Liars and Storytellers

We are, it seems, a storytelling species. Narrative is not only the most natural and most persuasive way of telling things to other people, some theorists (such as David Carr) see narrative as the structure of our own understanding of our lives. That is, we tell ourselves, to ourselves.

Marketers are storytellers. Look at a beer commercial, a Levi’s ad, a car commercial, and you see a marketer telling you a story about the kind of person you will be if you buy their product. Seth Godin, author of (among other books) the forthcoming All Marketers Are Liars : The Power of Telling Authentic Stories in a Low-Trust World, has launched a companion blog collecting some of the stories that marketers (using the term loosely — in Godin’s estimation, an art collector with a Pollock on the wall is a marketer, marketing themself) tell about their clients. Consider Evian:

Of course, it’s not just water. You can solve your thirst problem for free. You buy bottled water because of the way it makes you feel, because of the impact the story has on your mood, not because you need the fluid.

Or the Moleskine notebook:

Yet the story, the story that says it was the key tool of the great European writers gives me pause every time I pick it up. Maybe this time, maybe, just maybe, some of the magic will rub off on me.

The marketers of these products aren’t positioning them in relation to the truth about their products — “this product meets such-and-such need because of whatever” — but rather in relationship to our concepts of self. Some of the stories are lies: credit card companies printing their junk mail envelopes to look like there’s a card inside, because for some reason people are more likelyto open envelopes if they think there’s a card inside. But the Evian and Moleskine stories above aren’t strictly lies — there’s no particularly malicious intent, unless you think maximizing profit is malicious (and I suppose that’s an argument that could be made). Rather, they are fictions, made-up narratives whose truth lies not in their referential value but in their evocative value.

In this sense, I disagree with Godin’s assertion that marketers are “liars”. They (and to the extent that we are all marketers of one sort or another, we) are crafters of fictions, tellers of stories. On a truth-value scale, there’s little difference between “Moleskine notebooks are the notebooks of the greatest writers” and “In the beginning was the Word” or “There once was a prince named Hamlet”. None of these are accurate reflections of historical truth (for the Believers out there, that’s an accurate statement — “in the beginning” was, technically, before history). But all of them convey — or, better yet, evoke — a story about the world that their tellers would like us to take as a truth, if not as The Truth.

In a way, fictions are more true than truth. After all, while we might debate endlessly about who killed John F. Kennedy, there can be no question of who killed Hamlet. Perhaps that’s the difference between lies and other stories (rather than the “malicious intent” standard I referenced above): a lie can be proven false, and once that happens, they no longer have any power over us. Stories are always already false, which makes their falseness irrelevant — and thus, paradoxically, makes them vehicles for truth.

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