A lie well told

I started my advertising career at McCann Erickson, almost 10 years ago. The CEO at McCann had the agency’s slogan proudly written on his wall: ‘Truth well told.’ At first I didn’t think much of it. But the longer I work in advertising, the more I admire it. Especially since I am a strategist and it is my task to find the strength in a brand or product that advertising should enhance. I like the phrase because the business I work in – and the business I love – is so eager in making things prettier than they are that the truth is often left behind. Which is why successful admen are most of the time not successful for being honest. Instead, they are successful because they can sell their deaf, blind, and bedridden mother in law.

Since I am seeking for the truth in advertising, I usually don’t like casefilms. Most of the time I don’t believe them. Not even when based on statistics; the figures that prove that sales went up by a whopping 13% or that the consumer preference for this or that brand reached 28%. Stats can be easily manipulated or – worse – made up. Even people who write Effie cases know this. The Effie is the award for telling the truth in an economical way.

But economical truths shouldn’t bother me. It’s what advertising is all about. If not, our ads get boring and no one wants to listen anymore. Besides, consumers are not stupid. That is, they are stupid, of course, but they know they shouldn’t take advertising too literal. They know a gorilla can’t play the drums. And they understand that the three little pigs didn’t commit insurance fraud, framing the big bad wolf to cover their tracks.

But now there’s this new form of advertising; the ‘viral casefilm;’ a cross-over between a viral and a casefilm. It is catchy, has low production value, and is seeded on the internet for consumers to stumble upon, just like the viral. The difference though is that it is explicitly presented as the truth by the brand – not by some anonymous person holding a handheld camera. It thus combines the gratuitness of the viral with the (quasi) reliability of the fact based casefilm.

Last month, for example, I came across a film by LG that was to tout its monitors’ ‘lifelike colors.’ The concept: the floor of an elevator is covered with LG monitors virtually showing the floor breaking down and falling in the lift shaft. Innocent lift travellers, filmed with a hidden camera, are scared shitless when this happens. The pay-off: “So real it’s scary.” A bit of an ironic proposition, when you know the whole thing is fake – including the two technicians preparing the LG monitors. The truth is that LG never used any monitors to make this film; it simply used a green screen and staged the whole thing. First I thought, oh well, an entertaining piece of content that gets the message across – it has been viewed already 16.5 million times.

The longer I think about it though, the more I realise that it is as far away from the truth well told as an advert can get – especially when you compare the quality of an LG monitor with that of the competition. The entire ad is a blatant lie. And the real scary thing about it is that it is a lie well told.