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In the World of Post-Truth Politics, Advertisers Should Steer Clear of the Word ‘Authentic’

London, UK
When Trump is being praised for his ‘authenticity’, the buzzword has lost all meaning, argues Laura Swinton

So, here’s an old favourite theme that I’m returning to with gusto: ad industry buzzwords. Regular readers will know that there are few things that get me ranting quite so unstoppably. And over the past few weeks and months there’s one such buzzword that has been more potently annoying than usual. Authenticity. In the ad industry, it’s often used as a more pliable, obfuscating alternative to words like ‘truth’, ‘honesty’ or ‘factual’. But in the world of international politics, the word isn’t just flexible, it’s downright twisted. From Donald Trump to Rodrigo Duterte and Boris Johnson, we’re seeing all sorts of liabilities reach (or nearly reach) positions of real power – and apparently it’s all due to their ‘authenticity’.

Advertising’s relationship with the truth is – and always has been – complicated. Truth, we’re told, is the bedrock of good advertising, but truth means different things to different people. We can take it to mean ‘facts’, which are objectively provable, occasionally useful when carefully selected, often inconvenient. Or we can interpret it as ‘authenticity’, which – as I understand it from its use by the ad industry – is the conceptual equivalent of a firm handshake. Warm, reassuring… and helpfully postmodern.

‘Authenticity’ is a word that triggers a Pavlovian eye-roll in me. I can’t help it; it’s fudge-y. It irritates me. It allows brands to skip over ‘the truth’ in favour of ‘a truth’. It’s used so often to describe things that are the direct opposite of ‘authentic’ that it no longer means anything at all. But for all that, I think I see why the ad industry has seized hold of ‘authenticity’ and refuses to let go. It sounds comforting; it conjures images of hand carved mahogany and tarnished brass fixtures and botanical gins and makes the advertiser feel like they’re part of some wholesome artisan movement. It’s understandable that an industry once described by H.G. Wells as ‘legalised lying’ might want to be associated with something a bit more wholesome and real.

Trust in advertising is hard won; the percentage of people who trust traditional advertising media likeTV and radio ads hovers around the 60% mark. While that’s not terrible, it leaves 40% of people who are not won over.

And hey, at least the advertising industry is trying. Yes, adland’s version of ‘authenticity’ might have more in common with what Stephen Colbert calls ‘truthiness’ than it admits, but that’s nothing compared to what’s going on in politics.

In the recent-ish past, politicians were accused of spinning or twisting the truth. These days they don’t even bother to do that. Why spend time trying to fit the facts in a narrative that suits your needs when you can just make shit up? The phrase ‘post-truth politics’ was coined by writer David Roberts in 2010; in 2016 it’s inescapable. Between Brexit and the rise of Trump, colossal lies that would once have caused scandal are seemingly shrugged off with a ‘meh’. There’s no coy embarrassment. No, ‘fiddlesticks, you’ve got me there’.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. This is the information age. With our access to the Internet, we (consumers, voters, punters) were supposed to be more informed than ever. There was to be no place for lying politicians or companies to hide… Instead you have politicians like the UK’s Michael Gove dismissing the need for factual accuracy with statements like “people in this country have had enough of experts”.

And what politicos have done with the word ‘authentic’ would make the most cynical marketer blush. When Donald Trump supporters say they like him because he’s ‘authentic’, I find myself struggling to understand what they mean. It can’t mean ‘truthful’ (PolitiFacthas found 4% of his statements to be ‘true’). It can’t mean ‘real’– the biggest populists in politics like Boris Johnson in the UK and Trump in the US love to play up to the cameras. I guess it could mean ‘speaks his mind’, in a sort of ‘has zero filter or frontal lobe control’? What good is ‘saying what you think’ if what you think is an incoherent stream of consciousness?

‘Authenticity’ has descended from one of those strong, Atticus Finch-y kind of a word to a mush of hokey folksy nothing. It’s a sad irony that there are few words guaranteed to set off my internal bullshit detectors – and I’m certainly not the first person to say so. It’s a buzzword that the industry has been addicted to for years – but now, perhaps, it’s time to let it go. We’ve reached peak authenticity. Let’s just try being honest instead?


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