Adland’s authenticity crisis

So is there something about advertising culture that creates an instinct to behave in an inherently inauthentic way?

The latest example comes to us courtesy of Panasonic.  

As you may have read on Mumbrella, the brand is purporting to be carrying out a series of pranks on an unsuspecting “member of the public”. Via Facebook, the public is being invited to come up with ideas for future pranks to play on him.

Only we soon discovered, he’s not unsuspecting. He’s agreed to have the pranks played on him.

But, The Campaign Palace insisted, Rommy Gulla wasn’t an actor. Until, they conceded four days later, that he was in fact the actor Rom Gulla.

But, they insist, the pranks are genuine. He doesn’t know what they are until they occur.

Which looks odd to me.

Take the stunt on day one.

I’m not, you may be surprised to learn, medically qualified, but all the information I can find online suggests that if you filled a room full of helium, they would suffocate as a result of the oxygen having been forced out of the room.

Which leaves two choices. Either, a) the prankee might have died on day one, which would have been awkward; or b) he got the squeaky voice by inhaling helium from a balloon, and the claim that he’s being surprised by the pranks is a total lie.

The agency declines to directly answer our question, refusing to say any more than that it did not endanger Mr Gulla’s life.

Depressingly, it looks like the whole prank was bogus. I presume they made his voice squeaky through the magic of garage band, or possibly he simply used some helium from a balloon.

The thing is, if it had been presented merely as engtertaining online content, it might have worked. Obviously there would have been less interaction than the brand is seeking in asking the public to suggest pranks, but it would also have been more respectful to that audience.

Yet this inauthenticity currently seems to be the norm – at least from Australian ad agencies playing in social media.

Last month it was Mortein.

You may recall that the brand announced it was going to kill off Louie The Fly from the TV ads. From the off, it smacked of a stunt.

The speed with which the Euro RSCG TV ads hit the screen confirmed that they had been ready long before the so called spontaneous public uprising against Louie.


(Frankly, I suspect there’s  astroturfing going on too. We’ve been getting an awful lot of messages purporting to come from the public – who aren’t usually big readers of Mumbrella. Stylistically they’re similar, with many messages carrying a few words in capital letters in the middle of the message for emphasis. In every case an email address has been provided. In every case it’s a free email address and include a name and a numeral. Every one comes from a different, unregistered IP address.)

But instead of treating the public like seals ready to bark on cue, Mortein could have simply gone straight to a public vote without pretending to kill off Louie first. The outcome might still have been a foregone conclusion, but at least it would have been vaguely authentic.

Even McDonald’s hasn’t been immune.

Remember Playland which was shot documentary style? The original press release from DDB made no mention that the adults being surprised and delighted by the arrival of the giant playground at Sydney’s Customs House were also actors. Indeed, when I rang to ask about it at the time, the first response from the PR was that she thought they were real people, until she checked and called back to say they were actors.

Imagine the PR opportunities if they had been real people though.

I do understand that sometimes it’s about practicalities. Health and safety, for instance. And an agency will be so in love with its idea, it’s willing to water it down just to get it on screen. Even if it also means compromising on authenticity.

Indeed, it says a lot about the advertising industry’s culture that it’s still okay to vaguely mislead the public. Even if it goes against the spirit of social media, which is supposedly all about authenticity.

And it’s not without consequences. Remember Toyota’s social media disaster?

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Arguably, where it all went wrong for Toyota was when Saatchi & Saatchi gave up on it being a public film competition and encouraged their mates to enter. That was what led to a winner so convincingly like a real Toyota ad that it created global headlines.

It feels to me that there are many who grew up within ad agencies when the conversation with consumers was one way. So many of those social media mis-steps miss the vital element of treating their audience with respect. And that should mean not lying to them – even about little things that don’t seem to matter.

In the long term, being authentic will count. Right now, that seems a depressingly long time away though.

Tim Burrowes


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