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Unreal Marketing: Violating the Axioms of Authenticity

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The following is an excerpt from the book Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want.

Authenticity is in the air. You see it, feel it, all around you. Most of what we experience in today's consumer-oriented society revolves around issues of what is real and what is fake.

Postmodern theorists constantly write about the interplay and intermingling of the authentic and the inauthentic. But one need not be well-versed in Jean Baudrillard's concept of simulacra or familiar with Umberto Eco's musings about hyperreality to see what's going on. A single day of shopping will suffice.

One Unreal Day

The John Deere Tractor Alarm (with "Authentic John Deere Tractor and Barnyard Sounds!") goes off at 8:15 a.m. on Saturday morning, awakening Brenda and Eddie to the tune of Joe McBride's "Keepin' It Real." Brenda beats Eddie to the shower. She washes her hair with Aussie Real Volume Shampoo, then treats it with Aussie Real Volume Conditioner, having colored it a week ago with L'Oréal Preference #9 (Natural Blonde) because, well, she's worth it!


After relinquishing the shower to Eddie and his Get Real Natural lavender shampoo, Brenda blow-dries her hair and adds some Aussie Real Volume Styling Whip. She then slides on her cotton shirt from Real Clothes over her Hanes Authentic Tagless T-shirt and dons a pair of Ralph Lauren jeans ("Authentic Denim Outfitters"). Done showering, Eddie quickly towel-dries his hair, combs some Just for Men hair color (Natural Real Black) into his increasingly salt-and-pepper beard, and puts on his favorite Faded Glory shirt ("Authentic Style").

Downstairs, Brenda cooks up some scrambled Egg Beaters ("99% real egg whites") while Eddie pours a bowl of Post Blueberry Morning cereal ("with Real, Wild Blueberries"). They drink Simply Orange Grove Made orange juice ("made with bits of real orange") while the Gloria Jean's coffee ("Authentic Mocha Java") brews. They agree that after the kids are up she'll head to the grocery store while he runs some errands and then starts some early Christmas shopping.

At Giant Eagle, Brenda picks up a twelve-pack of Coors ("Real Rocky Mountain Beer") and some Bud Light ("Fresh. Smooth. Real."). She then gets some cereal: General Mills Berry Bust Cheerios ("with REAL sliced strawberries") and Post Honey Bunches of Oats ("with REAL BANANAS"). And because the kids love it: Cocoa Puffs Milk 'n Cereal Bars ("The NUTRITION of a bowl of cereal with Real Milk").

Meanwhile, Eddie makes his first stop at OfficeMax to refill the Hewlett-Packard black ink cartridge ("HP RealLife Imaging System") for the home-office computer.

Brenda strolls the aisles, filling her cart: Betty Crocker Au Gratin Potatoes ("with 100% real Idaho Potatoes"), Stove Top stuffing mix ("with Real Chicken Broth"), and some Premio Sweet Italian Sausage ("Real Italian Taste").

The next stop for Eddie, PETsMART. He grabs some Pounce Cat Treats ("with Real seafood!") and Cat Sip ("Real Milk") as well as some Alpo ("With Real Liver") and Snausages Roverolis ("With Authentic Italian Aroma!!!").

Kraft enjoys considerable share-of-cart today: Kraft Mayo Hot 'n Spicy ("Real Mayonnaise"), Kraft Easy Cheese cheese spread ("Made with Real K-R-A-F-T Cheese"), and Kraft Velveeta Shells & Cheese ("Real VELVEETA Cheese Sauce"). Yum!

A quick jaunt into Jo-Ann Fabrics & Crafts is next for Eddie, as he picks up that can of Modern Options Instant Antiquing Set ("Create an authentic rust finish in just minutes!") for Brenda. He wonders, "What for?"

Meanwhile, Brenda chooses Quaker Toastables ("Made with REAL FRUIT! Real Fruit. Real Oatmeal. Real Flavor.") over the Kellogg's Pop-Tarts Yogurt Blasts ("Made with Real Fruit"—that's it). And some Hunt's Snack Pack Pudding ("Real Non-fat Milk Is Our #1 Ingredient").

Eddie arrives at Target and heads straight to the toy department. For Tommy, the youngest: a Tinkertoy construction set ("Real Wood Pieces! Real Working parts! Realistic barn!") and, after examining both, he decides on The Home Depot 10-Piece Tool Set ("Real Tools for Kids!") over The Home Depot Builders Tool Set ("They Look Like Real Tools!").

Brenda grabs some Giant Eagle Tortilla Chips ("Authentic Restaurant Style") and General Mills' fruit ripples ("crispy baked real apple pieces"). Beverages? Make it Minute Maid Lemonade ("Made with Real Lemons") and Nantucket Nectars Orange Pineapple Mango juice ("Real is better").

For Susan, the middle girl: Barbie Volkswagen New Beetle ("Trunk really opens! Real key chain too!") and My Beautiful Ballerina ("Performs Real Pirouettes!"). And for Eddie, Jr.: a Tony Hawk action figure ("Real-Flex") and a Wilson Mini-sized Replica NFL Game Ball ("Replica Authentic NFL Game Ball").

Brenda likes to bake, so into the cart go Baker's Dipping Chocolate ("Real Dark Semi-Sweet Chocolate") and Nestlé Milk Chocolate Morsels ("Real Milk Chocolate"). Then, it's either Luigi's Real Italian Ice ("With Real Fruit Juice") or Tropical Fla-Vor-Ice (ditto). She chooses Fla-Vor-Ice—a Fa-Vor-Ite. Finally at check-out, Brenda grabs some Pop Rocks ("Real Popping Action!") for the kids, and a copy of Budget Travel ("Vacations for Real People") to read with Eddie.

Eddie, now hungry and thirsty, eyes a convenience store on the corner. Once inside, he spies a 23.5-oz. can of Arizona Southern Style Sweet Tea ("Real Brewed"). "Keep it real," says the cashier as Eddie heads out the door.

Back to Reality

We found all this "real" and "authentic" language printed on actual items on store shelves. The prevalence of this packaging copy proves that companies and their supporting ad agencies discern the emerging consumer sensibility for authenticity.

Such an approach does not surface by mere happenstance; it's pretty clear that if businesses claim to be authentic, they must feel consumers are demanding authenticity in what they buy.

But, as our Brenda & Eddie shopping spree reveals, far more businesses claim to be authentic than actually come off as authentic. Worse, the very act of proclaiming oneself to be real leads almost inexorably to the perception of being fake. Indeed, the very act of saying something is authentic immediately leads consumers to doubt its authenticity.

It's no way to render the real. Therefore, let us immediately establish these three Axioms of Authenticity:

  • Axiom 1. If you are authentic, then you don't have to say you're authentic.
  • Axiom 2. If you say you're authentic, then you'd better be authentic.
  • Axiom 3. It's easier to be authentic if you don't say you're authentic.

As a marketing professional, do you proclaim your offerings to be real or authentic? If so, you may find your customers calling them (and you) fake. So stop it: Don't just say you're real; be real—and read our book for more effective ways to render authenticity.

And if as a consumer you find axiom-violating offerings in the marketplace, take a picture or video of the item and go post it—and/or a link to the violator's Web site—in the Axiom Violators Gallery at www.AuthenticityBook.com.


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James H. Gilmore is coauthor of Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want (Harvard Business School Press) and The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage.B. Joseph Pine II is coauthor of Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want (Harvard Business School Press) and The Experience Economy: Work Is Theater & Every Business a Stage.

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Comments

  • by Kimaya Wed Feb 20, 2008 via web

    Just theory. One mans point of view against other. What is the proof that if you say you are real people will call you fake. Infact some of the most memorable campaigns are based on the theory of real and it works!

  • by Jason Fri Jul 3, 2009 via web

    True for a lot of consumer goods, but the authenticity is largely based on user experience. It's hard to trick me once, but impossible to trick me twice. Not to mention consumers talk about their bad experience on Facebook and Twitter all day long.
    Delivery is the key IMO.

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