few years ago for Johnnie Walker. In it, a man describes the entire history of Johnnie Walker whiskey. Despite the fact it was somewhat lengthy and used a spokesperson with a strong accent, it seemed to resonate more than the fantastical TV spots that were previously created for the brand. 

In the car category, Lexus in the US and Honda in the UK are also great examples. Their advertising has been effective for years by talking about their design and engineering in cool, interesting ways. They’ve wanted to be known for their products and thinking, not just for entertaining ads.

If you want to build brand affinity and loyalty, telling interesting true stories about your product or service is essential. It even works for human beings. The more you know about a person, the more you are likely to feel an emotional investment and therefore a stronger connection. Unless they’re a jerk, in which case you might dislike them even more.

I doubt things will go back to the way they were. I think truth will dominate from here on. Sure, fiction can still capture attention, but it can’t keep the attention. That’s because without substance interest is fleeting. To keep attention, people need to know who you are and what you stand for.