Marketing, Advertising, and the Truth

It started with Sea-Monkeys

I needed my own Sea-Monkey colony when I was seven. The slogan “SO EAGER TO PLEASE, THEY CAN BE TRAINED” and the impossible illustration of the tiny alien family, replete with crowns, tails and webbed feet, clinched my desire. After my mother wiped tears of laughter from her face, she sat me down and told me the truth.

Her words battled the snazzy comic illustrations. I reasoned, “But, look! It’s says they do tricks!” My mother’s reasoning was better. “If these were real, why didn’t they take a picture of the family? Why did they draw a cartoon? It’s advertising, honey. They just want your money. I’m sorry, but it’s just not true.”

My seven-year-old heart was crushed… and weeks later, I was disappointed to learn the X-Ray Specs I eagerly coveted were also, in fact, a lie. These are fairly benign lies in advertising and marketing. But there were bigger lies waiting, with more dire consequences.

Despite this…

I wanted to work for Disney Studios. Later, my own ad agency. I did not set out to sculpt the truth. I wanted to tell stories. Good stories. Funny stories. Stories with heart and meaning. I wanted to communicate in a meaningful way, and hopefully, entertain.

But as I practiced my profession, it was nearly impossible to earn a living producing truth-based advertising. It seemed to me somewhere along the money trail, someone was getting hurt. So I chose instead to help companies go to market, and leave “advertising” to others. But, with the internet bubble in 2000, it was clear that going to market itself could be a truthless free-for-all. Lies suck money, energy, health, attention and spirit. Lies are distractions. They devastate people’s lives and can exterminate populations, even kill the planet.

We are collectively shrugging the yoke of “normal” and we’re fed up buying into a manufactured idea of ideal. There is no such thing. This is reason enough to tell the truth in marketing and advertising. But this is the tip of the iceberg.

The bald truth is, it’s harder now to hide in lies

Google has made it easier to discover scams. Potential buyers know to add “reviews” at the end of the keyword search. They quickly get the real picture behind the marketed promise. Customer opinions are there for everyone to see. The power of truth lies in our connectivity with each other, and the trust we build just by being real people.

Every Tweet, Google+ post and Facebook status, not to mention forum exchanges or even a blog post, can illuminate broken brand promises, product weaknesses, “guarantees” and true costs. These discussions are happening right now. The tolerance for lies is plummeting, and the value of the truth – a truth easily verified in a few seconds – is at long last a very real thing.

Imagine the value of knowing exactly what you’re getting in exchange for money or services. Now imagine whoever you get it from telling you the absolute truth, even if it’s not perfect, or it doesn’t fulfill 100% of your needs.

So how do you market a product or service that sucks?

As Kurt Cobain said, “Pretending to be someone you’re not is a waste of the person you are.”

That’s true of companies, too. If you’re tempted down the dark path, you risk your client’s reputation along with your own. Address the real issue. Re-engineer, starting with the real customer experience and redesign backwards, until you have something of value to offer. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

New niche markets are popping up. Many are building their brands and customer base with an unshakeable value proposition: the truth. How items are made, when and where improvements will and won’t be made, what it is and does. Certainly the connected economy has created an easier path to entrepreneurship. There’s less need for pretense (also a lie) when there’s a hunger for “honest product” offered by people, not a slick pack of lies. People inherently trust other people over brands. But this doesn’t mean all giants are sleeping. Even dominant players are becoming more truthful which validates this is not a passing phase.

Too good to be true?

Sound off and let me know your thoughts about how marketing the truth works (or doesn’t) for your company, or challenges you’re experiencing attempting that leap to hyperspace, bringing your organization into a more truthful relationship with customers.


About The Author

Jeanie Walker
Jeanie Walker is a marketing advisor who has worked with Fortune 10, startups, and small businesses for 25+ years. Her mission is to take small businesses to the next stage of growth thereby strengthening communities, competition, and freedom of choice. From lead generation to operational structure, Jeanie drives revenue opportunities for growing businesses.