Thursday, 13 November 2008

Authenticty and The Economy of Esteem

Authenticity was much talked about in marketing circles a couple of years ago. Specifically, in trying to reach a coveted and marketing-wary demographic like young adults you have to appear to be “authentic” in your approach. Your whatsit must “authentically” appeal to them as a spontaneous product of their own milieu and not as a calculated, outsider’s attempt at cynically leveraging their culture against them.

The tricky bit, of course, is that everybody knows that everything for sale is positioned and marketed rather cynically and that “authenticity” as a desirable component of marketing sort of undoes itself. Is this kind of paradoxical? If you design something, particularly a marketing campaign, to be authentic haven’t you automatically rendered it inauthentic? Well, sort of yes and sort of no.

A recent book on the subject apparently claims that “authenticity” is a matter of consumer perception. I take this to mean something like authenticity is the consumer’s perception of the intentions of those producing the item. Particularly the perception that the cynical desire to mimic the target culture for gain wasn’t the (or the primary) motivation in the dingus’s design, presentation, etc. Most marketed things simply aren’t and can’t be authentic in the strict or ideal sense of non-reflective products of their intended demographic’s culture. But they can be more or less successful at giving that impression, effectively hiding their cynical origins.

That seems pretty obvious. What interests me is why hiding cynical origins should matter. Why do we care about authenticity and what is it we’re upset about when faced with inauthenticity?

Too Cool for School

When we see somebody going a little too far in a social situation, trying their damnedest to be cool or funny or drop the right references, slang and posture, we say they’re “trying too hard.” Often this makes us uncomfortable, annoyed, sympathetic and sometimes even angry. Personally, I’m most annoyed by “studied eccentricity,” or over-articulated individuality and forced, awkward public displays of “creativity.” For example, the artsy hipster whose outfits are precisely counter-trend in just the right way and purely on principle. To me, these folks are trying too hard and it makes me uncomfortable. Why?

Well, this situation sort of has the structure of norm compliance from the last post (suggested by a recent article by Learry Gagné, although Jon Elster, Dov Cohen, Georffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit have hit on many of these ideas as well). Keeping it simple, compliers ideally fall into three categories: true believers, esteem seekers and cynics. The incentive to comply is largely based on esteem, belonging and the withholding of both. But the whole thing seems to be governed by what Pierre Bourdieu calls the principle of “disinterestedness” (but Jon Elster hits on a similar idea in his Sour Grapes) If it’s apparent that you’re cynically going after esteem, that you’re complying just so you’ll fit in and be thought well of, then you aren’t likely to get as much of it as if you appeared to be a true believer, that is complying out of commitment to the values invested in the norm.

There tend to be relatively few true believers, yet most people don’t comply cynically just to get esteem. But their compliance can be explained by esteem. Paradoxical? Not really. Esteem seekers don’t comply expressly to get it, but if esteem wasn’t available through compliance, they wouldn’t comply. The availability of esteem is what keeps them complying, but not in the cynical sense that it’s what they’re expressly seeking. Rather esteem is the affective incentive that stabilizes their behavior around a norm. This sets up what Philip Petitt, Geoffrey Brennan and others call the economy of esteem.

Pierre Bourdieu noted that what he called the economy of symbolic goods, effectively the economy of esteem, assumed a “taboo on making things explicit." In a nutshell, the whole economy of esteem crumbles if it’s exposed. That is, true believers as well as esteem seekers and cynics have an incentive to never bring up the pseudo-instrumental nature of the economy of esteem. Realizing, displaying or communicating that it’s an economy, a system for the distribution of some commodity, strikes at its own foundation, i.e. disinterestedness. Esteem is given in proportion to the apparent disinterestedness of compliance. If instrumental interests in compliance are made explicit, Bourdieu’s taboo, the whole thing crumbles and no esteem may be given or accumulated. And as with all taboos, transgression breeds discomfort and chagrin.

The people who try too hard, like the “studied eccentrics” from above, effectively make the whole thing obvious by clumsily attempting to make a bold move in the esteem game. By playing one strategy too obviously – telegraphing the “individuality” hand – they’ve made the whole thing explicit and indirectly transgressed against Bourdieu’s taboo. In effect their bad play reveals the man behind the curtain and it’s sort of annoying; they reveal their probable cynicism and implicate us as fellow players of a game, the playing of which demands that it be taken for reality. Something that presents itself as entirely values based is revealed as partly instrumental and relatively shallow. This is unsettling.

The Inauthentic

Inauthentic marketing, for example, annoys because its cynicism is too obvious. It tries too hard to gain from playing on the tropes, codes and symbols we all use to gain esteem and a sense of belonging or meaning. Basically, it nastily and clumsily caricatures the mechanisms by which we all construct cultural meaning in social situations. The whole economy is rendered explicit and this threatens and implicates us all in a self-wrought but necessary and largely uncynical deception.

So personal authenticity isn’t even “authentic” in the strict or ideal sense (whatever that might mean). Getting back on theme, what we perceive as “authentic” marketing or products don’t try too hard. That is, they never do anything to make the norms, styles and other plays within the cultural economy of esteem explicit. I take it that’s how cynically produced items can be “authentic”; they’re quietly keyed into the playing of the game, not the gaming of the game.

1 comment:

joyhoward said...

So sincerity doesn't matter at all. In fact, it can be a liabiliy, if it results in others perceiving that one is trying too hard. I supposed the best that a marketer could do then is to (as purely and with as little intervention as possible) exploit the completely unselfconsicious perspective. Which is ironically cultural poaching of the most cynical sort-- assuming one is sharp enough to do it.