How Authenticity Killed Truth in Advertising
By Jonathan David Lewis
“What is truth?”
Pontius Pilate’s cynical response to Jesus has never felt more important.
What is truth in our modern culture? To scores of fraudulent news sites, it’s whatever will lead to a click. To the growing Flat Earth movement (you read that right), truth is only what is directly and individually observable. To the average person, truth may be whatever their highly curated Facebook feed reinforces.
Welcome to the “Age of Deceit,” a new normal that in a recent Wired article, Jason Tanz called the “post-fact era of fake news and filter bubbles,” where trust in institutions is at an all-time low and truth only matters if it emboldens an argument.
So how does a marketer build a brand when truth seems to be rotting in a false wall under our culture’s staircase? A better question might be whether truth even matters anymore – and how it died in the first place.
Authenticity Made A Murderer
If there’s one marketing buzzword to rule them all over the last decade, it’s “authenticity.” Deepa Sen called it the most “overused word in advertising” in an article on the topic. In many ways, marketers’ obsession with authenticity grew out of the millennials’ pushback against a culture of materialism. When everything feels surface deep, being genuine is the coin of the realm. Or so we thought.
While many brands found success in “authentic” positioning, like Dove’s iconic Real Beauty campaign, marketers misstepped when “authenticity” became a synonym for “truth.”
As some in our culture embraced the existential position that there is no truth, new terms like “my truth” and “your truth” bubbled up in pop vocabulary. Brands naturally followed the trend in their marketing, chasing authenticity as if “being real” was a cure-all for shallow materialism and a shortcut to millennial hearts and wallets.
But if there is no truth, who decides what’s right and wrong? Marketers face this modern crisis as special interest groups manipulate facts to bully advertisers and the president tweets about brands regardless of evidence. “Authentic” marketing just doesn’t stand up to “authentic” attacks.
Nothing reveals the shallowness of “authentic” marketing more than Pepsi’s recent Kendall Jenner commercial. While Pepsi’s ad was impressively tone-deaf as it trivialized hot button cultural issues, you can’t say that Pepsi wasn’t completely sincere in its message. Having been involved in countless productions, I can tell you that everyone involved in that video production likely really, truly believed in their message. They didn’t intend to trivialize anything. They likely just wanted to join the conversation and express solidarity with the culture. They were absolutely and completely “authentic.”
Yet, as we’re discovering, authenticity just isn’t enough without shared objective truth. In fact, mistaking authenticity for truth helped to kill it.
Truth As A Competitive Advantage
As objective truth comes under attack, journalism seems to have rediscovered it. The New York Times recently debuted its “Truth is Hard” campaign at the Oscars just as The Washington Post announced its new tagline, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” But as journalism refocuses on truth, will marketers follow suit?
Asked if truth is still relevant in branding, Steven Fuld, senior vice president of marketing at Sony, said it always has been, stating in an email interview, “truth matters as much as it ever has, which in my view means quite a lot. … People need grounding and certainty – brands that are able to be clear on their promise, truthful in their delivery and honest about who they are and what they stand for will stand out.”
As truth becomes harder to find, standing for it becomes a competitive advantage.
And not just any truth: The fundamental reason truth matters so much for branding is that it is a path to relevance. A truth can be different for a brand and its customer but the truth is something shared by all. Where the brand truth and the customer truth intersect is where relevance and power exist. Objective truth unites brands with their customers.
Modern marketers face the same question Pontius Pilate posed so many years ago: “What is truth?” Many facing this post-fact world respond by hiding or acquiescing to the latest round of “authentic” attacks. It’s easier to give in to bullies than to fight them. In so doing, marketers can perpetuate the lie of authenticity and become complicit in the death of truth.
But as human nature, the law of scarcity and advertising’s fleeting pursuit of authenticity teach us, if you want to stand out and stay relevant in our uncertain, ambiguous world, you need to stand for truth.
Jonathan David Lewis
President and author, Jonathan specializes in the spirit of the matter. Call Jonathan when problems feel ambiguous and morale is low. He’ll know what to do.
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