Wednesday, May 29, 2013

When Dramatization Goes Too Far

I've been accused of being a storyteller. I wear that label proudly, thank you.

I like to consider this blog to be my version of storytelling while journaling my children's childhood. Neither of my kids know this site exists;  I suspect that some of my posts will be met with protests from my eldest and most logical of my two children. She would do what many of my friends and family members do when they read my posts, which is correct my facts, informing me that a particular trip I wrote about didn't happen in fall, it was winter, or that I was in 5th grade, not 6th, or what have you.

Others will just laugh at the story and take it for what it was meant to be -- entertaining, but not entirely factual.

That's what I think the best storytellers do -- they build stories around events without boring readers with unnecessary details that would take away from the entertainment. There is a fine line between storytelling and marketing, and in the world of nonprofits, there IS no line between storytelling and marketing. Telling compelling stories is how nonprofits get their audience to feel empathy for their mission and to give.

Recently, I've seen a few examples of storytelling through marketing that have made me raise an eyebrow.

For example, my mom and stepdad have vacationed in a retirement community called The Villages. It is more than just a community, it's a city with its own hospital and zip code. Golf carts are the preferred method of transportation and golf cart traffic jams after town square events are a part of the norm. One of their community centers is filled with black and white old-time photographs of farmers and families, with plaques telling stories about the families who used to live on the land where The Villages is now located. It made my folks feel good, knowing a little bit more about the history of the area before it became developed.

On their second-to-last day of their stay, they picked up a local newspaper that talked about The Villages' plans to expand and the amenities that would be built. One element talked about the planned decor and mentioned that fake families and stories would be created to give the place a history, like had been done the rest of the development.

You mean that Farmer Johnny, his wife and seven kids didn't really own this land in the 19th century? That warm, fuzzy feeling they had gotten from those stories was gone.

Last week, while munching on a box of fine fast-food cuisine, I began to read the story on the box that the food was in. It's a story about a little boy who used to visit a particular fast food restaurant on a daily basis, and how he became their unofficial mascot. Suddenly he stopped visiting. He finally showed up one day and told the workers that it wasn't as easy for him to get there anymore because someone had stolen his bike. On the other side of the box you read about how all the employees of the restaurant felt so badly that they pooled their money together and bought this little boy a bike, which made the store owner proud. His heart swelled three times its size that day.

The last line is "I just love telling this story." Followed by an asterisk.Which brought me to look for the disclaimer, on the bottom of the box.

The photos are of models, not the actual people in the story. I have no idea if the "dramatization" is a re-writing of an actual story that was related to the marketing staff at headquarters, or if it was generated at a brainstorming session. The fact that I have to question the story at all has my guard up and makes me believe that the story in its entirety was fabricated.

Warm fuzzy feeling? Gone.

Now I'm not accusing either of these companies of doing anything wrong. Neither of them misrepresented their product or services, nor did they have a have a lapse in quality. I give the fast food place kudos for printing an asterisk and a disclaimer, as opposed to The Villages, which allows residents and visitors to think that those stories are true.

I am questioning the storytelling.

If I were a fast food restaurant and was looking for warm, personal stories involving my brand, I would have a contest on my Facebook page eliciting the best story of a visit to a local restaurant from my followers. The stories their own audience members would deliver would probably be better than the one the marketing department created. And guess what: no little asterisk needed. Even better, how about if the asterisk said, "This is a summary of a story told to us by one of our Facebook followers and long-time customers. Like us on Facebook to read the original story and share your own."

I don't know what to tell The Villages except that when the fabrications are discovered by their audience, the emotions they were trying to create with those stories is immediately gone, replaced with a feeling of having been deceived. It's not a good feeling, let me tell you. I wouldn't recommend it.

When consumer trust is hard to earn and corporate missteps are immediately spread wide and far through social media, my advice to companies and nonprofits alike is to be on the up-and-up. Be a storyteller, yes, a fabricator, no.

*I remind readers that posts are a reflection of my personal opinions and do not reflect that of my employer or anyone else for that matter.

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