Monday, November 17, 2014

authenticity is bullshit

‘Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself.

It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.

[But] there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know.

Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial—notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.

And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.’

The above is a shortened version of the closing remarks from Harry G. Frankfurt’s famous philosophy essay ‘On Bullshit’, first published in 1986 and still widely regarded as the closest thing we have to unified theory of bullshit.

‘Sincerity itself is bullshit’

Those closing remarks of Frankfurt’s theory sprang to mind as we noticed an article on this week entitled ‘Let’s all be a lot less Honest’ in which author R. Jay Magill Jr. asked if it's time to:

‘...drop our authenticity fetish and get real about the neglected art of playing social roles’.

Magill’s article begins by addressing a piece by Duke University law professor Jedediah Purdy, in The Daily Beast entitled ‘Why Your Waiter Hates You’, in which Purdy argues that modern capitalism performs:

‘...a pervasive intrusion on a key aspect of autonomy: the right to be yourself.’

Purdy means that many workers - low paid service workers e.g. waiters and waitresses - are being extorted because they have to be nice to customers (presenting a public self) in order to receive tips for insatnce, even though the act makes them betray their real feelings (their private self).

Magill, however, contests this and argues that to keep the private self and public self separate does not demean the latter just because it is not ‘real’ or ‘authentic’.

He goes on to state that ‘the public self is as real as the private self; it is our overvaluation of the latter that has thrown the long-standing importance of the former into doubt.’

It is this idea of the overvaluation of the ‘private’ or ‘authentic’ self that crosses over into some of the popular ideas in what seems to represent a significant portion of modern branding and advertising theory.

Scarcely a week goes by without the deluge of articles from marketing experts and commentators (most commonly from the digerati, curiously) demanding authenticity from brands.

That a brand should ‘provide honest and authentic representation of itself.’

And if that’s not enough, it’s claimed in some quarters that these authentic brands should not even be concerned with the grubby business of making a sale!

I’m not sure what industry some of these people think they are in.

It is widely claimed that rather than being simply social and transactional brands should instead be concerned with seeking a deep connection, engaging on a personal level with the individual.

And that advertising which attempts to put memorable campaigns in front of mass audiences with the intention of getting a brand thought of momentarily the next time the consumer wants to buy from the category, is somehow inauthentic.

The commentators who espouse this theory seem very certain that this is the way forward for brands, yet there is scant evidence that any consumers out there even want to engage with brands at all, and even thinking about brands is something that most people spend very little mental energy over.

It's worth noting - with some irony -  that many of those commentators who demand this of 'brand authenticity' are among the worst bullshit offenders.

Returning to Frankfurt's text briefly...

'Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.

Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.

This discrepancy is common in [marketing journals], where people are frequently impelled—whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.'

This clamour for authenticity from brands seems also to be connected to what Magill describes in his article as the ideology of intimacy.

‘The ideology of intimacy promotes the idea that social relationships are only real, authentic and meaningful the closer they approach the inner life and vulnerabilities of a person.

[It] encourages ever-increasing closeness - between people, nations and cultures - and decries interpersonal or intercultural distance as cold, fake, distant or aloof.

This assumption runs so deep in culture that we no longer see it, let alone question its worth.’]

But do we really need this ideology of intimacy to dominate the discourse around brands and consumer relationships?

Magill concludes ‘social culture is only “cold” or “distant” if you go in to social interactions expecting warm and fuzzy feelings from people you do not know.’

It works in both directions too.
Modern marketers have a misguided obsession with knowing the details of consumers' private lives (principally driven by that other marketer fetish; big data) - believing this will make their efforts more effective.

In a social and market context however, impersonal behaviours are far more useful, simply because they create 'a boundary between one’s real feelings and the impersonal world of transactions'.

The principal difficulty with the brand authenticity lobby is that it crosses the streams.
If you're familiar with Ghostbusters then you will understand just how problematic this is...

As Dan Ariely pointed to in Predictably irrational, we live simultaneously in two different worlds.
One where social norms prevail, and the other governed by market norms.

'Social norms are wrapped up in our social nature and our need for community. They are usually warm and fuzzy. Instant paybacks are not required: you may help move your neighbour’s couch, but this doesn’t mean he has to come right over and move yours.

The second world, the one governed by market norms, is very different. There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about it. The exchanges are sharp- edged: wages, prices, rents, interest, and costs- and- benefits. 

Such market relationships are not necessarily evil or mean-in fact, they also include self- reliance, inventiveness, and individualism-but they do imply comparable benefits and prompt payments'. 

Emotional honesty may be a nice personal quality to have, but it has nothing to do with solving anyone’s washing powder problem, and by keeping things on a ‘social relation’ level – with all it’s inherent fake-ness – is a more authentic relationship than any sincerity bullshit.

Rather than pursuing the futile quest for brand authenticity we’d all (brands and consumers) be perfectly happy with brands that are ‘impersonal, but friendly’ (a phrase coined by social historian Peter Stearns about the American smile’) and allow us to transact without crossing the streams.

Have a nice day.

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