One of the more viral news items from last week was a new ad featuring Kendall Jenner. The ad itself didn’t go viral so much as the negative reactions to it. I won’t rehash all the ways the ad came across as tone deaf, but suffice it to say that it very much missed the mark. Many of the specific issues in the ad boil down to a lack of authenticity.
People connect with other people. They might like ideas and concepts, but the connections they feel that are at the root of any fandom are based on people. Maybe those fans are somewhat removed from people they’re connecting with (as in the case of celebrities they might see on TV) or they might even be entirely fictional (in the case of characters like Harry Potter and Spider-Man) but they’re still making a connection. And the challenge that many corporate brands face, as I’ve discussed before, is in making themselves more person-like often through a mascot of some soert.
The key with that is making sure the mascot ties together with the personality you’re trying to establish for the brand. There’s where authenticity comes in. Bringing in a comedian or comic actor like, say, Bill Murray to promote a serious business like a law firm leads to a disconnect with the audience. Murray is known for almost never being serious, and setting him up to sell legal services in a serious manner comes across as forced and unnatural.
In Pepsi’s case here, they tried to get viewers to connect with Jenner and a crowd of protesters who were protesting nothing in particular. People protest because they want to change something, whether that’s police brutality or income inequality or whatever, they have a message they’re trying to amplify. There was no message from these ostensible protesters, though, and they all therefore seem like just window dressing. Hollow. Inauthentic. Likewise, even Jenner herself has never really been associated with anything outside of the vapid ends of fashion and reality television. As such, she doesn’t have any sense of authenticity when it comes to social justice or change.
People are so saturated these days with ads and commercials that they’ve learned to understand the language of marketing very well. Their bullshit detectors are finely honed any more. And in a world where they feel (rightly) that more and more deference is given to corporations, they are seeking (often consciously) more and more authenticity. That’s partially why sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have taken off; they provide a way for creators to develop their ideas, produce them more authentically, and sell them directly to people without a lot of businessmen and marketers getting in the way.
Large corporations and brands can still send their messages out to fans, but doing so in a way that feels at all forced or contrived will immediately set off alarm bells. And when they start trying to co-opt movements they’ve clearly stayed away from like Black Lives Matter and the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Flint water crisis—movements that are not just important but are literally about life and death issues—that’s of course going to blow up in their face.
Fans want to connect people they feel are like them. They don’t want to connect with people who aren’t like them but are just putting on an act. The same thing holds true about companies and brands.