Book Review: Truth in Advertising

Next time you see one of those TV adverts featuring cute babies waddling about in their disposable nappies, spare a thought for the people behind that 30 seconds of film. Vast quantities of blood, sweat and tears were exuded by a veritable army of scriptwriters, producers, production assistants, talent scouts and account execs to make what – in their eyes – is a masterpiece of creativity. They know it’s not art “… but deep down we want it to be. We need it to be beautiful. We need it to mean something,” says Finbar Dolan, the central character in John Kenny’s debut novel Truth in Advertising.

Fin is a forty-something scriptwriter with a reasonably successful ad agency in New York. One day, in the not too distant future, he hopes his full talents will be recognised and he’ll be named one of their top writers. Until then he’s stuck on the nappies account, expected to find ever more imaginative ways to sell his client’s products. A client that loves to make grandiose statements about their brand’s significance for the world yet can’t produce the proof for the new Superbowl ad break they’ve just had made at vast expense.

Fin is not merely frustrated by his clients, he’s bored and disillusioned by the whole agency world in which he’s spent his entire working life. Is this really his future, he wonders.

The lucky ones have a passion. The other 98 per cent of us end up doing something we kind-of, sort-of like-ish. The place where you show up for work each day for five, ten, twenty years is who you are. Isn’t it? And yet, from time to time, there is that small voice that screams, “Leave. Go. this isn’t what you want” Except that other voice…. whispers, “But where would you go?and what would you do?”

Over the years he’s fine tuned the art of irony and perfected his wit to the point where they can  act as his defence mechanisms against difficult situations. But irony is a weak weapon when Fin is confronted by childhood demons in the form of a father he hasn’t seen for decades but who now lies near to death in hospital. Should he visit him to effect some kind of reconciliation or should he just take off for the Christmas holiday he keeps talking about?

The point at which Fin reaches his decision marked the turning point in the novel for me. Until then, I was amused by the cynical, flippant tone Fin adopts to describe the vacuous world he has made his profession. But it’s a tone that loses its impact after a time however well executed.

Author John Kenney

News of his father’s illness pushes Fin to recollect the past and to challenge where his values lie. And to understand that he can no longer view events and the people in his life as if they were scenes and characters in a film. Standing in the hospital ward near his father’s bed, he realises:  ‘I must look exactly like a man should look in his dying father’s room, standing by the window, pensively. It’s the never -ending commercial. You wouldn’t even have to light it.”

This is the same man who while never losing his ability to spot the absurdity of life, comes to  see that cynicism and irony get in the way of an appreciation of the true value of the human connection and the strong bonds of family

…. however far you drift from your family, however much pain they’ve caused you however hard you try to run, at some point, perhaps without knowing it, you end up running back. even it is too late.

This change in tone is what gave the book it’s real strength. John Kenny writes with evident authority about the world of advertising (he did after all work as a copywriter himself for seventeen years) and I enjoyed his protagonist’s acerbic  comments on the vacuous pronouncements and jargon laden language much loved by certain figures in the corporate world.

A good choice for a summer’s day lazing in the garden (just watch out for those nappy-wielding babies).


Truth in Advertising was published by Touchstone Books in January 2013. My copy was an ARC made available via NetGalley. The book cover image and photo of John Kenney are courtesy of the publishers.

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