“Have you ever tried the experiment of saying some plain word, such as ‘dog,’ thirty times? By the thirtieth time it has become a word like ‘snark’ or ‘pobble.’ It does not become tame, it becomes wild, by repetition.”
— G.K. Chesterton
The word authenticity has become wild to me, liberated from the confines of its OED definition by repeated use in the ad briefs I read and the pitch treatments I write as a freelancer. It’s gone feral, free to explore new identities.
Semantic satiation is the name of this phenomenon. The term, coined by psychologist Leon James in 1962, refers to a type of fatigue. “If you repeat a word,” says James, “the meaning in the word keeps being repeated, and then it becomes refractory, or more resistant to being elicited again and again.”
Could the authenticity that The Washington Post calls for in its gritty “Democracy Dies In Darkness” campaign really be the same authenticity Fiji Water hopes they’ll get from an aspirational Instagram personality? I’ve regurgitated the word so many times that I’m no longer convinced I know what it means, but I do know it’s what everyone wants.
Trust fails and falls
According to a recent survey asking more than 1,500 people in the United States, the UK, and Australia about their marketing preferences, 90 percent responded that authenticity is important when it comes to choosing which companies they spend money on. Forbes attributed this desire for authenticity to recurring corporate transgressions like data mining that have left consumer trust at an all-time low. “To win the hearts and business of your target customers,” the author writes, “you have to convince them you are trustworthy.”
Until recently, the most noticeable trust-building exercises companies have done with audiences have been based largely on look and feel — think of the rise of docustyle commercials and branded documentaries. But, no matter how authentic an ad looks to a viewer, they know it’s always going to be a fantasy/reality hybrid told through a subjective lens, all meant to sell them something. Authenticity campaigns are emotional — they strike deepest when they evoke feelings that ring true.
However, what rings true for audiences has been exponentially refining itself through a process similar to semantic satiation. Repeated depictions of reality become refractory for savvy twenty-first-century audiences. In 2019, for example, no one would think The Blair Witch Project was depicting real events the way people in 1999 certainly did (including my boyfriend at the time, who thought I’d taken him to a snuff film).
Audiences now require more, an integrity that goes beyond the lens. The process behind how they’re being marketed to matters. Interestingly, two strategies that are addressing this head-on are user-generated content (UGC) and influencer marketing, methods that seem on opposite ends of the spectrum but are actually united in authenticity’s ultimate goal: connection.
Straight from the source
“There was a whale, deep in the ocean, being suffocated by a rope from a ship,” says Keith Marmon, business affairs manager at The Mill, an Academy Award-winning VFX and content-creation studio. “The scuba divers approached, and the whale looked at them. You could actually see the whale give consent to the divers to cut the rope. It was incredibly emotional.”
Marmon is describing a clip he’d seen of GoPro footage sourced by Catch&Release, a San Francisco-based company taking UGC in an interesting direction. “You could, technically, re-create that,” he adds. “But it’s not the same.”
UGC is a nebulous term for online material made discoverable by people who aren’t necessarily sharing it with the intention to sell. The content could range from Facebook or Instagram posts to original artwork, music, or video clips. Companies most frequently use UGC in marketing — say you publicly post a video of your Mount Rainier ascent and then the mountain guide company you used contacts you to ask if they can share it on their website.
With the rise of social media in the past decade, companies claim that UGC humanizes their campaigns and bolsters their overall marketing strategies, primarily because recommendations made by people who post their footage for fun, not profit, feel more genuine. However, navigating social media to find the nice things people post about your business is such a time-sucking morass that a number of aggregate platforms — Stackla, TINT, CrowdRiff, and Yotpo, to name a few — have sprung up expressly for this purpose.
Like the aggregates, Catch&Release also offers a searchable platform for its customers, but that’s where the similarities seemingly end. One of the company’s essential strengths lies in its staff of curators. “They know all the nooks and crannies,” says Marmon. “They’ve studied the patterns of where the premiere stuff lives on the Internet. [Their skill] ends up taking a lot of time and obligation off my team.”
Catch&Release has carved a niche by focusing on the production industry, which CEO Analisa Goodin believes has become increasingly reliant on technology to scale up to the content demands of the digital economy. “Creative teams are trying to achieve more with less time and less money,” she says. “We believe that found content — already made, already shot, online, discoverable — as long as we can license it, becomes a great supplement to original production.”
She illustrates what she means by pointing to the recent “Seafood with Standards“ Red Lobster campaign her company worked on. Red Lobster wanted to break from its shrimp-dipped-in-butter-style commercials to a “brand anthem,” the kind of ad that declares who a company is and what they stand for. However, the company had a tight budget and an even tighter turnaround. Within three weeks, Catch&Release culled from the Internet enough verité-style footage of fishermen and women (who fished in locations from which Red Lobster actually sourced fish) that Red Lobster was able to produce a collage-style ad with a multi-faceted and emotionally moving message.
Had Red Lobster attempted to document the daily grind of fishing boats in different locations for themselves, it likely would’ve cost millions of dollars, required the services of more than a hundred people, left an enormous carbon footprint, and taken at least three months to produce. Additionally, as is often the case with “real story” branded content, the “real people” featured aren’t compensated the way actors in a regular commercial would be because it’s a “documentary.” Because it used sourced material, Red Lobster had to license the footage and pay the people whose lifestyle it was showcasing and who initially shot those videos solely for their own community.
While other UGC platforms focus solely on social media and then rely on the terms and conditions users agree to on the platforms for licensing (“ . . . you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid, royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use the Content that you post on or through the Service”), Catch&Release widens its net to the entirety of the Internet and then works with independent content creators one-on-one to procure rights. Goodin says, “When we ask you to do something like, ‘upload your master file’ or ‘get model releases for your friends that appear in the shot with you,’ it’s because the client has already seen your work, they love it, and there’s a 95 percent chance you’re about to get paid.”
Catch&Release’s resourceful approach not only provides cost-cutting solutions and an added dimension of authenticity to docustyle commercials and branded documentary, it’s arguably a new style of storytelling more akin to the archival footage collage documentaries director Adam Curtis makes for the BBC than typical ad-world templates. “It’s a different process, a reverse process,” Goodin told the Women Worldwide podcast last year. “Clients are starting to come to us and say ‘Here’s what we’re thinking about shooting. Can we start with Catch&Release, find out what’s out there, figure out where the holes are, and then fill those holes in by shooting?’”
Under the influence
If I were to pinpoint the moment when the meaning of authenticity became murky for me, it might be when I watched a ring-lit YouTube influencer named Andrea Russett — who had been described to me as “authentic” — extol the virtues of Argan Oil of Morocco’s dry shampoo from her funky fresh bedroom. “They must have meant aspirational,” I thought. The whole thing just seemed so orchestrated.
I thought of the documentary Jawline, which chronicles sixteen-year-old Austyn Tester on his quest to become an Instagram influencer. To me, what Tester posts on his Instagram account is aspirational, the best version of his life. What’s authentic are the barely-scraping-by struggles he goes through in Jawline.
But, according to Maria Gonima, I likely felt this way about Russett because I hadn’t been following her or personalities like her since I was fifteen. I hadn’t watched her cry on screen and then, after she apologized for not posting for two weeks because she was having a rough time, I didn’t post an emotional comment saying that I, too, have had rough times. Gonima, formerly at Fullscreen and now the head of Big Smile, a marketing company that specializes in influencer engagement (among other services), says, “Now some of these kids are twenty-three, and their viewers have been with them for eight or nine years. Grown up with them! That’s a relationship to an audience that just doesn’t happen with traditional advertising.”
Russett rose to YouTube fame as a fourteen-year-old in 2009, when her video entry for a Justin Bieber contest went viral. Since then, Russett’s 3 million subscribers have stuck with her as she got her first job, dyed her hair purple, blew up on other platforms, started an acting career, began smoking weed, and came out as bisexual.
They’ve also watched her team up with L’Oreal and Sour Patch Kids, brands that want exposure to a loyal audience who follow Russett and trust her recommendations. However, according to Gonima, it’s Russett who has the final say in how she’ll talk about them. “Behind the scenes, there are people fighting on behalf of the influencers,” she says. “A lot of time, they’re not going to say or do exactly what brands might want them to because, ultimately, the influencer has more power than the brands.”
But what about influencers faking sponsorship for status reasons or the whole Fyre Festival debaclewhen Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid didn’t disclose that their posts were sponsored and sold their followers on an epic fiasco? According to Gonima, as long as influencer advertising laws are followed, social media audiences can be trusted to know when someone is being inauthentic just as much as television audiences can.
“A lot of time, they’re not going to say or do exactly what brands might want them to because, ultimately, the influencer has more power than the brands.”
“There’s the side where the follower knows they’re being sold to, but they don’t care because they want to live that flawless skin life,” she says. “That’s just like commercials, like a CoverGirl ad. Then there’s the other side where the influencer is like ‘Hey, I’m a person like you. You’ve been with me for a while now — come with me while Discovery Channel pays for me to go around the world for a week!’ It’s a tone and trust that’s built over years.”
Influencer marketing is predicated on a one-on-one relationship that’s continuously evolving over time and intuited by viewers. It relies on something that looks more like the ups-and-downs of a friendship than a condensed storytelling experience. So, even though the halo lighting might conspicuously accent the considered, jaunty placement of a background pillow and the influencer’s intensely on-point hair, the aspirational aesthetics framing what a YouTuber chooses to show the public don’t just immediately erase the authentic feelings and trust the viewer has developed for the influencer and his or her world.
Authenticity in influencer marketing is measured by a completely different metric than something like the UGC-heavy Red Lobster commercial, but, as strategies, both UGC and influencer marketing have evolved into effective tools for evoking the more refined emotions of today’s reality-savvy viewers. The goalposts for what constitutes authenticity to any given audience are continually shifting, keeping the industry on its toes.
“To be honest, I really do hate the word authenticity,” admits Goodin. “We haven’t been successful in finding an alternative word ourselves.”
“Transparency?” I offer.
“I thought about that too,” she says. “And then I was, like, ‘Ah, I don’t know.’ Maybe we just need to make up the word. I need to make up a new buzzword.”
“Like imagineering,” I say.
“Exactly,” she says. “Why not? Why can’t we?”