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Facts Myths written on a chalkboardWe all say that "honesty is the best policy" - but even that's a little white lie. Human beings can only handle the truth in small doses. In other words, we like honesty when it makes us feel good. Did that dress really make her look fat? Did he really do a good job with that DIY (do it yourself) project?

If we were totally honest with ourselves, we'd admit that we love a lie from time to time - particularly those lies that give us an excuse to do what we want to do, say what we want to say, and wear what we want to wear. Of course, when it comes to lying - marketers and advertising experts are some of the biggest fibbers of them all.

Marketing blurs the lines between honesty and truth in a truly artistic way. The best marketers know that if they want to get the sale, they need to give their prospects a hint of truth, sweetened by an entire butt-load of delicious, sugary lies.

Let's just have a quick think about what "honest" ads might look like:

  • Coca-Cola: Sip Your Way to Childhood obesity!
  • Instagram: So, no-one online will know what you really look like
  • Maybe it's Maybelline - Maybe it's photoshop…

Honesty In Advertising


Now, don't get us wrong. We're not saying that all marketers do is lie about their products and services. There's honesty at the heart of every ad campaign you see. The only difference is that marketers know how to "exaggerate" the truth. Sure, we're honest in what we do - but it's fair to say that no one has ever sprayed on a ton of Lynx body spray and suddenly found themselves covered in half-naked models.

Men don't suddenly become irresistible because they wear the right deodorant, and women don't have a flawless complexion because they slap on a bit of makeup. Advertising is about exaggeration. We pull your attention to the benefits of a product in the most aggressive way possible and conveniently leave the negative side of things untouched.

Imagine if a deodorant company told you that it's going to make you smell a bit better - but let's face it, it's not going to make you any more attractive to the opposite sex. The only reason this kind of advertising would work is that we've gotten so used to being lied to that a little bit of truth - even from a negative perspective - is novel.

An ad for Apple that just said "The iPad: Show your friends that you can afford more than them…" Might be a bit "overly" honest, but let's face it - it would get your attention.

Is "Keeping it Real" a Good Marketing Tactic?


Companies have taken the no-nonsense honesty approach to marketing in the past. For instance, in the UK a few years ago, you might remember seeing a cigarette brand called "Death Cigarettes". This product looked like a standard carton of cigarettes at a glance, but the name "DEATH" was written on the front in capital letters, and there was a skull and crossbones logo on the packet too.

To begin with, the company saw a huge amount of success. People purchasing the product bragged that they were happy with seeing the truth on their cigarette packets, and newspapers everywhere raved about these honest cigarettes that constantly reminded smokers that their death was on the horizon. Of course, the results didn't last forever.

After a reasonable amount of success to start with, the sales began to crash and burn. Smokers decided that they no longer wanted to be reminded that they were killing themselves with their favorite unhealthy habit. By 1999, the brand was as dead as its namesake. So, yeah - maybe honesty is the best policy - but not when you're constantly telling people that they're gonna die when using your products.

So, Customers Don't Want Honesty?


To some extent, customers do want honesty. We are moving towards a world where clients constantly claim that they want more transparency and authenticity from the brands they work with. However, the important thing to remember is that while your customers want some truth from you - they want it in small, exciting doses.

Rather than building your entire brand around being brutally honest, you might see better results by infusing a little honesty into your typical marketing strategy. For instance, you may recall 2015, when Oasis released marketing campaigns that were delightfully honest just in time for Summer. According to the team behind the brand, they wanted to engage with a new generation of straightforward customers, and they did this with refreshing slogans and transparency.

The ads were fun and honest at the same time, saying things like "It's Summer. You're thirsty. We've got sales targets". This was the novel approach that clients were looking for at the time, and it successfully helped Oasis to start improving its sales again. But the marketing campaign was short-lived, they didn't expect it to last forever.

If Hallmark used the slogan: "Use some cheap poetry to make her feel special" it might get your attention for a while - but eventually, you'd stop buying the cards, right? That's the same with honest advertising - it only goes so far.

Can People Really Handle The Truth?

Ultimately, there's a limit on how much truth your customers want from you. They say that they want absolute transparency - but we all enjoy a little exaggeration at times. Who doesn't love to tell themselves that a new mascara will really make their eyes look three times bigger, or a shirt will help them to get the attention of the person they've had a crush on for three months?

People want the illusion of honesty and the occasional burst of entertaining transparency - when it's something they can laugh at. They don't want to be obviously lied to, but they also don't want the truth constantly either. Let's face it - the truth is exhausting, and it's very rarely what we want to hear.  

Sure, women won't chase you down the street just because you've sprayed a manly scent on your pits- but they're more likely to give you the time of day if you don't walk around smelling like you haven't washed for two weeks. At the same time, you won't become a professional model when you wear a certain shade of lipstick, but you might just feel a little more confident when you stroll into work next week.

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is a hard pill for people to swallow. The key to really leveraging transparency and authenticity in all its glory is figuring out how to use the right amount of truth in your campaigns, and in the development of your brand. If you can get the mix right, then you might just discover the perfect balance of authenticity.

Topics: Ad Creatives, Programmatic Advertising, Benefits Online Advertising

Tim Nichols

Written by Tim Nichols

Tim Nichols is a founding partner at ExactDrive, a digital media buying agency with white label, reseller and managed service options available. ExactDrive plans, manages, and optimizes online advertising campaigns with the objective of delivering measurable value and empowering clients to find precisely targeted audiences. ExactDrive has offices in Minneapolis, MN, Milwaukee, WI and SouthWest Florida.

Tim Nichols is also a contributing author on Forbes.com.

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