Fiction in Advertising

Norman Rockwell was an illustrator of fiction.

He never showed us America as it really was, but America as it could have been, should have been, might have been. His images caused an entire generation to vividly remember experiences we never had.

Rockwell showed my generation a fictional America and we believed in it.

I don’t want to mention client names and I’m sure you’ll understand why, but my most successful ad campaigns have been built on exactly that kind of fiction.

Not lies. Fiction. There’s a difference.

Fiction is romanticized reality, showing us possible futures and the best of the past, leaving out the dreary, the mundane and the forgettable. It is a powerful tool of bonding. Properly used, fictional characters attract new customers and deepen customer loyalties. But predictable characters hold no interest for us. It is conflicted characters – those with vulnerabilities, weaknesses and flaws – that fascinate us immensely.

A recently published study1 in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationshipssuggests that fictional friends may be as valuable as “real” friends, particularly when life-partners watch television shows together.

…our studies show that sharing the social connections provided by TV shows and movies can deepen intimacy and closeness. Furthermore, watching TV shows and movies together may provide couples who lack access to a shared social network of real-world friends with an alternate means of establishing this shared social identity.

Previously, sharing a social world with a partner has been conceptualized in terms of sharing real-world social experiences.2 However, creating these experiences may not always be possible. Fortunately, humans are remarkably flexible in finding ways to fulfill their social needs.3 When people’s need for social connections are undermined, they turn to a variety of social surrogates that provide alternate pathways to meet this need, including comfort food,4 photos of loved ones,5 pets,6 and media like TV shows and movies.7

Recurrent characters in advertising fit into that last category of “media like TV shows and movies.”

In fact, fictional characters shine so brightly in our minds that we have created a word – metafiction8 – for those moments when fictional characters become aware that they are fictional.

If you doubt what I say, all you need do is suggest to Indiana Beagle that he isn’t real. You will quickly and painfully be made aware of how real a fictional character can become.

It is the architecture of our brains that makes fiction so powerful.

Humans are the storytelling animal.

You have about 100,000 times more synapses in your brain than sensory receptors in your body. If brain synapses were strictly equal to sensory receptors – which they are not – this would mean that you and I are 100,000 times better equipped to experience a world that does not exist than a world that does. So let’s assume that a single sensory receptor is worth 1,000 brain synapses. Congratulations, you’re still 100 times better equipped to experience a world that does not exist than a world that does.

This was the purpose of today’s Monday Morning Memo:

  1. Find some TV shows to watch with your life-partner. The shared experience will be good for both of you.
  2. Play with the idea of creating a fictional spokes-character for your company. (If you don’t know how, consider the online classes at
  3. Take quality fiction more seriously. Logical, sequential, deductive reasoning is a function of analytical thought, which has its headquarters in the left hemisphere of your brain. Loosely speaking, the left hemisphere of your brain is there to connect you to the world that is, while the right hemisphere connects you to worlds that could be, should be, might be, ought to be… someday. This is where fiction comes alive.

Want to hear something funny? The right hemisphere of your brain doesn’t know right from wrong or fact from fiction. That’s the left brain’s job.

Our belief in fiction is made possible only by the amazing right hemisphere of our brains.

Regardless of whether you believe in natural selection (evolution) as the origin of the species, or intelligent design (God), the wordless, intuitive right hemisphere of your brain is there for a reason.

Don’t diminish it. Don’t disparage it. Don’t try to overcome it.

It’s there for a reason.

Let it do its work.

Roy H. Williams

1 Let’s stay home and watch TV: The benefits of shared media use for close relationships, by Sarah Gomillion, Shira Gabriel, Kerry Kawakami and Ariana F. Young

2 Kearns & Leonard, 2004

3 Baumeister & Leary, 1995

4 Troisi & Gabriel, 2011

5 Gardner et al., 2005

6 McConnell, Brown, Shoda, Stayton, & Martin, 2011

7 Derrick et al., 2009

8 The first appearances of metafiction in literature were the 19 times that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza encountered fictional stories within their fictional story as well as evidences that they were entirely fictional themselves, such as in volume 1, chapter 9 when, at a marketplace in Toledo, an old notebook is found entitled History of Don Quijote de La Mancha, written by Sidi Hamid Benengeli.