Last week, Ray Edwards posted an interesting assertion about truth in marketing -- I'm trying to decide whether to find it disturbing:
Myths are stories that teach us something about our best selves, that inspire us to reach for something better, or that caution us against grave error.
Marketing, in its pure and noble form, uses mythology; it never uses lies.
The part about never using lies, I agree with wholeheartedly, of course. But what is the place of myth in marketing?
Is it okay to use "truthy" stories, photos, etc. that aren't literally true to illustrate a point and inspire a purchase? Or is that deceptive?
Is it okay, as long as you point out that the story is made up? Should you point that out before the story, or is after okay? If you do it after, you may have already planted the seeds of believing something that's not actually true. Can that misunderstanding truly be "fixed" after the fact?
I'm not going to name names, but I saw a sales pitch recently that contained a bold, yellow-highlighted statement similar to this:
Push-button System Makes $7,500 a Week on Complete Autopilot!
A few paragraphs later, they made it clear that the bold, highlighted assertion was an example of the kind of lies others were using to sell similar products.
Here's the problem: someone skimming the sales letter would have thought that was a claim they were making about their product. Perhaps that's what this sales letter was going for -- using a lie to sell a product, with "fine print" to cover their booties.
Of course, there's a difference between an outright lie and a myth that illustrates true principles or realistic possibilities.
But here's my question: why would you tell a non-factual story to illustrate real possibilities instead of using a factual story?
Is that okay for a new product, where you're confident the results are possible, but you don't yet have proof? Is it okay if you point out that the story is fictional? Using a story, rather than a description of what you believe is possible would likely be more persuasive. But do you have to earn the right to persuade by getting real evidence first?
I'd argue that to be completely ethical, any non-factual story that would tend to persuade a prospect to buy should be presented in a way that makes it clear from the outset that it's fictional.
That could be done by stating up front that it's a fable, an analogy, etc. Or it could be done using obviously fictional elements in the story like leprechauns or aliens. It's even possible to do simply by using language that's commonly used in fictional stories: "once upon a time..."
I'd also argue that there's little justification for using realistic but non-factual stories to paint the picture of a product's results. Realism in marketing should be reserved for reality.