Thursday, January 12, 2006

Milli Vanilli, your car is ready.

The literati are shaking their heads today. It seems that James Frey, wunderkind author of “A Million Little Pieces”, stands accused of fabricating a bunch of stuff in that book. Which is a problem because it’s supposed to be non-fiction.

Take heart, Mr. Frey. This kind of thing happens to brands all the time. Consider the case of Volvo. A brand whose stodgy image and obscure provenance had always been redeemed by the legendary safety of its cars. Generations of college professors smugly piloted these bricks to and fro, certain in the knowledge that they would never seem vain and always be safe.

Then, in 1992, Volvo got caught faking a demo in a TV commercial. A monster truck rolled over a row of cars, leaving all but the intact Volvo crushed flat. Seems the Volvo had some non-standard bits of steel welded inside to reinforce it. Oh, and the other cars had been, um, weakened here and there to ensure their destruction.

Not too safe, and pretty darned vain.

Just as with James Frey’s semi-non-ficto-auto-bio-story, you’d think this was a betrayal and expect summary punishment from an unforgiving marketplace. But it doesn’t always seem to work this way. Rather than making people feel betrayed and angry, these situations often seem merely to confront them with a dilemma: If it’s not real, can it still be good?

Well, in Volvo’s case the answer is apparently yes. Despite squandering its safety credentials with that TV ad stunt, and despite selling out to dowdy old Ford Motor Company, it has continued to prosper. So did Coke after its New Coke market research triumph. So did Nike after the whole sweatshop thing. So did Michelin after its Formula 1 debacle at Indianapolis last year. So did European wines despite their various dalliances with wood alcohol, anti-freeze and (shudder) the illegal blending of lesser vintages.

Hell, even Bill Clinton is looking positively statesmanlike these days.

I still think that authenticity is the most valuable thing a brand can have. The only thing that matters. But once that authenticity has wormed its way into people’s psyches, it turns out to be rather difficult to dislodge. What starts out as a fact metastasizes into a truth. People don’t get attached to facts, but they become personally invested in their truths and cling to them sometimes beyond all reason. Volvo owners will still tiresomely insist that they are the safest cars on the road, even though statistically they simply are not (in the luxury sedan category, Lexus, Audi and BMW all perform better, according to Consumer Reports. If you can believe them, that is).

It remains to be seen if people will decide that “A Million Little Pieces” is good enough to overcome the fraudulent hype of which it stands accused, but they’ve already voted on Volvos. And that should give you hope, James Frey. If your readers want it all to be true bad enough, they’ll just decide it is.

Which proves that there’s a reason the opposite of ‘fiction’ in the literary world isn’t ‘truth’. It’s just ‘non-fiction’.

And that monster trucks are no match for faith.

Or, um, welders.

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