Does the Best Advertising Really Tell the Truth?

Truth in Marketing

The Bernbach Lesson.

Right out of college, I was asked during a job interview to name a person, dead or alive, with whom I would love to have dinner.

“Bill Bernbach,” I answered. Keep in mind this was for a job in advertising. Bill Bernbach, the founder of the famed advertising agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, was sure to be a better answer than the expected Abraham Lincoln or Ghandi.

So I thought.

“Why Bill Bernbach? came the next question.

“Bill Bernbach is a legend. Bill Bernbach has done so so much for our business. We should all appreciate Bill Bernbach’s contribution to the advertising profession.” Admittedly I sounded like a contestant in The Miss Teenage American Pageant. Then came the unexpected.

“Like what?” “What did Bill Bernbach do for our business that would make you want to talk with him so badly?”


“He’s somebody that ..stutter, fumble, pause, ….” Let’s just say, Ghandi would have been a better choice. It was obvious that I knew as much about Bill Bernbach as I knew about quantum physics. I was actually relieved when my interviewer abruptly ended my poor attempt at an answer with, “thanks for coming in.”

To avoid this from happening again, I decided to learn something about Bernbach. And while reading up on him, I found a quote of his that has stuck with me ever since. It’s a simple quote. In fact, on its surface, it doesn’t seem too earth-shattering.

Bernbach said, “The best advertising tells the truth.”

There are different sides to truth in advertising, however. There’s the truth that keeps advertisers out of jail. And there’s the truth that helps advertising win customers. I like to believe that Bernbach was referring to the latter. It so happens to be the side of truth that often gets ignored.

The subject of truth is mind candy for philosophers. I’m no Plato. But this much I do know. There are really only two kinds of truth that really matter. There’s mine. And then there’s yours. We each believe what we want or need to believe. And if the twain shall meet, you and I will have what’s called a relationship.

What we believe doesn’t matter. if you believe that flying monkeys will someday take over the planet, and so do I. Guess what? We have the potential to become fast friends. Why? Because, as humans, we live with a great deal of uncertainty. And when we can find someone or something that confirms our beliefs, no matter what those beliefs are, we connect. That happens to be the reason why our world is made up of different religions, political parties and U2 groupies. We connect with people who share our truths and make us feel that we are right.

Think about this the next time you hear an advertiser’s tagline like, “You’re in Excellent Hands,” or “Our Products Are Made to Last.” Then ask yourself, who’s truth is this? The advertiser’s or yours?

By contrast, advertising that follows Bernbach’s maxim is advertising that doesn’t force connections. It fosters them. It is advertising that, on some level, validates our beliefs. It is advertising that confirms our beliefs about life and not some manufacturer’s superiority claim. It is advertising that shares beliefs like “never stop exploring,” “beauty really is skin deep” or “life should be delicious.”

A truth about truth.

Unfortunately, I was never asked the “who would you like to have dinner with” question in any of my other interviews. And frankly, the real answer would probably would not have been Bill Bernbach. But because of that question I’ve learned a very valuable truth about truth. If I’m trying to sell anything, a shared truth matters more than my own.

Jim Signorelli
About the author: 

Jim Signorelli is the President at Story-Lab U.S. based in Chicago, IL.  He has been a Senior Vice President at the Lois/ESL, Doner and Ayer advertising agencies, and he has his MBA (Advertising) from Michigan State.  Mr. Signorelli’s book “StoryBranding’ was published by Greenleaf Books in 2012.  Follow Jim on Twitter and LinkedIn.