Authenticity is one of the most overused words in marketing. The idea that brands must be authentic has gone from being a vague notion about how brands should behave to something of a dogma that must be upheld.
And it’s no longer just a harmless word lost in hundreds of pages of PowerPoint strategising. Of late, there has been a proliferation of the word ‘authentic’ being used in copy (because, after all, what’s more authentic than telling people you’re authentic?).
Yet selling authenticity is nothing new. It’s as old as consumer society itself. What’s changed is that brands have forgotten the inherent paradox of ‘selling’ authenticity, and the skill, wit and intelligence it takes to do so.
Selling authenticity emerged at a time when economist JK Galbraith was describing an epoch shift in world history. In his book the Affluent Society, Galbraith noted how, by the 1950s, the United States had all but eliminated economic insecurity, entering a stage of comfort unknown in the past. Crucial to this prosperity was the production and marketing of goods inessential to anyone’s survival. Convincing consumers to buy these inessential goods became vital to the economy.
Yet selling the unnecessary is not easy. Corporations had to adapt, dealing with consumers used to buying based on need. More generally culture began to react against mass consumption, materialism, and the stuffy conformity of the suburbs.
In response, many companies turned to psychology. They found that products could be used to give consumers what they wanted at a deeper level – whether that was about belonging, sex or power. Into this heady psychological mix, brands also became adroit at selling authenticity; the reaction to mass production, materialism and the transience of modern life.
Many brands, uneasy with the idea of selling to consumers, have started to disguise their ads as social experiments, ‘reality’ or cleverly camouflaged content.
Volkswagen’s famous ‘Think Small’ is an excellent example of selling authenticity. In an ad, jarring for the time, VW offered a product which could demonstrate you had an intellect, a sense of humor or counter-cultural credentials (regardless of whether you needed a car).
Jake Kinzey, author of The Sacred and the Profane highlights the paradox of ‘selling’ authenticity. It is most clearly seen in Apple’s famous 1984 commercial, which Kinzey summarises: “Are you bored and confined within your grey late capitalist world? Do you feel like a lifeless automaton? Buying an Apple computer will revolutionise you and bring creativity and colour to your life!’
Apple is today one of the world’s best-known brands, and a symbol of the success of consumer capitalism. Yet it got there, in part, because it sold an authenticity message rooted in the (anti-capitalist) counter-culture.
Apple and VW confidently used creativity to sell an authenticity message. Yet this confidence is often lacking today. Many brands, uneasy with the idea of selling to consumers, have started to disguise their ads as social experiments, ‘reality’ or cleverly camouflaged content. All this leads to incredibly inauthentic work.
Authenticity isn’t using ‘real’ people in ads
A recent series of social experiment-style ads from Chrysler, Febreze, and Burger King all stress that they use real people (presumably as opposed to Blade Runner style replicants). It’s as cringeworthy and jarring as a politician – or Mark Zuckerberg – trying to act like a normal person. The ads have been brilliantly torn apart in a series of skits on YouTube, entitled ‘If “real people” commercials were real life’.
It has also become fashionable to suggest that the best branded content has, er, no branding at all. ‘Taking the brand out of branded content’ is apparently the way forward. Today, brands hide themselves altogether in advertorials and ‘content’ in a desire to seem more authentic.
But hang on. Isn’t it less genuine to disguise what is, in essence, a way of selling stuff? Isn’t a well-disguised piece of content or an ad touting the use of ‘real’ humans more inauthentic than an ad that interrupts you for 15 seconds to partly fund the show you’re watching? Surely a more authentic brand would own up to the fact it wants to sell you stuff, and that it’s prepared to interrupt you to do so.
A more truly authentic take comes from the recent Old Spice ad, featuring Rick and Morty. Cut through the unhinged, self-referential, warped humor and the spot shows a simple respect for the sense of humor and intelligence of the audience.
It doesn’t hide behind ‘content’ and is literally about the main character, Rick Sanchez, selling out to the Old Spice Brand. Three dancing cans of Old Spice spray dance around Morty’s room at 3am, killing a minor character in the process and spraying deodorant everywhere.
Or what about the long (long) overdue reaction from Kiss, a lip plumper, to the endless stream of ‘real beauty’ ads? The spot opens with a welcome reality check: “Alright you care. You care what you look like. A lot. Does that make you bad person? A little…”
Towards the end of the ad the music repeatedly whispers, “get your credit card out now”, and about 50% of the spot has a ‘buy’ button planted in the bottom right hand corner.
An authentic brand admits when it is trying to sell to you something and lives with it. It does not try to hide behind ‘real’ people, rely on the use of the word ‘authentic’, or use well-camouflaged unbranded content. Often the most authentic brands embrace the fact that they use ads to interrupt, amuse, and (uh-oh) sell you something.
Neil Simpson is associate planning director at DDB New York.