The age of (in)authenticity

In 2017 brands are desperate to convince the Gogglebox generation that they are “just like us”, but is their faux authenticity becoming increasingly transparent? 

Authenticity – the marketing buzz word du jour. Any brand worth their salt will know they need an authentic message that’s core to their brand DNA in order to resonate with an increasingly cynical and advertising literate consumer base.

Showpiece Christmas ads aside, advertising has shifted away from the glossy and aspirational creative of the nineties and noughties to social realist portrayals of “real families” that tap into influencer culture.

Like never before brands feel compelled to share their social purpose with the world, taking a stance on issues as diverse as body image, global protest movements and childhood bereavement.

For businesses that can tread this tricky line between purpose and profit the opportunities are huge. A shining example is Patagonia and its long established commitment to protecting the environment.

In 2016 the US-based clothing company committed to give 100% of its global retail and online Black Friday sales directly to grassroots non-profit organisations protecting the world’s air, water and soil. Despite expecting to generate £2 million in sales Patagonia smashed its target, clocking up a record-breaking $10 million.

However, for those brands that get social purpose wrong consumers are quick to punish anyone who fails to live up to their standards.

A recent casualty is McDonald’s, which in May came under fire for “inappropriately and insensitively using bereavement and grief to sell fast food”. The ad in question, showing a young boy trying to find common ground with his dead father over a Filet-O-Fish burger, was pulled within four days due to searing public criticism.

The decision came before any ruling could even be made by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). A costly – and embarrassing – mistake for the world’s largest fast food chain.   

In making the decision to pull the ad McDonald’s executives may well have had PepsiCo in the back of their minds. Just a month earlier the drinks giant was savaged on Twitter amid accusations it had co-opted the Black Lives Matter movement with its depiction of model Kendall Jenner defusing tension between protestors and police with a can of Pepsi.

Within three days the ad had been pulled and an apology issued, as PepsiCo discovered its “global message of unity, peace and understanding” had been thoroughly rejected by consumers worldwide.

It doesn’t matter if you are a heavyweight fast food brand or fizzy drinks giant, in 2017 if consumers think your social purpose is fake your campaign doesn’t stand a chance.

Gen Goggle

Forget Gen X, Y or Z – the new generation brands are desperate to connect with is Generation Gogglebox.

Over the past four years reality TV mega-show Gogglebox has captured the cultural zeitgeist with the world’s simplest premise – real people filmed watching TV. The concept was an instant hit, with Gogglebox becoming Channel 4’s highest-rated programme, routinely racking up a mighty 3 million viewers during its Friday 9pm slot.

Such is Gogglebox’s success that brands from Lotto to Age UK have clamoured to partner with the show. Cereal company Kellogg’s staged a two minute brand takeover during the first ad break of Gogglebox on April 7, showing cast members discussing their #myperfectbowl of Corn Flakes.

This brand partnership followed hot on the heels of Sainsbury’s, which in November used an ad break takeover to promote its Christmas 2016 campaign by transforming three Gogglebox households into stop-motion puppets, animated in the same style as its festive campaign characters.

Alongside the companies fighting to partner with the show are the Gogglebox devotees, brands creating ads which directly reference the show’s social realist aesthetic.

One such devotee is telecoms business TalkTalk, which last October debuted its “This Stuff Matters” campaign in a bid to win back consumer trust in the wake of its infamous data hack of 2015. Back on our screens this May, the campaign follows a real family from Blackpool and the impact having TalkTalk-enabled technology has on their lives.

Another Gogglebox inspired idea came in April with the launch of Lidl Ireland’s €2 million TrolleyCam campaign. Directed by Irish documentary filmmaker Ken Wardrop, the adverts follow six real families doing their weekly shop at Lidl with a camera strapped to their trolley.

Speaking to Ad Age Ireland, Chemistry, the agency behind the campaign, name checked Gogglebox and fellow Channel 4 reality TV show First Dates as inspiration, pointing to the fact vlogs are the most popular content on YouTube as evidence for the “trend for authenticity”.

But can authenticity be a trend brands plug into at will? By casting for families that represent a “cross-section of the population”, ticking all the right boxes in terms of age, gender and ethnicity, are brands not simply manipulating the image of what constitutes a “real family”?

The pressure to “keep it real” is even being felt within the Gogglebox camp.

In October 2016 reports emerged that long running families were “taking a break from the show” in response to the strict rules being imposed by producers. Families complained about only being able to watch clips rather than full TV programmes in order to fit as much content as possible into their contracted hours, making their reactions feel forced.

Speaking at the time a source told The Sun that the new rules “contradicted the real and relatable element which made the show a success”.

If the UK’s touchstone for social realist content is being manipulated, what hope do we have?

Social purpose fuelled realism

Then there is the space where social purpose and realism meet. Here brands are using faux-realist situations to tell their social purpose story.

The most naked example of social purpose fuelled realism in recent months came courtesy of Amazon. In the run up to Black Friday and Christmas 2016 the online behemoth encouraged us to break down the religious barriers in society with its depiction of a priest and imam engaging in a display of inter-faith harmony.

Explaining that the advert was about “selflessness and thinking of other people”, Amazon was keen to stress that the men featured in the advert were a practising priest and devout Muslim. So far, so real.

But while they may be passionate adherents of their faiths, these two men are not friends exchanging gifts. They are actors buying knee pads from Amazon in a bid to bridge the religious divide. As if it were that simple.

Another culprit is supermarket Tesco, which in 2016 decided to reposition its advertising strategy by moving away from promoting products to focus instead on the passion that goes into creating great food.

The result is Tesco Food Love Stories, a campaign with “real people” sharing their favourite recipes with the rest of the world. A stand-out story from the campaign is Alice’s “peace making” cupcakes.

Alice’s backstory, as outlined on Tesco’s Food Love Stories content hub, explains that she resorted to the “powerful language of cupcakes” after upsetting her stepmum during an argument.

The salted caramel cupcakes of course looked delicious, but for anyone who has had a blazing row with their mum the story did not quite ring true. Yes the ambition to encourage people to cook is admirable, but the execution lacks subtlety.

Screen Shot 2017-05-27 at 08.29.01

And that’s the point. Brands’ obsession with telling a worthwhile, social purpose driven story, coupled with the ceaseless pursuit of relatability and authenticity, has created a slew of campaigns that ultimately feel inauthentic.

Authenticity is not a quality brands can manufacture – either you have it or you don’t – and if you don’t chances are you will be found out.

Brands may be hoping that customers will love supposedly realistic portrayals because they reflect our daily lives. After all we’ve all shopped at a supermarket, baked cupcakes or bought things on Amazon, right?

But, what these overly simplistic portrayals often forget is that our real lives can be difficult, complicated or just really boring, and particularly in difficult times what we crave most is escapism.

The campaigns that really live on in the mind are usually the ones that capture our attention because they are memorable, touching, beautiful or exciting, rarely because they remind you how difficult it is to manoeuvre a trolley around a supermarket.

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