Truth Is Better Than Fiction: Why Marketers Need to Lean into Authenticity

Authenticity. It’s a big word with bigger implications. To be authentic means to be true. With your story. To your audience. To yourself.

Authenticity in marketing means honesty. Transparency. Disclosing. Telling the truth.

Here’s a truth about me. I can’t lie. Not at work, not in my writing, and not personally. Even stretching the truth makes me squirm.

Maybe it even makes me a poor marketer.

Or does it? Maybe it pushes me to strive more for the truth. To be accurate and authentic requires me to be more creative.

A true story

Let me share some vocabulary words that may stir emotion in you:

  • Hyperbole
  • Exaggeration
  • Persuasion

These all came up in a conversation I had with a client about marketing copy. I was advised to do more of the above. To be persuasive. To sell.

Now, as a writer, I wear many hats. I work on marketing copy for pay, but I was trained in journalism, and my hobby is children’s book writing. There are very different rules for each of these media.

Of course, I instinctually understand that a marketer’s main gig is, indeed, to market something. To elicit action. To convince an audience to buy.

But I’d also argue that we can do our jobs while simultaneously being authentic. As marketers, we have to constantly gut-check ourselves against our internal compass to ensure that our persuasive, hyperbolic, salesy copy isn’t an outright lie. Because, in all realms of life, lying is a no-no. It’s outlined in the courtroom oath. It’s in the Ten Commandments. There are laws against lying in advertising, too (more on that momentarily).

So let’s talk about how to tackle this challenge.

Mining for data and getting the facts

In 2017, we are in an age where data is at the ready. As marketers, we can glean internal data, gather facts from third-party sources, and pull evidence (testimonials and quotes) from our customers. All of this can be used to build the case for our product.

But here’s the other side of that coin: If we can find all this data, so can our audience. Which means they can catch us if we’re fudging it.

The spin

A former colleague once told me a story about a time he needed data for a proposal. He sought intel from the analytics team. “What result would you like me to prove?” asked the analyst.

My former colleague puzzled at the question. “What do you mean?”

“I can spin this data any way you need to prove your case. Tell me what you want the numbers to say.”

Ah, there it is. Data – and facts, and the order in which it is presented – can be both truth and fiction. While it’s possible to spin (or omit, or lessen) certain facts, the question is if that is the truth.

Blurry lines and manipulation

The fact is, any truth can be finagled – or at least made to flow better. The problem is when it’s intentionally manipulative. And this is a fine line that’s all too easy to cross.

You must check the authenticity of your copy at every stage. Things can get blurry in word choice. Or design. Consider how data is (or is not) presented. What do your image captions imply?

To test for these issues, run your copy by an outsider. Have them read and flag anything that they are unsure of. Quiz them (informally) about what they think certain data points imply. Test yourself before you wreck yourself.

Marketing tactics

You or your product group may use subtle, and common, persuasive tactics to woo customers and nudge them in the direction of buying. There are a host of manipulative marketing tricks in the books, like pricing, sales, and sense of urgency. At this point, I think most buyers know this. They may still go for the items priced ending in a 9, telling themselves that they’re getting a deal. But I think they usually enter this agreement willingly. We all play those games to talk ourselves into purchasing things.

My problem is with intentionally coercive data, bait and switches, or false assertions.

Customer trust and loyalty

Why does this matter? Why can’t we trick our customers, get the sale, and tally it a success? A buy is a buy, after all. Who cares if the buyers feel tricked?

Well, because just like any relationship, the one between company and customer is built on trust. But it’s more fickle and one-sided than a friendship or love relationship. The customer holds the power.

Meaning, if your brand falsifies information and a customer finds out, they lose trust in you – which could result in lost business.

How to be authentic in your writing: the power of choice

So how do we navigate these challenges? How can you tell good stories and write witty copy that is still authentic and true – so that your brand won’t be seen as a Pinocchio?

This is where you have to make some choices.

Depending on the writing medium, you have a little or a lot of flexibility. For example, in those novels I write, I can fib all I want. The worlds are mine to create ‒ the lies mine (and my characters’) to tell.

But I can’t fudge it in journalistic pieces. In reporting, there’s no place for lies of either the commission or omission variety. Publications get in a lot of trouble when they do lie (see The Rolling Stone controversy) or don’t report all sides of a story.

And I have to be truthful in ad copy, too. There are laws prohibiting false advertising – intentionally falsifying, misleading, or claiming things that are simply not true. Basically, as long as advertisements have existed, businesses have tried to coerce people into the buying process. In the late 1930s, the Wheeler-Lea Act restricted deceptive ads to protect consumers; about a decade later came the Lanham Act to fight false advertising. More recently, in 2014 and 2016, the Truth in Advertising Act was proposed to Congress – specifically targeting excessive and deceptive image alteration (i.e., Photoshopping). Bottom line: Don’t deceive, or the Federal Trade Commission will find (and maybe fine) you.

Truth is stranger than fiction

By this point, you may be frustrated with me. You may be envisioning your marketing copy as stiff and dry. Too many rules. Too little creativity.

But consider the flip side of this. Just because I’m encouraging you to tell the truth doesn’t mean you don’t have an interesting marketing story to tell.

We marketing writers aren’t the only ones who have to push ourselves out of our first instinct. Think of comedians. They can choose the quick laugh – the gut-punch that comes from “going blue” and inserting lewd or crass concepts into their jokes. Or they can dig deeper and take time to observe, study, and craft jokes that tell a bit of truth about the human condition. I’d argue that the latter pack more punch. They’re more satisfying, and they linger.

I’d bet you have some good stories to uncover in your business data. Dig deep and seek the numbers that make you pause. Uncover the oddities. Ask yourself: Why is this happening? Research the heck out of things to find out what’s going on, and tell those stories.

As an example, in the 1960s, car rental company Avis ranked number two. Not number one. Instead of shirking behind this fact or waiting until they topped the list, Avis embraced it. They created an entire campaign based on being second – and showing customers how that makes them work even harder. Brilliant, right? So successful was the We Try Harder campaign that Avis used it for half a century.

More recently, McDonald’s launched an honest marketing campaign called “Our food. Your questions.” Customers could ask the fast food chain anything, and the company agreed to publicly answer. This has potential to stir up controversy – what might people ask about the rumored ingredients in the food? But it’s a brave step toward transparency and another exceptional piece of marketing that gets people talking about the brand.

Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction – and it sure can be a lot more interesting.

Truth-telling tools: Check your facts

Let’s jump ahead and say you have the facts. Are you sure? It’s time to check them before you go live.

In journalism school, we learned about sourcing, including primary vs. secondary sources. The rule of thumb? Always use primary sources first (they’re called “primary” for a reason). Primary sources are the raw things, the original accounts, like diaries, direct quotes, and census data. Secondary sources, like quotes you find in other publications, aren’t awful, but they’re hearsay. You need to verify that your secondary source got it right before you claim it as a fact.

This is where fact-checking comes in. Fact checkers seek to verify every fact in a story – quotes, figures, statistics. They often don’t rely on one source for their fact-checking, either, but corroborate it across multiple places to ensure its validity.

These tools and tactics don’t need to be contained to a newsroom. You can implement this in your marketing team by trading copy with a colleague and verifying her research and work.

Is authenticity just a trend?

So why, really, does this matter? Sure, we have societal, ethical, and legal rules that tell us not to lie.

But it’s more than that. Today’s buyers – our millennial audience – are highly sensitive to the notion of authenticity. This generation gravitates toward genuine, real conversations.

Authenticity is “the way to the millennial’s heart,” says an article about leadership in Forbes.

The Washington Times agrees: “To millennials, you don’t have to be amazing. But you do have to be authentic.”

This is a generation that eschews fakeness, uses the #nofilter tag on social media, and prefers stories to spiffy ads.

Author and researcher Brene Brown, PhD, studies the concept of authenticity (and its relative, vulnerability) for a living. She’s made a career out of books and Ted Talks that explore the topic. In The Gifts of Imperfection, she says, “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day.”

Choice. There’s that word again. We have to make choices every moment, every day.

Back to my true story: what I learned

I had a choice when speaking with the aforementioned client. I could nod my head and twist words and create clever copy that blurred lines and drew business.

When the client gave me feedback, I did nod. And I pondered. Then I went back to re-read some of my copy. Yes, it was full of facts and truth. But you know what else? It was stuffy. Not action-inciting.


So I had another choice. I could run with it as-is, checking my boxes for “truth” and “authenticity.”

Or, I could take someone else’s truth – the truth that my initial copy wasn’t so hot – and learn. Challenge myself. Do better.

I loosened my neck and shoulders, and went for it. I loosened up the copy, too. I found that there were ways to present those same facts, just not as rigidly. I made that copy more creative and more appealing ‒ but I kept the truth in it.

But between you and me? I also kept my original notes – the ones with citation sources and reference links. Because you never know when someone’s going to want to find evidence to prove a claim.

Are you up to the challenge?

My parting words: Being authentic is definitely not the easy path. Sometimes you have the luxury of presenting a laundry list of stellar facts that tell your story and sell your product. You hardly have to lift a finger.

But most of the time, you’ll be challenged. You’ll have to consult your inner compass, check your facts, check your truths, and push yourself to find a marriage of precision and persuasion.

Take the time to craft your story. Lean in. Be authentic and true.

As the cultural proverb says, honesty is the best policy.