Are Brands Inherently Unreliable Narrators?

I’ve been asked by clients and colleagues this week for my thoughts on Gillette’s “We Believe” ad, which takes aim at toxic masculinity in our culture. 

I really wanted to listen and think about it before reacting. I’ve spent the better part of the week watching and occasionally commenting on all the social media discussion. But my conclusion on what we can learn from the content itself has to do with a technique called the “unreliable narrator.”

When you choose a first-person narrator, you’re telling the audience that your narrator is a participant and your story will be from this person’s point of view. This is an important decision because, unless told otherwise, your audience assumes the narrator is a reliable source of information. 

The unreliable narrator technique involves a narrator who has been somehow compromised and may not give the audience all the facts. Or, in some cases, the audience may be given a completely biased version of the story.

Sometimes an unreliable narrator-driven story begins with a clear clue that the audience should take treat the narrator’s point of view with bias or skepticism. Think of the movie version of Forrest Gump. From the very first time we meet Forrest, we know he’s very likely, to use his own words, “confused.” We experience his magical life through his eyes – never fully knowing how much of it is factual.

A much more dramatic use of the unreliable narrator is where the audience discovers – usually at the story’s end – that the narrator has concealed or has purposely lied. This forces the audience to reconsider the entire point of view of the story. A great example of this is, of course, The Usual Suspects. Spoiler alert: Verbal Kint – the narrator and “only survivor” of the disastrous caper– turns out to be the master villain Keyser Söze.

But it’s the knowledge of the unreliability that is critical for a fulfilling story. The audience must discover not only that the narrator is unreliable, but also why they are unreliable. But if we never find out, then we have no idea whether to believe the story or not. And wow is that an unsatisfying ending.

Imagine how disappointed you’d be if it was never revealed that Tyler Durden is the narrator in The Fight Club. Imagine how frustrating it would be if Forrest Gump just ended on the bench and you never met Jenny or their child. You’d never know if the amazing story he told happened or not. Imagine how unmagical it would be if it wasn’t revealed that Sandy and Danny are romanticizing their own versions of their summer fling (rather than flat out lying) when they sing “Summer Nights” in Grease.

Is it different with brand storytelling? 

It is, and it isn’t. When a brand uses a first-person narrator to help tell a story or illuminate a truth, the audience assumes the story needs explaining and the narrator is participating. But because narrator will be seen as speaking for the brand, audiences will consider them unreliable. 

The bigger the truth, the more unreliable a brand narrator will be considered. If the brand doesn’t acknowledge the audience’s skepticism or illustrate the competing levels of truth, then the narrator just comes across as unfulfilling, preachy, or condescending. 

Does that reaction sound familiar?

Gillette’s new ad takes on an extraordinarily important topic. Regardless of what anyone thinks about their earnestness or even their right to tell this story, I believe it would have been more satisfying to more people without the first party narrator.

For fun, we tested it out. I edited the ad (roughly – I’m no expert) and simply took out the first-party narration. I think the story is stronger without it. See what you think.

There is a place for the unreliable narrator. And there’s a time when we should just let the characters tell our story.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

Robert Rose
Chief Strategy Officer at The Content Advisory
As the Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory, the exclusive education and consulting group of The Content Marketing Institute, Robert develops content and customer experience strategies for large enterprises such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oracle, McCormick Spices, Capital One, and UPS.

Robert’s book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing was called “a call to arms and a self-help guide for creating the experiences that consumers will fall in love with.” For the last three years, he’s co-hosted the podcast This Old Marketing, with Joe Pulizzi. It’s frequently a top 20 marketing podcast on iTunes and is downloaded more than a million times every year, in 100 countries around the world.
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Author: Robert Rose
As the Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory, the exclusive education and consulting group of The Content Marketing Institute, Robert develops content and customer experience strategies for large enterprises such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oracle, McCormick Spices, Capital One, and UPS. Robert’s book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing was called “a call to arms and a self-help guide for creating the experiences that consumers will fall in love with.” For the last three years, he’s co-hosted the podcast This Old Marketing, with Joe Pulizzi. It’s frequently a top 20 marketing podcast on iTunes and is downloaded more than a million times every year, in 100 countries around the world.