The Anxiety of Authenticity -- Or, New Ways of Seeing

Consumers spend an overwhelming amount of time in environments where brands are not always welcome. As good as the ad experiences are on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, as a brand you are in constant competition with other people the user would rather talk to: friends, family, the random guy who just posted the funny cat video. Semi-closed and dark social environments (messaging) pose a bigger challenge, since they are highly personalized, highly conversational, and very real-time. Good luck with that, Comcast.

How does a brand participate credibly in such environments?  This is a subject of endless debate, and one that follows many paths, winding through the realms of content, media, and creative, before inevitably arriving at the doorstep of  “authenticity.” At first, this feels like a satisfying place to land, to enroll “authenticity” as a method for solving brand challenges: outdated creative, interruptive banners, slow load times, and whatever else makes millennials angry.



But telling a for-profit, publicly traded corporation with thousands of employees to “be authentic” is not exactly helpful. A corporation is not some 25-year -old on a vision quest (find your true self, dude!), it’s a complex organization with multiple stakeholders, business units and differing opinions on what “authentic” means.

The problem is the word. Merriam Webster defines “authentic” as “genuine, true, or real,” giving it a patina of objectivity and verifiability. But of course that’s nonsense, especially in a marketing context.

In fact, any situation in which humans seek to communicate a particular experience or meaning to other humans (through text, image, voice, video, music, food, whatever) – carries the risk of failure. This is because the recipient of the message is human and, like all humans, has her own opinion. Authenticity therefore, is entirely subjective. It is in the eye of the beholder. And in a marketing context, that beholder is your consumer.
And our technology fails the subjectivity test too. Take the camera, for example. Invented in 1839, it uses light, a lens, a chamber and chemistry to capture reality, freezing and lifting an image out of time. For people of the day, the effect was mind-blowing. You could take pictures of all your family members, and the printed result looked exactly like your family members! It wasn’t some painter’s interpretation, it was the real thing!  Whether or not a photograph was “authentic” was a question no one asked. Just look at it! That’s Aunt May! And so photography came to be known as the quintessentially representational art form.

But this verisimilitude was a mirage. Artifice, manipulation and technical sleight-of-hand are inherent in every photo, starting with the means of its creation, the camera. First of all, humans don’t see like a camera sees: we see video (so to speak), the camera sees individual images. Also, cameras can create things in photos that we love, but which our eyes can’t actually do on their own. Vignette and bokeh (that pleasant depth-of-field blurring in portrait shots) are two examples. And then there’s the photographer’s influence on the final photograph, which is substantial even in genres wearing the mantle of realism, such as the street photography of the 1960s (Winogrand and Friedlander). In our current era of Snapchat and Instagram, of course, the influence of the photographer is the whole point.

When it comes to visual media, therefore, the output ends up being a different version of the reality we presumed to capture. And that’s the whole point. The invention of the photograph gave us a new way of seeing, and over time transformed nearly every field of human endeavor: art, physics, medicine, history, publishing, advertising. Now the smartphone has taken the baton, and soon 4 billion people will have a high-quality camera in their pocket.

At the peak of the film camera industry, in 1999, consumers took 80 billion photos. Last year, 2 billion photos were shared every day on Facebook’s platforms, or 730 billion per year. Each day on Instagram, 95 million photos are shared, many of them by brands. Oaf the top 100 global brands, nearly every one has an Instagram presence.

The accumulation of these visual objects creates a new layer of experience, augmenting and expanding our relationship with reality, and our ability to communicate with each other. The lingua franca in most social channels these days -- from Facebook to WeChat to iMessage to Snapchat to Instagram -- is the image. Not just photos but stickers, emojis, gifs, videos (and soon, as the hardware gets cheaper, AR and VR).

Brands that continue to participate actively in social environments, continue to invest in the production of new visual experiences, and continue to engage with consumers in their preferred native tongues will find that these things alone confer authenticity.

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