Essays at the intersection of marketing and life.
It is surprising how difficult it is to find truth. I do not mean this in a legalistic or scientific sense. No. I mean in an everyday way: What does the waiter really think? What does my work colleague really care about, deep down? How does that successful neighbour really feel about her choices?
Society has invented all kinds of niceties and politeness to allow us guard the truth, jealously, from one another. We have grown so accustomed to this that we hardly believe we deserve to hear the truth at all. Rather, we busy ourselves in receiving the honeyed shadow-boxing of others, and in supplying some equally sugar-coated bullshit in return.
Brands are often engaged in this polite yet fractured way of seeing the world. To buy into Apple’s view of things, middle-class people must be motivated by the whiz bang perfect lines of its products, and aspire to the elegant, better-than-me people who designed them. The fact that Chinese minions manufactured them is rarely for discussion. The idea that Steve Jobs was an absolute horror of a boss is both known and sublimated.
Über, the global alternative to taxis, is now attempting to reconcile its sleek outer veneer with a culture of misogyny and bullying. Talking truth is not particularly good for the brand, and is necessary only because the online evidence of its CEO gone rogue is difficult to escape.
We, as voters and citizens, have built brain muscles which allow us to applaud the ability of our politicians to ‘say the right thing’ whilst simultaneously knowing that they neither mean, feel, nor will stand over that which they have said.
I see all of this as evidence of a forthcoming cultural crisis. The gaping chasm between the veneer of things, and their reality. We are living in a time véritable famine – where a deep thirst for truth, so long unexpressed, is now aching to be quenched. Just as the seismologist detects minor Richter movements before a quake, so too can we detect a forthcoming shift in the need for truth.
Allow me illustrate, with three examples, some evidence of this thirst for truth. A thirst which all brands may soon, somehow, feel a need to acknowledge…
Meryl Streep delivered an Oscar nominated performance in 2016 playing a delusional society lady and opera star, Florence Foster Jenkins, who could not sing, yet insisted on doing so. The unique poignancy of Foster Jenkins was not that her singing was terrible – this was indisputable and superficially mocked – but that she, herself, was sincere. She reclaimed the high art of the aria away from the perfect pitch elites, and gifted it to herself, because she cared enough to try. And try. And try. This woman is valued not because of her sensitive interpretation of Verdi, but for her revealing and vulnerable interpretation of her own self. Florence, in the end, sang a beautiful, heart-rending truth.
In February 2017, The Australian Department of Finance uploaded a cringe-making video enticing graduates to become ‘game-changers’ by joining up to its trainee programme. In a naive and most excellent video, which they have since wiped from their website, real Department employees are given stiff lines and perform staged conversations intended to motivate graduates. The result is both hilarious and revealing. Although the first backlash was hyper-critical of a department prepared to make its employees seem part of a school project, the video also captured a moment of unguarded veracity. Here they are – a shower of accountants, acting like accountants. Indeed, the reason the video is not super-slick is that no good accountant would pay for it. There is a reason the Department was disgraced for its efforts: it is at the vanguard of post-sophistication communication, and we are schooled to reject that which does not conform. I fully expect they will indeed attract the game-changers they wanted with this deeply game-changing video. Just wait and see.
Movie buffs agree on the most wooden and unconvincing dialogue ever committed to the silver screen. It is spoken by Johnny in a movie called The Room. And it goes like this:
‘You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!’
There is little in popular culture that makes me roar with laughter these days, but The Room does it every time. Entertainment Weekly famously called it ‘the Citizen Kane of bad movies’. (My favourite moment comes when Claudette announces to her adult daughter that she got the test results and she definitely has breast cancer. The line is delivered with the airy feel of deciding on which flavoured ice cream to to have. Claudette’s daughter receives the cancer news with all the gravitas of hearing that a her mother has returned a new pair of shoes.)
The Room is a movie so unaware of the conventions of plot and emotional layering that the viewer is immediately to sea. It is a vision of uncompromising and mysterious Central European, Tommy Wiseau. Tommy is its producer, scriptwriter, director and star. He plays Johnny.
But as you watch his masterpiece, shrieking with laughter at its awfulness, a strange thing happens. One is drawn, mesmerically, by the authenticity of the movie’s, and Tommy’s, bizarro voice. The Room is a deeply accomplished expression of this man’s world-view. A view so fresh, so true, so unrestrained by the needs of its viewers, that we tend to fall in love with it, and its maker. Wiseau’s journey in making The Room is the subject of a Seth Rogen / James Franco film, entitled ‘The Disaster Artist’, which will be released this week.
Deep in the core of every person is a search for truth. Although we superficially rail at the idea of living another man’s dreams, it may be that our culture is simultaneously anaesthetising us from a certain uncomfortable truth: that much of it is pretend. Pretending to live well; pretending to be happy; pretending to care about things we couldn’t care less about.
Every now and again, however, in our peripheral cultural vision, a truth teller comes into view. And we cannot help but be transfixed and humbled in such a presence.