Authenticity -- Whatever That Means -- Is Our Only Hope

Consumers Don't Care About the New Media-Old Media Battle

By Published on .

Jeff Welch Jeff Welch
If the U.S. were a client, any ad agency worth its salt would recommend a serious brand assessment. A recent New York Times poll found 81% of Americans believed "things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track." Sounds like a classic business problem to me.

Founding fathers start company (er, country) out of the back of a garage. Concept is brilliant in its simplicity --built on just a few key principles. Company grows slowly at first then has key innovation (say, the industrial age) that fuels major growth. Everyone who is part of it, loves it. Everyone who's not, wants to buy its goods. Company staves off a few big competitors (fascism? Soviet Union?) and gets really large and successful. So large and successful that in time, people look back and say "how did we get here?" And "what were those founding principles again?" When 81% of the people say America is headed in the wrong direction, we're a brand that just doesn't know who it is anymore.

The implications of this are already being felt in the advertising industry, because some people see us as part of the problem. And why wouldn't they? As everyone in the industry knows, the advertising business is typically a mirror of America.

So it's no surprise that the ad industry has also gotten really, really big. Nor is it a surprise that we churn out too much intrusive, meaningless crap to be free of culpability for the nation's malaise. And clients, who are just like everyone else, are dour too. Hence the questioning of ad-industry business models and the battle between the new school (media and interactive shops) and old school (the big idea, creative shops). We're an industry going through its own brand assessment, trying to figure out who in the heck we are these days.

Sadly, this either-or debate seems to be overlooking a rather large segment of consumers and how they view media. New media, old media -- to them, it's all the same and it keeps getting filled with more and more overcomplicated junk. They want a way out of their dour mood and the only thing that can cure it is authenticity. Whatever that means.

Defining it is an exercise in futility. But be assured authenticity is what a lot of people are craving. The ongoing Rocky Mountain migration over the last 20 years has been a direct result of people leaving their urban and suburban lives in search of some measure of authenticity. Whether it's greenery, smart growth, sustainability, alternative energy -- every trend that holds such prominence in mainstream life today has been mainstream in our little Third Coast towns for years.

If you're a brand who has these sorts of values at its core, I'd be spending a lot less time trying to decide whether the medium or the message is more important and spending a lot more time in David Brooks' Bobo enclaves. I'd spend a lot less time listening to coastal big shots talk about how they can reach your audience with the latest technology or the biggest green idea and a lot more time talking to insiders at the local coffee shop on Main Street.

The best brands (and countries) today have street cred -- some kind of soul rooted in something real and authentic. But cred doesn't come without a thorough understanding of the nuance of the true believer. Because whatever the field, true believers are the ones that define its authenticity. Take food. Where I live, organic is practically passé. Most people will tell you that eating local is much more important to them. A farmers market might do the trick. But not necessarily those charming summery numbers that come to mind. I went to one that was covert a few weeks ago. Held in the back of a few pickups on a 20-degree night in a dark parking lot. A "black market farmers market" if you will. It's on the down low because one of the farmers sells -- gasp -- unpasteurized milk. And can't keep it in stock.

Authentic? Yes. Obscure? Definitely. But don't write it off. It's already broken down one barrier on the way to mainstream. It too, was covered in the New York Times.

My point is that there are millions of consumers steadily gravitating towards these kinds of experiences and they are defining trends for many others. And there is no way the medium or the message can possibly make any kind of connection on its own without a deep understanding of what these people deem authentic. Of course the big fear of the ad industry is that maybe the medium and the message can't even do it together. Maybe, as people crave ever-more authentic experiences advertising itself is simply not capable of being authentic. I don't think so. People will always need help making choices. And they'll always gravitate towards compelling ideas. But I do know one thing. This drive towards authenticity is just getting started. If advertising is going to have a future in it, then both the medium AND the message are going to have to pass one helluva a sniff test. And that's a tall order. Because as 81% of Americans agree, there's a lot going on out there that stinks.

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Jeff Welch is the owner of Mercury Advertising in Bozeman, Montana.
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