04/23/2012 12:40 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2012

Marketing the Truth

When most people see taglines like, "Based on a true story," on the bottom of movie posters, they usually assume that most events in the movie really happened or were at least based on things that really happened. After all, wouldn't it be false advertising to say the movie was based on truth if it isn't? I was surprised when I found out that many movies claim to be based on true events when, in fact, they are completely or almost completely fictional. People who market these movies have come to the clever realization that priming the audience with the belief that what they are about to see on screen really happened is a brilliant marketing strategy. Consumers perceive stories with plots that are mundane and have been done to death as suddenly captivating and inspiring if it is supposedly based on historical events. Consumers and critics are even more likely to further positively evaluate movies if they go into the theater believing things on screen were ripped from real life and flung onto the reel.

I'll use the movie Fargo as an example. For those who haven't seen or even heard of Fargo, it is the story of a man who hires two criminals to kidnap his wife so that her father can pay the ransom. This man then plans to use this fake ransom money to pay off his debts and then just have his wife returned to him. Because it is a movie, everything goes wrong.

At the very beginning of the movie, a statement appears saying: "THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987."

In an interview, the Cohen brothers stated, in many words, that hardly any of the content of the movie was based on true events. Unfortunately, a woman from Japan with several psychopathologies, named Takako Konishi, perceived the scene where Steve Buschemi buries a briefcase full of money as a historical event. She traveled all the way to where she thought the money was, only to be told that it was all fiction. Shortly afterwards, she killed herself. Her suicide note revealed that she had many reasons for doing so but was also convinced the money existed. It is certainly a stretch to blame the producers of Fargo for her death since it was such a rare case. However, Konishi's case is tragically not the only one.

I believe that moviemakers shouldn't be able to get away with false advertising or any sort of lying. However, most people are obviously not like Takako Konishi and are happy and safe believing the films they see branded as true stories did indeed happen in history. Seeing something inspiring happen on screen becomes all the more cognitively and emotionally salient if you can leave the theater thinking: "Wow, I can't believe all that really happened! Life is amazing!" So is it really worth ripping people away from their blissful gullibility just to show filmmakers that they can't get away with false advertising? So many other true story branded films have blatantly lied to consumers, such as Rudy, The Pursuit of Happyness, 21, and Good Morning Vietnam. These are excellent films (except 21) and people should continue watching them if they want to. However, I advise having just a bit of skepticism before believing that everything or even anything that you see on screen actually happened.