Caveat Emptor, baby!

I think I was about five years into my first job as copywriter when I became self-conscious that I was manipulating the truth to better serve my clients. It didn’t stop me from doing it but at least I was aware.

Up until then, I’d been learning how. Sometimes the trick was one of omission: removing a word like it was the “wrenched ankle” in Operation! Other instances required fancier solutions. Lots fancier. That warhorse of Ad land, McCann Erickson had a great expression for the art, calling it the “Truth Well Told.”

Using words to enhance a product’s attributes is an accurate definition of copywriting. It is also a pretty good description of lying. Skilled copywriters write with motive.

There are as many examples as there are stars in the sky. The sentence you just read; that’s one. Since there is no way to quantify the amount of stars in the sky there is no way to disprove my statement. If, by chance, someone from legal were to question it, I could do any number things to keep the exaggeration intact. For example, adding the word “likely” creating the softer “likely as many.” Still too strong? Then try “probably.” And so on. Copywriters treat adverbs like fabric softener. Serious authors tend to disfavor adverbs because they mitigate a sentence’s integrity. We like them for the very same reason.

Or we can play the percentages. Let’s say you have a bullet point about a product stating it cleans up to 52% of all stains tested. That doesn’t sound so good does it? How about saying, Product X cleans over half of every stain on earth. “Over half” sounds more impressive. “On earth” evokes magnitude. It’s the same mediocre truth but now it’s just well told.

Skilled copywriters know how to create myths about products so that they enthrall consumers. Altoids aren’t just strong; they’re “curiously strong.” Mythmaking is how we help create cult like status for brands. Yet, mythos depends on an inherent strength about a product as opposed to a weakness. Therefore, it is truth-based. In most cases a good story sells a good brand: Nike, Apple, Levis, etc…

As a longtime copywriter and even longer-time human being I certainly have given this topic a lot of thought. In some respects it is the driving force of this blog. Yet, for the most part, I don’t fault advertisers or their agencies for mastering the “truth well told.” After all, I believe in caveat emptor. I don’t think the market place should be impeded from selling with motive in order to protect the naïve.

Where it can go sideways is when we take our sharpened capacity to create myths into real life. Adroitly manipulating the truth to satisfy one’s agenda at home or at work is far more controversial than putting goods and services on an unearned pedestal. When Bill Clinton told the world he “did not have sexual relations with that woman” he was technically telling the truth (they never had intercourse) but he, of course, was lying.

If we continue to tell the truth our way it becomes our truth. We lose objective reality, becoming self-serving to the extreme. That’s okay if you’re a stick of gum. Not so much if you’re a husband, father or son.


We’ve been discussing the idea that certain campaigns create myths out of their subjects, allowing them to transcend, or, in some case replace reality. A perfect modern example is Apple. While the product is truly excellent, ever since its “1984” TV commercial, Apple has obtained and maintained cult like status. With its super-sleek design, packaging and advertising, Apple is way more than hardware -it’s Lifeware. Few would argue the point, especially those of us in advertising and design! We blissfully drink the Kool-Aid. We Think Different.

Who or what has achieved myth-like proportions on account of its propaganda? I’d like to offer my notorious nine. (I couldn’t think of a tenth). A few criteria for making this list are that all on it must be on it forever, no flashes-in-the pan. Items must be global in scope, transcending specific cultures. Finally, advertising and/or propaganda must be a primary driver of the entity’s success. Here they are, in no particular order:

1.   God & Heaven Be you Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or miscellaneous, you are praying to something that you have no tangible evidence exists. This is by far the best and most obvious example of my point. From the Bible to the Dead Sea Scrolls, it’s all based on man-made propaganda. Scripture is body copy. The Crucifix is a logo. For more (way more) on this provocative notion, I humbly beseech you to read my new novel, The Happy Soul Industry.

2.   Bottled water Even though countless simple and irrefutable tests have proven bottled water to be no more pure or better for you than most tap water, a staggering majority of us still believe ads that tell us it is. My wife is one such person. Despite my tirades, she continues to bring cases of it into our house every week. I give up.

3.   Apple (see above)

4.   Nike Because of his compelling rhetoric and charismatic persona, a lowly carpenter, Jesus became no less than a Messiah -his creed perhaps the most followed religion in the world. Because of compelling rhetoric and the charismatic persona of a mere basketball player (Michael Jordan), a lowly gym shoe became the Shoes, -its creed a clarion call for anyone who has ever broken a sweat. It is believed God can walk on water. And so, with a pair of Air Jordans, can we.

5.   The British Empire Royals change but the loyal following never does. There is no logical reason why Princes and Queens continue to exist but they do… in England as well as in all our imaginations. The constant, loud discussion of these figures is what drives their popularity. They are important merely for existing. It’s odd, vaguely annoying, and a global phenomenon.

6.   Hollywood The hype, glitz, spin, fame, and glamour of La La Land. Words and pictures about words and pictures. The town can’t help it. It is what it is and has been ever since the “talkies.” More so than DC or NYC, LA’s Hollywood maintains its ridiculous and sublime image. Hurray for Hollywood!

7.   Death As soon as we are born we begin dying. It happens to the best of us. The great equalizer is the most enigmatic concept in the world. Pyramids have been built to house dead people. The best real estate in the world contains dead people. Nothing scares or motivates us like Death. Despite its absolute certainty, we all are uncertain of what Death really means or feels like. We have only our stories, beliefs and memories. Death is the ultimate myth.

8.   Target Their “Design for Everyone” mantra captivated America, redefining the value proposition. Cheap became Chic. Will this mythology carry it through this recession? How about the next boom time?

9.   Starbucks How many of us visit this temple every morning? Grande Skim Lattes. We even speak in tongues! One argument against this selection would be the conspicuous lack of advertising. To their credit, much of Starbuck’s myth is organic. Word of mouth was the first advertising. It’s still the best.

I would have liked to put “America” on this list but as evidenced by current events, our brand changes, for better and for worse. Inspiring belief, our new President certainly has rekindled the potential for America’s myth. We’ll see.

Another notable exclusion are celebrities, alive or dead. Sure, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Elvis are icons. But of what: Sex? Talent? Dying badly? Perhaps they comprise part of bigger myths like Hollywood and the UK?

Last detail: I did not put Altoids on the list. It is the closest thing I’ve got in my portfolio to a mythical brand but I was uncomfortable promoting it here. What do you think, Gentle Reader? Did I miss one or get one wrong?


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