Everything I know about marketing I learned from the 1990 movie “Crazy People.”

For many many many people, the term “marketing” is interchangeable with words like “spin,” “flim-flam,” “malarkey,” and of course, “bullshit.”

You can’t really blame people who think this way. A huge amount of marketing is reality-ignoring bullshit/spin/hokum/snake oil.

This fact — that marketing is mostly poppycock — is the foundation that the movie Crazy People builds on. For anyone unfamiliar with the movie, here’s the quick synopsis (I swear this is relevant):

In Crazy People, Dudley Moore’s character is an advertising executive who does something absolutely unthinkable — he creates a series of ads that tell the truth. Here’s a few examples:

“Volvo — they’re boxy but they’re good.”

“United — most of our passengers get there alive.”

“Metamucil — it makes you go to the toilet.”

His agency rejects the ads and checks poor Dudley into a sanitarium thinking he’s taken leave of his senses. A mistake leads to the ads running in newspapers across the country anyway, at which point the unexpected happens. The ads work. Really well.

It’s tempting to write this off as nonsense movie hijinks, and it mostly is. But there’s a pearl of wisdom in there. As it happens, marketing and advertising that tells the truth can be incredibly effective.

Truth-based marketing in the wild

Here are a few real-world examples of truth-based marketing:

This video from Saddleback Leather is one of my favorite examples. All he’s doing here is describing in detail how to knock off one of their bags. But the message is crystal clear: they put a ton of time and attention into making a bag that lasts. If you’re tired of bags that fall apart, Saddleback is for you. So good.

Apple may be well know for their “reality distortion field,” but Steve Jobs provided a fantastic example of truth-based marketing when he introduced the original iPod:

“The coolest thing about iPod is that your entire music library fits in your pocket. OK? You can take your whole music library with you, right in your pocket. Never before possible. So that’s iPod.”

They could have marketed the iPod 100 different ways. But the product was so groundbreaking, they knew that that the best thing they could do was get the hell out of the way and state this simple fact. 10/10.

Finally, a classic from Fiat. It would have been laughable to claim that a Fiat was just as good as a Ferrari, so they didn’t. Instead they call out the fact that a person with well established taste in cars (Mr. Ferrari himself!) chooses Fiat as his practical car of choice. Genius.

a vintage Fiat ad

As you can see, you don’t have to sling baloney or shovel hooey to do marketing right.

How to make truth-based marketing work.

If you’d like to give truth-based marketing a try, you’re in luck. It’s remarkably straightforward! Here’s how it works:

  1. Find a unique, desirable outcome that your product or company delivers to customers.
  2. Talk about that thing.

I made this handy flowchart that walks you through the process in exacting detail:

People tend to not believe it’s this simple, so let’s run through some common questions:

“What if my product doesn’t solve any problems or have any real value?”

Not a great place to be, but it happens. What you don’t want to do in this situation is try to market your way out of the mess. Marketing isn’t a magic wand that turns fundamentally bad products into fundamentally good ones. Just ask Juicero.

Instead, you need to do the sounds-simple-but-is-incredibly-hard thing and make a better product or service. And while you do that, focus your marketing on a truth that’s appealing, but possibly not unique. Do you have great customer service, for example? Talk about that.

“What if we don’t know why people are buying our product?”

This is a good place to be, but you’ve got some work to do. And plenty of customers to talk to. Just keep in mind that the reasons people tell you aren’t necessarily the real reasons they buy. If hearing this leaves you confused and sad, check out frameworks like Jobs to Be Done that provide a concrete methodology for figuring this out.

“Our product isn’t great, but I’m in marketing. What can I do?”

In a perfect world, you’d avoid this scenario like the plague. But if you’re here, you’ve got two options:

  1. Start cranking out codswallop.
  2. Tell the powers-that-be the truth.

It may take some time, but option 1 leads to certain doom. Option 2 might lead to immediate doom, but it also might lead to salvation. Pick your poison.

Any other questions? No? Good.

I heartily recommend giving truth-based marketing a try. Not only will your company reap the benefits, but you get to wake up in the morning energized by the fact that you’re not adding to the ever-increasing volume of bunk, hogwash, and hot air in the world. It feels nice!