From an upcoming book – on the rise of the Millennial generation and what it means for society.
A glamorous gap-toothed model and her equally genetically-blessed sister announce they are turning their mutual talents from primping for the camera to becoming lifestyle gurus for young women – and the press treats it with all due “of-course-you-are” seriousness. A taut, toned, six-packed Insta-preened bikini model whose other talents include… looking really fit in a bikini becomes head of a multi-million-dollar fitness empire. Looking good in a swimsuit suddenly eclipses qualifications in physical and mental health, diet and nutrition – a hard body beats out hard-earned expertise.
The elasticity of the “look at me – aren’t I authentic?” claim doesn’t stop there. Merely being recognisable is added to the criteria, and the path to fitness and well-being czardom is quickly followed by those with gigs on weight loss, lifestyle and even foodie reality shows – plus a bevy of ex-soap stars. A disturbingly large proportion of young women now turn for advice on health, well-being, exercise, diet, and relationships to any one of the scions of the world’s most dysfunctional family. How have the likes of these become the gurus of an age, a generation’s icons of inspiration, and authorities on the life lived “authentically”?
What happened was
When the Millennial generation turned their backs on parents in favour of the peer group, they were limiting their own view on the world. It was one thing to embrace the camaraderie and social smarts of the clique, quite another to pass up adult insights gleaned from long life experience. Nowhere was this more sorely felt than in judgment of what is genuine and what’s not. Losing the parental model meant the loss of productive criteria for who and what to place faith in.
The vacuum was filled by authenticity – an anti-fake notion that soon became a generational mantra. What it actually meant and how it could be judged was fluid, and left to interpretation. It was enough that there was a generational standard, one that implied not just sound judgment but an added touch of moral ascendancy. Who wouldn’t want to endorse such a personal ideal, and use it as a guide to decision-making on all manner of things? It may have been ambiguous, but authenticity was an idea that was shiny and enticingly packaged.
The notion, once un-defined, was a sitting duck for appropriation and exploitation. And not just from those outside the generation. Gen Ys wanting to promote themselves for ego and gain saw the significance of the authenticity label and grabbed it, creating their own credentials – based on appearance and a lifestyle pitch, and aided by a complicit media. Hence, the explosion of the “influencer.”
Andrew Keen, a Silicon Valley digital insider, in The Cult of the Amateur warned of the escalating “law of digital Darwinism, the survival of the loudest and the most opinionated.” With Gen Y came the death of the expert at the hands of the pretender – unqualified in all but the pretence of authenticity, a concept increasingly debased, yet alive and well (in fact stronger than ever) and shifting shades like a chameleon.
Movable goal posts
From Forbes magazine – marketing platform MuseFind reports that 92% of consumers trust an influencer more than an advertisement or traditional celebrity endorsement. That’s on the back of $255 million currently spent on influencer marketing in the US every month. Meanwhile, McKinsey predicts the digital marketing share rising to 50% of the overall marketing budget by 2019. All of this has continued to cement authenticity as the fundamental Gen Y marketing ploy. But something so important requires credibility protection, and that means a regular moving of the goal posts.
Initially, popularity = trust was the formula, and follower numbers was the sole and certain authenticity marketing benchmark. But with numbers increasing exponentially and influencer marketing fees skyrocketing in line, there was a shift in thinking. Suddenly, popularity measured in follower numbers became an impediment and the authenticity mantle shifted to “micro-influencers.”
Forbes again – “More and more, brands are turning to people with far less (sic) numbers of followers—sometimes even as low as 8,000—to help share their messages. In return, a brand receives intangible benefits like authenticity, a unique point of view, deeper storytelling and the potential of reaching a more tailored audience.”
Prominent influencers were now being upstaged by the less prominent, to avoid a status that had suddenly become stigmatized. This move was followed by another development and yet another authenticity claimant, the merging of the influencer and brand into one entity – the influencer-brand – the ultimate in symbiotic marketing relationships.
These changes were aimed at keeping the authenticity golden goose fat and laying, but they encountered a numerical challenge. The greater the adulation, the steeper the rise in follower numbers, and the higher the demanded influencer fees. New influencer favourites faced the likelihood of a briefer time in the sun, then their own authenticity slip from grace. So the merry-go-round needed to be continually re-cranked – a point acknowledged (with no apparent irony) in the same article: “Brands and retailers will need to continue to find new ‘authentic’ and stealthy marketing channels.” The limits of elasticity in the authenticity label were seemingly endless.
Final corruption of the concept
Irrespective of variations in meaning, the concept of authenticity had always assumed a strong moral sense tied to distinction. In the troubled rise of Gen Y, this elitist element was discarded in favour of the populist. The egalitarian everyone has a right to their own opinion morphed into the erroneous everyone’s opinion is equally right. And, through the machinations of social media, that mutated into extremely popular people must be especially right. So the original concept was twisted out of recognition and became, in effect, a popularity contest amongst the already-popular.
With the emergence of social media image curation, and tools to glam-up-and-slim-down images, the concept has been even further tarnished, necessitating an epidemic of generational doublethink.
Millennials understand that the staged, designed, directed, confected and overwhelmingly manipulated lives of friends/influencers/celebs are fake. They know everyone’s digital self-promotion is fake. Not just inauthentic, but deliberately contrived in its fakery to appear effortlessly authentic. Yet this realisation is accompanied by depths of depression when their own fakery falls behind in contrived attractiveness, appeal, and overall fabulosity. (This is a generation conditioned to not merely tolerate paradox, but to wallow in it.)
What’s behind these generational mental and emotional contortions?
The faux formula for authenticity
The gap between an individual’s real life and its confected image on social media prompts a recognition of personal identity inauthenticity. (Made even more painful by the realisation that as highly edited and confected as their own social media feed is, it still falls short of the enviably glamorous poses, posturings, pursuits, and pastimes continually displayed on the feeds of others.)
The recurring sense of self-dissatisfaction drives a need to embrace image authenticity. This is a natural catch-up. The greater the personal recognition of inauthenticity, the more inescapable the confrontation with their own digital duplicity, the correspondingly greater is the need to trumpet authenticity in their life, via the brands, labels, experiences and lifestyle elements that they choose to use and signal.
They become hooked on a perpetual inauthenticity/authenticity psychical cycle. The need for superficial authenticity, however much confected, grows ever more insistent and desperate with every recognition of fakery in their image representation and in the digital projection of their life. Even if unwittingly, Gen Y was active in the creation of the authenticity fallacy at the heart of so much social-media-derived psychopathology. Does that make them also culpable in the ways authenticity is deliberately used as a basis of generational manipulation, by media and marketers?
What goes around
Given the latitude in the authenticity shell game, it’s unsurprising that marketers and advertisers sought to exploit it – both as a means of Millennial manipulation and a hand-on-heart expression of virtuous intent. They manage this in a variety of ways.
First of all, there’s playing to generational self-delusion. Millennials are the self-described ironic generation. Nothing, it’s claimed, can flummox their bullshit radar. This from a prominent Gen Y blogger – “While Gen Y might not always be able to tell you what ‘authentic’ is, they for sure put their finger on un-authentic — our generation’s BS Radar is as fine-tuned as any.”
How better, then, for a marketing industry to capitalise on this delusion than by reinforcing it? Consider some examples:
“We shoot a beam of content to the audience, and they take it apart like light through a prism. Millennials are super-deconstructive of any kind of media messaging.”
“Gen Y have been advertised to for their entire lives and have built up a defensive mechanism to protect them from lies and trickery.”
Whether or not marketers believe this is immaterial. The fact is the very message, by playing to Gen Y self-delusion, thereby makes it easier to penetrate defences.
Secondly, marketers align with Millennial authenticity “icons.” Some causes or figures will have more authenticity cred than others. Topicality helps here, as does perceived social virtue. Messages that align with these, aim to bask in the distracting glow of genuineness as their camouflaged sales pitch slips through.
Certain brands are experts in creating a fake problem in order to solve it authentically. A message concocts a perceived problem (am I as cool as I think?), then promises to remove the image-anxiety produced, via a brand or product guaranteed to provide an image-vindicating authentic coolness cachet.
And finally, the data giants who now dominate the advertising industry are not above exploiting personal vulnerabilities. It’s probable that the only valid authenticity in advertising now is the most potentially pernicious – the authenticity of Facebook’s and Google’s intimate understanding of the exploitable vulnerabilities of individuals, gleaned through the unprecedented levels of private information and emotional responses freely provided by their users.
Some experts have attempted to reinterpret this problem in a positive way, arguing that the data advantage is unsustainable. The Economist cites Microsoft researcher Glen Weyl. “The problem… is getting people to understand that their data has value and that they are due some compensation,” along with the writings of Jaron Lanier – author of Who Owns the Future? – in this paraphrase of a sentiment from his book, “as data becomes more valuable and the data economy grows in importance… those who generate the data [i.e. social media platform users] may baulk at an unequal exchange that sees them getting only free services.”
As desirable as these hopes are – and even allowing for the current bruising exposures of Facebook – the notion of a spontaneous uprising of “data-creator” solidarity is unlikely. In fact, Facebook’s still-unfolding turmoils will likely be to the organization’s benefit in the medium to long-term. The hand-wringing and mea culpas are deftly laying the blame for the “violation of trust” at the feet of a third party. It’s a piece of misdirection worthy of a magician, where majority blame falls on someone else for doing what Facebook’s business model requires it to do for the overwhelming majority of its own earnings – harnessing the personal information their users willingly serve up, then serving them up to whoever’s paying. Besides, the data giants are much better positioned and much more prepared to lose individual users than those users themselves will be prepared to give up their extensive participation in social media. How could the bulk of Gen Y deny themselves the full extent of inauthentic authenticity that makes up their confabulated social media image?
The expression (variously attributed) “if you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer, you’re the product” sums up the situation of Gen Y. As long as they continue to reject, resist or hide from this axiomatic truth, they will continue to package themselves as the product being sold, presenting themselves bundled, bound and ready for market.
Like many Millennial generation choices, the decision to stay loyal to the mantra of authenticity come-what-may, has led to dire unintended consequences. As the fake search for authenticity continues, and it will, the Gen Y instigators will increasingly be dupes, further corrupting the “authenticity” of the society they are inheriting – and the mental well-being of its new rulers.
Keen, Andrew, The Cult of the Amateur. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London, 2002.
Harris, Faye, “The Rise of the Micro-Influencer”, HuffPost, 12/6/2017.
Suhrawardi, Rebecca, “Digital Marketing Strategy and the Rise of the Micro-Influencer”, Forbes, 8/30/2016.
Weinswig, Deborah, “Influencers are The New Brands”, Forbes, 10/5/2016.
Lanier, Jaron, Who Owns the Future. Simon & Schuster; NY, 2014.
The Economist, “Data is the new oil”, reprinted in The Weekend Australian, May 6-7, 2017.
Brian Mitchell & Evan Mitchell, “Why Gen Y doesn’t always get Gen Y”, BizCatalyst360, July 2016.