The Truth Shall Set You Free

“Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay,” is the sentence that begins Don’t Eat This Before Reading, the New Yorker article which served as the genesis of Anthony Bourdain’s landmark memoir, Kitchen Confidential.

Bourdain could be brash and opinionated, but he was also a staunch defender of the truth, whether highlighting how essential Mexican employees were to some of New York City’s most high-end restaurants, or ending the Vietnam episode of his television program, Parts Unknown, which he continued to work on until his death yesterday, with a quote from William Westmoreland, reminding of the western world’s longstanding problem with racism.

These truths may be uncomfortable, but they are truths nonetheless.

Advertising often has no room for the truth.

We have to sell a product, so we talk things up. We embellish. We dramatize. Much like in a high-end restaurant, we want everything to glisten and sparkle.

Social media in particular carries a lot of the blame for this practice. It is a never-ending procession of smiling people and positive messaging, where the only way to get people invested in your account is to create the illusion that everything is great all of the time.

Even if we know such professions are ultimately hollow, the logical result of a brand possessing more ad budget than thought, they nonetheless affect us, usually not in particularly positive ways.

And yet not only is the truth much more interesting, it is also more effective.

Nowhere may this be more true in the annals of advertising history than in Bill Bernbach’s classic Avis car ads, which I’m sure I’ve at least mentioned in passing before.

In 1963, Avis was second in the market, and was looking to hire Doyle Dane Bernbach as its agency of record. The company’s chairman, Robert Townsend, wanted so much to work with DDB, he told Bernbach that if the agency took the account, there would not be any changes to their work.

Bernbach and his team constructed one of the industry’s most iconic campaigns based on a simple premise.

The truth.

That there could only be one number one company, and at the time it wasn’t Avis.

With that came the concept that Avis employees needed to work harder, because they couldn’t afford to take the customer for granted.

Ashtrays were always emptied. Customers weren’t made to wait.

The company couldn’t sit on its laurels because it was the underdog, fighting to stay alive.

Bernbach told the truth about how the company was doing and followed it to its logical conclusion, creating doubt in the mind of the reader that going anywhere other than Avis could very well result in inattentive or lacklustre service.

The truth is challenging and eye-opening, and it says something negative about modern society’s relationship with success when we’re not willing to explore it.

People won’t hesitate to write a postmortem about why any given startup or project ultimately failed on Medium, but they seem utterly unwilling to address the challenges they may be facing in the here and now.

The truth may be uncomfortable, even downright unpleasant, but it is the truth nonetheless.

While ostensibly a celebrity chef, Bourdain considered himself little more than a cook.

He was inarguably a storyteller, elevating important social issues from around the world - the truths of places, like how lessened beach access affected Jamaican locals - using his platforms, his books and television shows and journalism.

We have one of the biggest platforms in the world to make something of the truth.

How telling to suggest that embracing it is rebellious.

Rest in peace, Tony.