"Real" vs "Fake" in Consumer Advertising

[February 10, 2012]

Logically, you expect anyone in the field of marketing to realize a few simple truths: That they’re in the business of selling—and that selling itself is the act of changing behavior. No matter how you complete the sale, you’re motivating an action, playing on a desire and offering a route to its fulfillment. 

Post Cold War, that’s what makes the world go round. But you can’t fail to realize it’s also what makes all human interaction possible, as in the following fictional conversation (based on a true story):

“Where d’ya wanna go for pizza?” asked Katy.
“Dunno,” said Russell.
“There’s pies up the street with mad-thin crust, like you like it,” said Katy.
“Cool,” said Russell.

Persuasion via value proposition. It’s an everyday occurrence. But what about the motives of the persuader? For all we know, Katy might have no interest in pizza, but every interest in hanging out with Russell. Or vice versa. In fact, the entire conversation might be a sham, an artifice, a desperate attempt by two people to find an excuse to build a relationship. And don’t get me started on their possible ulterior motives.

Fact is, transactional relationships are everywhere. If the idea shocks you, you’re better off not leaving the house. Such relationships are so routine, they’re expected. The presidential candidates who tell you they’re motivated by a vision of America are guilty of spin. As strange as it may seem, those seeking personal power do so to seek personal power.

By the same token, people who make a living by selling a product are selling a product to make a living. And, in case the point has escaped you, that’s the very model of a transactional relationship. So I find it incomprehensible that any marketer would reject a sales strategy simply because it it’s based on an artifice, a premise, an excuse to build a relationship.

“But it’s not real!”
Without wishing to invoke Sherlock Holmes, I congratulate anyone who deduces that advertising is based on a purposeful use of the artifice of persuasion. As in the discussion of many such topics, the real vs fake dichotomy breaks down at the level of detail. Because the only moral issue surrounding an ad campaign is whether it tells the truth about your product.

It doesn’t matter if the truth is delivered by a celebrity spokesperson, a “real audience member,” a mommy-blogger, or sock puppets. What matters is whether you’ve found an engagement strategy that grabs your customers’ attention and motivates them to buy an honest product for an honest price.

OK, maybe you feel sock puppets don’t match your brand image, your brand voice, your brand identity, your brand wheel or your favorite brand of bran flakes. That’s up to you. But for Heaven’s sake, don’t turn down the chance to create an iconic, memorable moment for your brand just because of its fuzzy relationship to “reality.” 

What is reality?
Am I the first person to ask this question? I don’t think so. The slippery nature of what’s real has bedeviled far greater minds than mine, including people forced to live out their lives in itchy, wool robes. In fact, the consensus of human history is that reality is treacherously difficult to define. Yet, strangely, your average marketing manager can supply you with a ready definition in seconds flat: Reality is statistics, poll data and “fun facts.”

Sadly, the belief that we can discern absolute truth through multiple-choice questions is quite unshakable in some quarters. Yet, the well-documented phenomenon of response bias—the tip of this faux-scientific iceberg—should be enough to undermine anyone’s faith in poll numbers. The upshot? A creative concept based on “the facts” can only represent reality to a limited degree. 

So as you consider your options for connecting with consumers, your decision to base your approach on “reality” will always be a matter of personal preference. It won’t necessarily increase engagement and it won’t necessarily enhance the value of your brand. In real terms, the only thing your approach will necessarily accomplish is an expression of literal-minded Marketing Anxiety.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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