By: Paul Ford for Slate, reviewing Sarah Banet-Weiser’s book, “Authentic™”
See, you might say that branding seeks to commodify authenticity, to use it to its own ends, to sell more soap—and use authenticity also to frame our thoughts. But you might also say that authenticity itself is an artifact of power. So people in the branding industry use the tools at hand—graphic design, large marketing budgets—to get access to that power. If you were a big old brand in yonder days you could do two things: (1) Advertise to the public; and (2) Use public relations to get to the press. Your bases were covered.
But now anyone can have an opinion in public, and any human being can pop up on a mailing list and tell 20,000 other people what it means to be real. If you’re not part of that reality—if your products contain gluten, or you occasionally use slave labor to pre-assemble your shelving units—you’re screwed. Which is why there are so many jobs for “social media managers” nowadays and so few jobs doing things that aren’t awful. You need to get out there because people, given half a chance, will get authentic on your ass. One dork can blow half a year’s PR budget with a viral tweet. Because authenticity.
The issue is not just that we live in a branded world and crave the authentic, but that the nature of the “authentic” has become as fluid and reactive as the world of advertising itself. The Authentocracy has the tools, especially but not exclusively with social media, to propose a counter-narrative in which the things they prefer are promoted, the things they despise rejected. Their reward for their efforts is authority, the authority to say what is real and what is not. The modern branding expert’s efforts are spent in an endless attempt to anticipate, to route around, to please, and co-opt—not the “authentic,” which is just a concept after all, but to enlist the Authentocrats themselves. Of course an authentocrat co-opted loses all ability to claim authority; their secret powers fade with the first junket. On and on: This endless loop, this ceaseless, pathological battle, is the great endeavor of modern branding. Within that loop, as Banet-Weiser correctly discerns, is where we live now.