Truth in Advertising by John Kenney


There’s a mounting discontent

Go for a walk.  Take a drive.  Ride the train.  Turn on your television.  Flip through a magazine.  Sift through today’s mail.  Play a video game.  Surf the web.  Stream a video.

No matter what you do.  No matter where you are.  You simply cannot escape advertising.  It’s estimated that on average each one of us is exposed to over 3,000 ads per day.[1]  That staggering number only continues to grow as marketing firms and advertising agencies continue to look for new and clever ways to reach their target demographics.  Luckily for us, we tend to filter out a large portion of what we’re exposed to because very little of it actually makes any sense.

Think quick.  When’s the last time you saw a car commercial that didn’t involve a “professional driver” on a “closed course” performing some death defying stunt that you “shouldn’t try at home?”[2]

Ask yourself.  Why does McDonalds spend a jaw dropping $2.3 billion dollars in advertising every year?[3]  Are we going to wake up one morning and magically forget that they have 12,804 restaurants strategically and conveniently located across these great United States?[4]  Does anyone really hum a happy tune while eating their bleached hamburgers?[5]  I’ve Lovin’ It?  Yeah right.

The advertising business is all about making things sexy.  It’s about making you think that you simply cannot live without whatever the hell it is that they’re trying to sell to you in the thirty seconds that they’ve got your attention.  It’s all surface with little substance underneath.  It’s the exact opposite of what John Kenney’s debut novel delivers.

Make no mistake; Truth in Advertising pulls no punches as it gleefully goes about painting the advertising business in a hysterical light.  More importantly though, it’s a novel that explores the dysfunctional family dynamic, the fractured relationships, and the mundane lives we all lead.  It sexes things up a bit, but only to point out how utterly ridiculous our fantasies of leading what we deem to be the perfect life really are.  Very few people find their one true calling.  Even fewer live happily ever after.  Advertisers can try to sell us the dream all they like, but that’s our true reality.

Finbar Donlan is a copywriter working for a large advertising agency in New York City.  He’s estranged from his sister and two brothers.  He hasn’t talked to his abusive father in years.  When he gets a phone call from his oldest brother Eddie, everything changes.  Their father is lying in a Cape Cod hospital dying.  Do any of them actually care?  Will Fin make a last attempt at reconciliation with his dad?

The answers are nowhere near as sappy as you might think.

Truth in Advertising is a novel about how everyone eventually lets us down and how we in turn let those around us down.  From the day we first discover that our parents aren’t the infallible Gods we once thought they were, through the first time we suffer a bad break up or the termination of a friendship, we’re constantly being disappointed, and in turn disappointing others.  What is this elusive thing called happiness?  How do you define it?  Why do we so desperately crave the need to feel it?

We walk through life building people up and then tearing them down from their elevated perches when they don’t live up to the high standards we’ve ascribed to them.  We do it again and again.  We set ourselves up for disappointment in the hopes that we’ll eventually find what we’re looking for.  As we do so, we carry around the scars from all of the perceived wrong doings and all of the slights.  How do we let go of that which has damaged us?  How to break free of the cycle and move forward?

For Finbar, the realization that he’s no different than anyone else – that he’s not a great man, or a special being – is about to hit home in a big way.  The death of his father brings with it a revelatory bombshell that will throw into question everything he thinks he understands about his childhood.  It will force him to question both what he believes and who he is as a person because of it.

Kenney’s novel contains the perfect blend of outrageously funny moments and touching revelations about the human condition.  It will make you laugh out loud one minute and cry like a baby the next.  It gets off to a rocky start, but if you stick with it what you’ll find is a novel that does for those who work in advertising what Douglas Coupland did for those who worked in the early days of technology in his novel Microserfs – probe the depths of their beautifully flawed existences.

That’s the honest truth about Truth in Advertising.

:: Aaron

1.The New York Times: Anywhere the Eye Can See, It’s Likely to See an Ad
2. Bicycling Life: Professional Driver on a Closed Course
3. The Chicago Tribune: McDonald’s tying Summer Olympics to new effort to promote children’s well-being
4. NationMaster: McDonald’s restaurants by country
5. 1776Now: McDonalds, public school lunch beef treated with ammonia

Finbar Dolan works in television – advertising, specifically.  On the outside, it looks like a pretty glamorous job.  It pays well, there’s lots of elbow-rubbing with celebrities, and endless opportunities for creative expression.  On the other side, the advertising world of television also comes with grueling, long work hours, which requires employees to give up any semblance of a personal life, and that “creative expression” I mentioned turns into soul-crushing cynicism and corporate sell-out guilt.

Fin is doing his best to keep his head above water, but a series of personal and family crises prompt some serious soul-searching, which leaves Fin feeling even more cynical and unfulfilled.  To make matters worse, the clock is ticking and Fin’s team must come up with a Super Bowl commercial for diapers that is guaranteed to change the world (pun intended).  As the diaper account threatens to blow up in a shitstorm (again, pun intended), Fin has to make some very difficult decisions that will forever alter his personal life and the future of his career.

John Kenney’s new novel has been hailed by the media as hilarious, cynical, tragic, wry, engaging, and sympathetic.  And I’m here to tell you: believe the hype!  This book is all of those things and more.  John Kenney has brilliantly weaved together a story of family dysfunction, romance, childhood trauma, and complicated relationships.  But he manages to turn these serious topics into completely relatable and humorous anecdotes from the slippery and unreliable vantage point of media and advertising.

Kenney’s prose is conversational and honest, and from Fin’s perspective, readers will get a hilariously tragic sneak peek into the cut-throat world of television, broadcasting, and publicity.  As Fin says:

I want to do for advertising what Brando did for theater.  Wake people up.  Make them feel again.  And, to a great extent, horrify them.

This sentiment pretty much sums up the tone of the book – it’s simultaneously inspiring and alarming.  With a full technicolor cast of characters, John Kenney has perfectly articulated why we all despise and adore the media, and he has also managed to create a captivating and poignant story of one man’s search for happiness in a business that thrives on manipulation and insincerity.

:: Karli

Truth_In_Advertsing ★★★★☆
Truth in Advertising
By John Kenney

320 Pages
ISBN 9781451675542


About Karli Cude

Karli Cude, previous moderator of Hooked Bookworm, is an avid reader and former bookseller. She graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in English Literature in 2010 and completed a Master’s degree in Library and Information Sciences in 2013.