The word authentic gets overused as much as content, data and digital in marketing and advertising. So much so it just becomes a base descriptor for selling in an idea to clients. It becomes background. What does it really mean though?
When I say authentic I often get tongue tied trying to describe it and end up saying ‘it’s real’ or ‘truth’ out loud, as if that should be enough for people to understand. It almost sounds like I’m talking about a gritty obs doc. I’m not, although it certainly could be. It could be found in the form of a £5k how-to beauty video on YouTube, a £100k TV ad or a £200m feature film set in a galaxy far far away.
Look at these stills from a scene in Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’:
Look how damn real these photo’s look. They look more real than some actual family candids you see on Facebook. Maybe it requires the skill of a masterful director with some great actors to suspend your disbelief like this.
There's no doubt it requires great skill and effort to capture something authentically. I think that’s our job at agencies, to find it, bottle it and connect audiences to it in a relevant way.
Casey Neistat is a great exponent of authenticity in his work. He spoke at an event in 2015 (alongside another proponent of authentic content - Gary Vaynerchuck)
I’m staring at a screen 80% of the time I’m awake. […] We’re always looking at screens. And the collateral effect of that is that our bullshit detectors have become so refined. Whether you’re hyper-cognisant of that, like Gary [Vaynerchuck] and me because it’s what we do for a living. Or it’s entirely passive like it is for my kid, your bullshit detector is so refined that the second it starts to go off a little bit, BOOM, you check out and you’re into something else.
[My son’s] bullshit detector is so refined that in order to penetrate that detector, that force field around him it has to be true, it has to be real. And that’s why for the most part he doesn’t watch television, he watches YouTube. Because YouTube is like this endless cornucopia of content where he can weave his way through until he finds this stuff that really speaks to him. Stuff that penetrates that bullshit detector. So yeah, being yourself and being honest, it means to be vulnerable, it means to be real, is scary. You have to open yourself up. But if you want to succeed in that place, if you want to make a brand of yourself […] it is now a requirement that you be authentic.
I 100% agree with this statement, and my bullshit detector feels like it is set to 11. I think most of the advertising we’re bombarded with (like banner ads) don’t even make it past the subconscious bullshit filter, let alone the conscious one. But where it gets trickier is what I’ve been referring to as the uncanny valley of authenticity. Where something masquerades as something it isn’t. In terms of robots/humans, here is a good recent example where a Hong Kong designer, Ricky Ma, made a robot that looks just like Scarlett Johansson, but calls 'it' Mark 1. What do you prefer?
Casey Neistat goes on to talk about this with a great example.
[…] Advertising I have such a hate hate relationship with. Because so much of it is look at what works and they say “Ok we wanna do that”. Which in itself is complete bullshit. If I give you an example I made a movie for Nike called ‘Do More’. It was this crazy video, where my friend and I got into all this trouble and in all these crazy situations. It was 100% real and we really put ourselves in those situations and because of that it was wildly successful, especially young people really related to that and were highly motivated by that. All that went really well to Nike’s message of Make It Count, Just Do It and Do More. Then a year later, Degree Deodorant, I shit you not, put out an entire campaign called ‘Do More’. I talked to my lawyer and we could definitely sue, we have a good case, but what a waste of time and energy. So I said no. But it was this bullshit, super fabricated scrubbed clean nonsense. “What did Casey Neistat do? Ok, let’s do a versions of that but we’re going to fabricate it this way”. Instead of just actually sending someone to go jet skiing in the Middle East. Let’s just pretend we do that, and shoot it in LA on the back of a truck, shot on a RED Epic with steadicam. None of you have ever heard of some bullshit campaign by some fucking deodorant company. 15 million people saw my video, because mine was real and penetrated the bullshit detector. And whatever Degree nonsense, just bounced right off people’s bullshit sensor.
It’s great and deceptively simple. But it feels real doesn’t it? As in, it feels like everything you’re watching is the first take - not the fourth. There is no production team or camera crew following him around 'creating' a reality. He is simply capturing and sharing his experience.
What is important to remember is this is the construct he is presenting and then delivering on authentically. Star Wars delivers authentically on a construct of a galaxy far, far away. So many adverts offer a construct, or aim for one, and deliver a wholly unauthentic experience. You only have to watch a few 'prank' style adverts to see they bottled it and didn't do it for 'real', they got the actors in and you're clearly watching the 'fourth take'.
It is also interesting to looking at this film from 2012, you can see how this style has worked its way into so much other work, whether from YouTubers or advertisers. I have certainly worked on projects which probably borrow too much from this style, without unfortunately being as authentic or effective as it could've been.
It’s hard. It is hard to say to a marketing manager at a brand “Hey! We’re going to risk the budget you’d normally and comfortably spend on tv/print/radio with the same standard/expected results, on something totally new and different that will hit the audience you actually want to get. It’s also something you will not be able to explain to your boss. We’re also just going to collaborate with XYZ, create an experience and share it with the audience. Cool?” Don’t be surprised if they politely decline. Be less surprised if they say “Ok great, but we need to ensure our logo's and messaging are present in over 50% of the film.” There’s a tightrope to walk here, but as an industry, if we can create better work, more authentic work, the results will be plain to see. I’m not saying let’s all make Casey Neistat style films, I’m saying the approach; work that is authentic to the audience, the brand and the platform can produce positive results for a brand.
Here's another film from Casey Neistat where he and a friend try out a new style McDonald's restaurant in New York.
He starts the video with a crystal clear disclaimer that it is not sponsored or endorsed by McDonald's, nor do they have permission. They simply go to the restaurant, order the new endlessly customisable burgers, eat them and give it a review. They have a great time and enjoyed their food, and you kind of want to be hanging out with them.
Imagine if this was a paid piece of content from McDonald's, but it was exactly the same as this film (apart form the disclaimer at the beginning). Same Casey, same friend, same New York. Everything. The. Same.
But imagine it on the McDonald's YouTube channel & Facebook page and not Casey's. I'm pretty sure that would be incredibly positive for the brand. It just feels so unlikely for it to happen, but I think this is where brands need to go. Audiences just will not accept bullshit. Brands should be confident enough that their products are good and let content like this be created. Good and bad. The bad, can be incredibly useful and positive for a brand too. Taking on board that kind of feedback can actually improve the product/service! Use your marketing to iterate and improve your core products. Anything other than this level of commitment to authenticity really does leave you in that uncanny valley.
Time to get real.