Brand Storytelling Is Just A Fancier Way Of Lying, Right?

Not long ago, I got an assignment for a technology company. They were an also-ran company in a crowded category, and they didn’t have a strong brand identity or any real unique benefits to tout. In a situation like that, there are basically two choices: concoct a story that may or many not be rooted in truth, or lie outright.

Hey, sometimes storytelling on behalf a brand can be amazing:

But as we’ve seen recently thanks to Manti Te’o and Lance Armstrong, real life is stranger, and often more fictional, than anything marketers can concoct.

An advertising instructor of mine once preached, “Do something that doesn’t look like an ad.” TV shows, news articles, blog posts, fake Twitter personas; they’re all now being used as ways to disguise advertising. And as real journalists become lazier, news outlets become cash-starved, and reporting becomes increasingly shallow, the door is open for brands to look more credible by comparison.

It’s the subject of my new column on Talent Zoo.

About Dan Goldgeier

Blogging on AdPulp since 2005, Dan Goldgeier is a Seattle-based freelance copywriter with experience at advertising agencies across the U.S. He is a graduate of the Creative Circus ad school, and currently teaches at Seattle's School of Visual Concepts. In addition, he is a regular columnist for Dan published the best of his columns in a book entitled View From The Cheap Seats: A Broader Look at Advertising, Marketing, Branding, Global Politics, Office Politics, Sexual Politics, and Getting Drunk During a Job Interview. Look for it on Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.


  1. “Marketers either need to become savvier liars, or more effective truth-tellers,” you propose. I assume you’re being rhetorical here. Because the former is not an option. The culture of the Internet wants to out you, whether you’re a lonely blogger or a mega brand, for your lies and deception.

    As you know, my self-ascribed title is Chief Storyteller. Do people read that as “I’m the guy who will tell the biggest lies for a buck,” or as “I’m the guy who will help guide the company to their authentic and truest story?”

    In many case, my model won’t work. I admit that. If your beer tastes bad because it is made with rice, not more expensive hops, then the messaging will lend itself to price promotions, because competing on price is all a cheap beer has in its arsenal. You can send in the clowns or bimbos, as the case may be, but that won’t make your beer taste good.

    Once upon a time, people may have wanted to believe the myths attached to a beer or a brand of car, but we also have a culture of data and comparison shopping today. When you add those factors to the rise of radical transparency, the entertaining aspect of the appeal must work within the confines of the brand’s story scope.

    “Imported from Detroit” is a nice example. The line stretches the truth because the cars are not technically imported (although many parts are), but we understand implicitly what the line means, that it’s a quality claim wrapped in the flag.

    • Hey David,
      Actually it’s not a rhetorical statement because the former is still an option chosen by many marketers. The first Talent Zoo column I ever wrote was about a car repair shop that advertised a $99 special but in reality, had an average ticket of $400. People have known about this place’s businesses practices for years, but they haven’t changed a thing. They’re still doing it. They’re telling a story that might be true for a few of their customers but masks a bigger lie.

      Or consider the Scientology “Native Ad” from a few weeks back in The Atlantic. Was everything in that story (an ad disguised as an article) correct? If so, why would it need to be pulled? Some people couldn’t tell the difference between truth-as-journalism and truth-as-brand-storytelling.

      We can choose to tell the story of a product, and we can choose stories about the users of that product. Or we can try both. But when brands don’t have anything compelling to say (and many don’t), they’ll choose to lie. That you opt for higher stands and your clients speaks well of you and
      them. Not everyone in advertising and marketing is on board with that mentality.