Storytelling Isn’t Journalism. And Brands Don’t Need To Tell The Truth.

If you’ve followed the news lately, then you’ve seen theater performer Mike Daisey on the defensive after the revelation that he fudged the truth about his experiences visiting Apple supplier Foxconn’s plants in Shenzhen, China.

Most notably, This American Life issued a retraction after featuring Daisey. The show’s host and producers didn’t feel that Daisey’s account lived up to their journalistic standards.

What does this have to do with advertising? Plenty.

More and more, advertising people and brand managers are throwing around the word “storytelling” as if it’s the key to the future of marketing. And with the explosion of brand-related content, there’s a rush to tell more stories, promote more brands, and reach consumers with more long-form content.

The risk we run is that brands don’t need to meet journalistic standards. And they won’t. Much like Daisey isn’t a journalist, he’s a storyteller.

I wrote about it 2 years ago on Talent Zoo.

Some brands, however, are locked in a battle to win consumers. The battle becomes even more heated when it’s a product under serious criticism. Take high-fructose corn syrup, a cheap sugar substitute you’ll find in foods in every section of the grocery store. Many scientists believe high-fructose corn syrup affects our bodies differently than refined sugar, but the folks who manufacture HFCS will argue otherwise — on TV, in letters to the editor, and even on Twitter. The debate pits scientist against scientist and expert against expert, many of whom have their own agendas to push.

One of my favorite quotes comes from author Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” In a world where facts are malleable, brands can step in and dictate the facts. We don’t believe experts anymore. We don’t know what qualifies someone to be an expert. Frankly, the door is wide open for marketers to exploit this — because we don’t even trust our news media to tell us the truth. They tell us a version of the truth.

What’s sad is that Daisey’s work brought to light some real, legitimate concerns about Chinese working conditions. And more people will now dismiss the whole issue because its’ most vocal champion is now accused of lying.

I see similarities between Daisey’s journalism-as-entertainment ploy and brands’ content-as-information efforts. And I think it’s a warning to all brands venturing into content creation: Be careful. If you stretch the truth, your work will have as much credibility as any 30-second commercial does, which isn’t much. Fool consumers at your own peril.

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 TalentZoo.com. Dan published the best of his TalentZoo.com 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.

  • http://adpulp.com/ David Burn

    Nice post, Dan. You are hitting on a huge point here. Branded content has to be as good (and as true) as any content available. Which means content marketers are now competing with the best journalists, the best editors, the best TV producers and best filmmakers in the world.

  • http://twitter.com/Storyteling Limor Shiponi

    The headline hits the mark but I’m in disagreement with you about lying and the way it’s connected to storytelling. A true storyteller would never choose the route Daisey took. If we don’t enhance the facts that’s because they vail the truth, not the other way round.
    Regards,

    • Dan Goldgeier

      Hi Limor,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment. You’ve got an interesting take on this. I’m curious–what do you consider the elements of true storytelling? How fictional can storytelling be? What should Daisey have done? 

  • Randy Osborne

    Good points! We’ve talked a lot about the mismatch between journalism and storytelling — and exploiting one or both to make money, to shape a brand. 
    http://www.carapacestories.blogspot.com/2012/03/let-me-tell-you-story-so-youll-buy.html