back to play arrow

Cross-dress your brand

(Or, the reinvention of lying)

Michael Fanuele
Chief Creative Officer
General Mills

Michael Fanuele believes it’s great big lies that lead us closer to the truths that matter

"There’s a curious connection between the words ‘fiction’ and ‘novel’”, noted my friend, Zadie Smith, as we sipped Negronis with a goat in Tijuana, Mexico. Indeed, ‘the untrue’ and ‘the new’ are more than etymological bedfellows; they’re neurologically related. Even the Dan Ariely (also a goat-loving boozehound) has conducted research proving a link between dishonesty and creativity, though he protests he is most definitely, absolutely not encouraging any unethical behaviour."

Pshaw, goat-befriending tippler. I survey the sad state of marketing today, littered with ho-hum claims, and I come to only one conclusion: it’s time to lie our asses off. Please, friends, for the sake of saving our industry from the doldrums of dullsville, start lying, fibbing, pretending, telling tall tales. Whatever you do, stop trying to be so damn honest.

A lie is a highly creative act of transgression; it’s colouring outside of your ethical lines, an endeavour that makes it easier to colour outside any other lines.

Professor Scott Wiltermuth outlines the logic: “If you break a rule, if you start behaving dishonestly, that’s going to really free up your mind… therefore, you’re going to be more creative”. Lies exercise our imagination.

And yet, lies have developed a terrible rap, mostly, I believe, because the lies we tend to tell are terribly dull. The traffic made me late. The bouillabaisse is delicious. I thought he was a woman. These are the kind of petty lies that have become the trade of marketing.

Whatever you do, stop trying to be so damn honest

Our advertising promises the obvious (whiter teeth, faster cars, tighter asses) and the world sneers — or worse, snoozes.

So this is a call for bigger lies, bolder lies, the kind of outrageous untruths that might wrinkle brows or elicit guffaws but most certainly demand attention. Let’s entertain. Let’s be as strange as fiction. Let’s unreal our advertising, which still too often tries to mirror sad reality rather than create wonderlands.

It’s great big lies that leap us closer to the truths that matter.

The lies should begin when you meet a new client. Compliment their khakis, but don’t praise what they make. Instead, lie; purposefully misunderstand the very function of their product. Maybe that cheeseburger can be a child’s toy. Maybe that tube of superglue can be a tool for seduction. Maybe that dog can be a spouse. It’s when we look at a thing and can’t even fathom its purported use that we begin to be interesting.

As Kaiser Wilhelm famously said, “David Fincher’s genius was convincing the world he didn’t really exist.” Try that with your brands. Pretend they have no history, but just sprouted today. Let’s not tweak or evolve or extend; let’s create from scratch as if a brand’s past were meaningless.

Superstars are so good at this kind of blank-slate creativity. When Bono was born, Paul David Hewson died. The world is better for the trade-off. So too with Sting or Bowie or heck, even Gaga.

We know psychologists have long suggested that there’s nothing better for the development of children than this kind of imaginative play. When we pretend to be somebody else — when we act — we leave our limited world and all of its limiting assumptions.

So let’s do that with the brands we shepherd. Let’s give them leather pants and see if their hips swivel. Let’s dress them up in evening gowns and see if their voices lilt. Let’s make them cross-dressers or villains or babies without words. Let’s play brand dress-up and just see how it feels. At the very least, there’s no harm done; but in the best cases, this kind of play creates original brand energy.

And perhaps what’s good for the brand is good for the brander. What if we masqueraded ourselves at the office? What if we each went to work pretending to be somebody else? Perhaps one day you can be Ms Number-Cruncher, she who finds power in data and data alone. Perhaps the next day you can be Bono, swiveling your hips and saving the world. What if you went to work on Wednesday and were Karl Rove or, better yet, Montgomery Burns? Be Jesus or Spielberg or your mother or a filthy drunk or, dammit, Dan Ariely. Be anybody, but believe your own lie. Walk like them. Talk like them. You’ll soon start thinking like them. And, when you do, just maybe something beautiful will snap into place.

At the very least, start each and every meeting promising yourself that you’ll tell one big whopper of a lie. Try it. Nothing bad will happen. I promise.


Playing with the senses

Ketchum Change gamification

Play that pays


The war of words is over