Culture Club is Torontoist’s (brand new) Canadian pop culture column. We’ll be waxing philosophical about the trivial, the titillating, and the mundane on a bi-weekly basis.
Illustration by Kyra Kendall/Torontoist.
When James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces first hit bookstands, readers were led to believe that what Frey had written was “the truth.” And why should they think such a thing? Because the book’s dust-jacket told them so. Marketed as a memoir, A Million Little Pieces climbed to the top of the New York Times’s bestseller list, and Frey found his name, and his book, being bandied about in book clubs—including Oprah’s—all over the continent. But Frey’s credibility dissolved overnight; the Smoking Gun had investigated the author’s narrative claims, and found that portions of A Million Little Pieces had been fabricated. A tweak here, an embellishment there—and Frey was suddenly surrounded by a bunch of angry, angry readers (again, including Oprah).
Last week, the Globe and Mail informed us that Tim Hortons had kind of, sort of, pulled a James Frey (our exaggerated words, not theirs). Tim Hortons, via a seemingly innocuous one-liner—“Based on a true story”—told us that the tear-jerking scene featured in one of their commercials was “true.” Or, rather, that it was based on truth. As Globe reporter Dakshana Bascaramurty relayed, a spokesperson for Canada’s beloved “Timmys” said the commercial in question represented an “amalgamation of stories.”
Decades before Frey started “amalgamating” his stories, and long before we started believing that a doughnut shop was inextricably tied to our national identity, a handful of American journalists began toying with the boundaries of truth in their own narratives. Tired of the stiff, lifeless prose of their predecessors, writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion began experimenting with unorthodox storytelling techniques. A favourite among these techniques was the use, or creation, of a “composite character.” That is, an amalgamated character. The rationale went something like this: if the general message you were trying to convey was, essentially, true, then maybe—just maybe—a few liberties could be taken with certain narrative details. After all, truth is subjective—right?
What happens to “truth” when you superimpose one story on top of another? When you combine one individual’s personality traits with those of an entirely different human being? In the case of A Million Little Pieces, the general consensus was that Frey had taken too many liberties; he had juxtaposed too many stretched truths to rightfully call his work “non-fiction.” Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Gay Talese, and, of course, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe managed—successfully—to walk that grey line between factual reporting, and fictional storytelling. Their stories, however finessed, were still deemed “true.”
So how have Timmys’ truths stood the test of the Globe and Mail’s online commenters? “In this particular case, ‘based on a true story’ is an outright lie,” wrote “Raging Squirrel,” responding to Bascaramurty’s article. “prof116,” though, was of a different opinion: “Much ado about nothing. I love Tim’s coffee and love this commercial too, even if it might be a bit sappy.” Another commenter, “Double D’s” asked: “Do we not have laws for false advertising in this country?” Of the two-hundred-and-sixty-odd comments this article inspired, Double D’s’ question seemed the most sensible; the last time we checked, there were certain regulations in place that prevented advertisers—and their clients—from making false claims.
Janet Feasby, vice president of Standards at Advertising Standards Canada, wasn’t able to comment on the specifics of the Tim Hortons ad in question. She was, however, able direct us to clause 1 of the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards. Herein, under the sub-heading of “Accuracy and Clarity,” we found the following statement:
(a) Advertisements must not contain inaccurate or deceptive claims, statements, illustrations or representations, either direct or implied, with regard to a product or service. In assessing the truthfulness and accuracy of a message, the concern is not with the intent of the sender or precise legality of the presentation. Rather, the focus is on the message as received or perceived, i.e. the general impression conveyed by the advertisement.
Of course, of course, of course; this clause’s scope is limited to “a product or service”—and neglects to mention “narrative” or “storyline.” True, there is another clause for “Testimonials,” but “testimonial” doesn’t really fit our ad’s description. In other words, in the eyes of Ad Standards Canada (or, at the very least, according to their code of ethics), Tim Hortons hasn’t really done anything wrong: we, as consumers, have not been misled about Tim Hortons’ “products” or “services.”
Clause or no clause, though: there’s no denying that Tim Hortons’ liberal use of the line “Based on a true story” has caused a certain amount of discomfort with consumers. So why include this one-liner in the first place? Why not let the ad, or the ad’s story, speak for itself? For the same reason Frey (or is that Frey’s publisher?) marketed A Million Little Pieces as a work of nonfiction: there is no word more powerful, more poignant, and perhaps more deceiving in the various worlds of storytelling, than “true.”