Authenticity

I bought a couple of cans of Sapporo beer. I haven’t had Sapporo for a while and thought I’d try it out. It said on the can that it was ‘imported’. When I got home I saw that it was brewed in Vietnam. It was Sapporo brand beer and it was ‘imported’, but it wasn’t the original Sapporo beer from Japan.

The beer tasted okay, but it wasn’t as nice as the Japanese Sapporo that I remembered.

We live in a world of branding, re-branding, copies, digital reproduction, outsourcing, licensing, marketing ‘experiences’, and simulation.

Back to the beer topic. I’m a fan of good beer, especially a decent pilsner. Becks beer is a decent mainstream German beer. Becks used to be marketed on the basis that it was brewed in Bremen, Germany and exported around the world. If you buy Becks in the UK, it’s brewed in the UK. It doesn’t taste like German Becks. British Becks isn’t a particularly great beer in my opinion. British drinkers might like it, because it tastes like any other nondescript, mass-market British-style lager. On the packaging it says ‘German brewing heritage’.

What does ‘heritage’ mean? The short answer is, not much.

YouTube is full of people building personal brands. The language of ‘personal brand’ is a overused business-cliché, but that’s fine. The problem comes when you try to work out the real experiences from the product placement, the affiliate linker, and the product ambassador. As with old school television, the audience only gets to see half the picture, most of the time we don’t get to look back at the camera and production crew behind it.

It’s tricky working out who’s sharing a genuine personal experience and who’s just there to sell something. Can they be the same thing?

Content and marketing have become so intertwined. It’s been going on for a decade or so. Content marketing came about as a way to make advertising feel more relevant to consumers, linking products to ‘experiences’, causes and issues.

Red Bull’s sponsorship / content marketing of Felix Baumgartner’s 2012 jump from space to Earth is often cited as a classic example of content marketing. Red Bull is an energy drink that’s marketed by associating the energy drink with sports and daring physical adventure. Back in 2012 content marketing seemed quite fresh, but in 2021 it feels like an old fashioned advertorial, or a Marlboro advert from the 1970s that uses an image of a cowboy travelling through a landscape to sell cigarettes. (The figure in the wild landscape is a Romantic concept that dates back to Casper David Friedrich.)

The jump from space, the Camel cigarette man loading a canoe, or the Marlboro man riding a horse through the wilderness, they all suggest rugged individualism, freedom — man Vs nature.

Coke-Cola was famously marketed as ‘the real thing’. On one level, a bottle of Coke-Cola is real because only a bottle of Coke-Cola can be a real bottle of Coke-Cola. What else is real about it? It’s marketing magic, that’s for sure. It also alludes to the fact that Coke was created in 1863 and it’s the original cola drink. Drinking a Coke-Cola is the ‘real’ experience because it’s not a rival cola created using a non-original formula.

Can Tesco cola be the ‘real thing’? How much can something be changed until it becomes something else? The ship of Theseus is a philosophical thought experiment. If every part of a ship is replaced with an identical component is it the same ship, or a new ship? At what point does one thing become another object?

There’s a whole area of philosophical debate about simulations and copies. Can an exact simulation of something effectively be the same thing? The art world had this debate with Walter Benjamin’s text The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Andy Warhol. Can real art be created using found images and a commercial screen-printing process? Apparently, yes it can.

Before the Industrial Age everything was more-or-less bespoke, unique and distinctive. Marketing was invented during the industrial revolution to make mass-produced products, that all looked identical, have a unique quality.

Apple products and BMWs are marketed as luxury items, as works of virtual art, designed to possess sculptural lines, even though they’re mass-produced industrial objects. The simulation of luxury in contemporary product design was brilliantly covered by Deyan Sudjic in his book The Language of Things.

Thorstein Veblen (who coined the terms conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure) wrote in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) that, the things people do and own are really about showing off to others to assert their social status.

A Sapporo beer is a not just a nice beer, it’s a semiological signalling beacon.

Every action and every object is sending out semiological messages. Every ‘B’ grade celebrity who’s embracing a cause or an issue, is engaging in ‘virtue signalling’, communicating their moral status and ethical values to the world. There’s nothing particularly new about this. Powerful, wealthy, and often very brutal, aristocrats in the Middle Ages were desperate to portray themselves as pious people.

Writers are often advised to be authentic, to create authentic characters. What is an authentic writer? No one sets out to be fake. People do things for reasons that seem authentic to them. An authentic character is much easier to define, it’s a believable character. An authentic story is one that rings true and feels realistic. Science fiction often explores themes of authenticity by using virtual worlds, cloned people, and synthetic humans.

Sometimes it can be tricky working out if a person is acting in an authentic or inauthentic way. People deliberately try to convince others (and themselves) of their authenticity. Cultivating authenticity is a way of generating influence. Politicians try to appear authentic to generate trust and authority.

The ultimate authenticity is about being true to the values that we care about, and being confident enough to express those values. And yet we’re creatures of self-deception. Human behaviour is intermeshed with self-aggrandisement and bullshit. It takes skilful observation and self-reflection to sort the bullshit from the truth. As François de La Rochefoucauld observed in 1665 in Réflexions ou Sentences et Maximes Morales:

Our virtues are usually only vices in disguise.