Fake Authenticity in Advertising

We hear a lot about authenticity these days. Authentic leadership; being our authentic selves; consumers wanting companies to be authentic and real. But being authentic is hard – especially when you’re trying to sell a brand or product.

Definition of authentic: Not false or imitation: real, actual; True to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.

It’s likely that marketing can never be truly authentic. We’ll never see a soda ad that says: this beverage tastes SO good when eating burgers and fries and you’ll feel SO happy when you pair it together, but seriously don’t drink too much of it too often because it will contribute to weight gain. That is authentic advertising, but it is also advertising that will tank sales.

However, it is possible for a brand to represent itself as being made of real people – who sometimes make mistakes – and want to sell you something they believe you’ll enjoy having in your life.

Fake Authenticity

But what REALLY annoys me is when brands pretend to be authentic. This annoys me far more than brands who are just completely full of shit, selling a crappy product and sounding like it will save your life. The ads that make me shake my head in annoyance, shame, and disgust are the ones trying to make all the motions and movements of authenticity, without actually being authentic.

Here’s a few examples:

Lay’s Flavor Finalists

Lay’s wants consumers to vote for their favorite new flavor of chip from 3 finalists: Everything Bagel, Crunchy Taco, and Fried Green Tomatoes. They have a set of very fake looking couples and friends walking up to food trucks and receiving a bag of Lay’s to sample. As if receiving an entire large-sized bag of anything to sample isn’t fake enough!!

The reactions and discussions around these flavors are so contrived and fake that it infuriates me. Never mind that at least one person in each group says, “it tastes exactly like [insert whatever type of food the chip is imitating],” which is the most obvious sign that these people are not real.

What they could have done instead

My guess is that filming real people trying the chips would be too difficult to manage, as you can’t control the outcome the way a brand would want to. Okay, that’s fine. Then let’s not go that route at all. Instead, Lay’s could create an ad that tells us how each one tastes and prompts the viewer to try all three and vote. They could still use the food truck theme but have the truck chefs “sell” their flavor as they would for real food. Or, possibly even funnier, each flavor could have a political ambassador that promotes why it’s better than the others – like an election –  but leave it up to the voters to decide.

Basically, Lay’s could have done anything else and it would have been better than this ad.

Chevy Car and Truck Ads

I know you’ve seen these ads and I’m pretty sure you hate them too. Real People – Not Actors. That may be true, but that doesn’t mean it’s REAL. Recently one of the actors spoke about their experience in the ad, and it’s worth reading.

It’s true that these people are not actors (although recruiting off the streets in Los Angeles must mean at least 35% of the people you’re getting are amateur actors) but the process creates such an artificial environment that it nearly guarantees excitement and positivity. Plus, the magic of editing can remove any moments that didn’t feel over-the-top enthusiastic about the brand. It may be true that these people are real, but that doesn’t make the ads authentic.

What they could do instead

The Chevy ad I don’t mind so much is when they covered all the logos on the car and had people sit in and explore it, and then asked what brand they thought it was. No one guessed Chevy and all were surprised that the Malibu looked so nice these days (again, the magic of editing is likely at play here). To me, this approach works. It removes all preconceived notions of what a Chevy, and specifically a Chevy Malibu, looks and feels like and essentially reintroduces the brand to consumers. If Chevy also did this in real life – like at malls – then this could be an effective, and even authentic, approach.

I just can’t bear to hear the “woahs”, “ooohs”, “aaahs”, and “wows” as a Chevy truck gets lifted from the floor to someone telling me how many awards it won. None of it means anything to me.

Leesa Mattresses

It’s likely you’ve seen this brand and these commercials but don’t remember them since they’re incredibly boring and bland. It could be a commercial for coffee, for sheets, for TJ Maxx, for sleep medicine, or for family planning. The commercials are easy to miss.

What’s interesting about the Leesa mattress approach is that I believe they’re using quotes and testimonials from real consumers (“this mattress is dangerously comfortable”) which is a good step towards authenticity. But they (a) are definitely not using the real people who gave those quotes, and (b) have used the most boring expression of those quotes as possible. I mean, listen to the line of “I get in and I literally say AHHH!” – that is possibly the most plain, bland, and boring way to read that line.

What they could have done instead

Let’s contrast this with Casper mattress, a competitive brand.

They also use quotes and testimonials from real consumers, but they go the extra mile of including the name, location, and review date to demonstrate the authenticity of the quote. It’s proof of authenticity! And rather than using stock-image-quality-looking-people in the ad, they make it unique and interesting by featuring puppets who recite the quote while looking directly at the camera (also important in conveying authenticity). And compare how the lines are read in this commercial to the Leesa one – it’s just far more interesting overall.

However, my support for Casper mattress ads (and the amazing job they do directly connecting with consumers on Twitter) has recently been dampened by the news that the brand has been trying to woo and sue mattress bloggers to recommend Casper above other brands. As I said earlier, being authentic is harder than it sounds. Casper may be doing it really well in some places, but skewing reality in other places.

What does this mean for you?

Discovering your brand’s authentic self and how to best express that in marketing is not an easy process. I recommend checking out this Forbes article for ideas on how brands can be authentic in their advertising. And I’m always happy to chat with you if you have questions on how to realize this for your brand.

My bottom line here is don’t fake authenticity. To me, that is the worst. Bad actors pretending to be real consumers make me cringe. I’d much rather watch an ad that is clearly trying to sell me something than watch one that’s trying to fool me.


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