Interview: Andrew Potter and The Authenticity Hoax
Andrew’s new book, The Authenticity Hoax, is excellent. I interviewed Andrew recently, about the implications the issues discussed in his book have for a range of topics in Business Ethics.
Chris MacDonald: Your new book, The Authenticity Hoax, is about the way our pursuit of authenticity is in many ways the pursuit of a mirage, and you argue that the pursuit of it is ultimately not just futile, but destructive. You say that one element of that — or is it a result? — is a lack of faith in the market. Presumably that plays out, in part, in a perception that business quite generally is unethical, on some level. Is that one of the deleterious effects of the pursuit of authenticity?
Andrew Potter: According to the theory I offer in the book, the quest for the authentic is largely a reaction to four aspects of the modern world: secularism, liberalism, technology, and the market economy. And I think you’re right, that hostility towards the market is probably the most significant of these. Why is that? That’s a whole other book! Though I think something like the following is at work:
First, markets are inherently alienating, to the extent to which they replace more gregarious and social forms of interaction and mutual benefit (e.g. sharing or gift economies, barter, and so on) with a very impersonal form of exchange. The second point is that the market economy is profit driven. This bothers people for a number of reasons, the most salient of which is that it seems to place greed at the forefront of human relations. Additionally, the quest for “profit” is seen as fundamentally amoral, which is why — as you point out — the mere fact of running a business or working in the private sector is considered unethical. Finally, you can add all the concerns about sustainability and the environment that the market is believed to exacerbate.
The upshot is that we have a deep cultural aversion to buying things on the open market. We think we live in a consumer society, but we don’t. We live in an anti-consumer society, which is why we feel the need to “launder” our consumption through a moral filter. That, I think, is why so much authenticity-seeking takes the form of green- or socially conscious consumerism.
CM: Claims to authenticity are a standard marketing gimmick at this point. In The Authenticity Hoax, you argue that authenticity isn’t the same as truth. Authenticity has more to do with being true to some essence, some deeper self. It strikes me that that makes for some very slippery advertising, including lots of claims that can’t be backed up, but can’t be disproven either. Is authenticity the ultimate marketing gimmick that way?
AP: Absolutely. What advertising and politics have in common is that they are both “bullshit” in the philosophical sense of term (made popular by Harry Frankfurt). What characterizes bullshit is that it isn’t “false”, it is that it isn’t even in the truth-telling game. That is why I think Stephen Colbert was dead on when he coined the term “truthiness” to refer to political discourse — he essentially means that it is bullshit.
What is interesting is that authenticity has the same structure as bullshit, in the following way: from Rousseau to Oprah, the mark of the authentic is not that it reflects from objective truth in the world or fact of the matter. Rather, the authentic is that which is true to how I feel at a given moment, or how things seem to me. As long as the story I tell rings true, that’s authentic.
And that fits in well with advertising, since advertising is all about telling a story. Everyone knows that most advertising is bullshit — for example, that drinking Gatorade won’t make you play like Jordan, or that buying a fancy car won’t make you suddenly appealing to hot women. But what a good brand does is deliver a consistent set of values, a promise or story of some sort, which fits with the idealized narrative of our lives, the story that seems true to us. That is why branding is the quintessential art form in the age of authenticity. Bullshit in, authenticity out!
CM: There’s an irony, of course, in the fact that so many companies are making claims to authenticity in their advertising and PR, since for most people the very term “PR” implies a kind of spin that is the exact opposite of authenticity. But that apparent irony echoes a theme from your previous book, The Rebel Sell (a.k.a. Nation of Rebels), doesn’t it? In that book, you (and co-author Joe Heath) argued that all supposedly counter-cultural movements and themes — things like skateboarding, hip-hop, environmentalism, and now add authenticity — are bound to be co-opted by marketers as soon as those ideas have gathered enough cultural salience. Is that part of what dooms the individual consumer’s pursuit of authenticity?
AP: Yes, that’s exactly right. Chapter four of my book (“Conspicuous Authenticity”) is a deliberate attempt to push the argument from the Rebel Sell ahead a bit, to treat “authenticity” as the successor value (and status good) to “cool”.
We have to be a bit careful though about using the term “co-optation”, because it isn’t clear who is co-opting whom. Both cool-hunting and authenticity-seeking are driven not by marketers but by consumer demand, in particular by the desire for status or distinction. And in both cases, the very act of marketing something as “cool” or as “authentic” undermines its credibility. Authenticity is like charisma — if you have to say you have it, you don’t.
That doesn’t mean marketers can’t exploit the public’s desire for the authentic, but it does mean they have to be careful about the pitch they employ; it can’t be too self-conscious. We all know that “authentic Chinese food” just means chicken balls and chow mein, which is why I actually think that things that are explicitly marketed as “authentic” are mostly harmless. It’s when you when you come across words like “sustainable”, or “organic,” or “local” or “artisanal”, you know you’re in the realm of the truly status-conscious authentic.
CM: I’ve got a special interest in ‘greenwashing.’ It occurs to me now that accusations of greenwashing have something to do with authenticity. When a company engages in greenwashing, they’re typically not lying — they’re not claiming to have done something they haven’t done. They’re telling the truth about something ‘green’ they’ve done, but they’re using that truth to hide some larger truth about dismal environmental performance. When companies greenwash, they’re using the truth to cover up their authentic selves, if you will. Do you think the public is particularly disposed to punish what we might think of as ‘crimes against authenticity?’
AP: I’m not sure. It is certainly true that in extreme cases of corporate bad faith the public reacts badly. The case of BP is a good example; as many people have pointed out, its “Beyond Petroleum” mantra is a very tarnished brand right now, and it is doubtful they’ll be able to renew its polish.
But at the same time, I don’t see any great evidence that the public as a whole is disposed to punish companies for greenwashing. Actually, I think the exact opposite is the case: I think the public is very much disposed towards buying into the weakest of greenwash campaigns. The reason, I think, goes back to the point I made earlier about most of us being fairly ashamed of living in a consumer society. Yet at the same time we like buying stuff, especially stuff that makes us feel good about ourselves and morally virtuous. Even the most half-witted greenwashing campaign is often enough for consumers to give themselves “permission” to buy something they really want.
CM: Let’s talk about a couple of product categories for which claims to authenticity are frequently made.
First, food. You argue that much of the current fascination with organic food, locally-grown food, etc., is best understood as the result of status-seeking. So the idea is basically that food elites start out looking down on everyone who doesn’t eat organic. But then as soon as organic becomes relatively wide-spread, suddenly eating organic doesn’t make you special, and so the food elite has to switch to eating local, or eating raw, or whatever else to separate themselves from the masses. And I find that analysis pretty compelling, myself. But a lot of devotees of organic and local foods are going to reject that analysis, and object that they, at least, are eating organic or local or whatever for the right reasons, not for the kind of status-seeking reasons you suggest. And surely some of them are sincere and are introspecting accurately. Does your analysis allow for that possibility?
AP: Sure. The key point is that these aren’t exclusive motivations. In fact, they can often work in lockstep: You feel virtuous eating organic, but you also want to feel more virtuous than your neighbour (moral one-upmanship is still one-upmanship, after all). And so you try to out-do her by switching to a local diet. And when she matches you and goes local too, you ratchet up the stakes by moving more of your consumption to artisanal goods (e.g. small-batch olive oil, handmade axes, self-butchered swine, and so-on).
And this would be a good thing if there were any evidence that these moves actually had the social and environmental benefits that their proponents claim for them. But unfortunately, the evidence is – at best – mixed; the more likely truth is that the one-upmanship angle has completely crowded out the moral calculations.
The more general point is that we need to stop assuming that something that gives us pleasure, or feeds our spiritual needs, will also be morally praiseworthy and environmentally beneficial. That assumption is one of the most tenacious aspects of the authenticity hoax, and it is one that we have no reason to make. There are good and bad practices at the local level, and artisanal consumption has its costs and benefits. Same thing for conventional food production — there are good things and bad things about it. It would be nice if the categories of good versus bad mapped cleanly on to the categories of local versus industrial, but they simply don’t. The belief that they do is nothing more than wishful thinking.
CM: What about alternative therapies? Much of the draw of those products — and at least some of their marketing — seems to revolve around authenticity. People who are attracted to alternative products seem to want to reject modern medicine, which they find alienating, in favour of what they perceive as something more authentic. Now most critics of alternative therapies such as homeopathy primarily object that there just isn’t good evidence that those therapies actually work. But your own analysis provides a further kind of criticism, rooted in the way that those who seek ‘authenticity’ via alternative medicine are engaged in what is more generally an unhealthy rejection of modernity. Is that right?
AP: There is a lot to dislike about modernity, and my argument is not that we should just suck it all up and live with it. My point is rather that modernity is about tradeoffs, and that we need to accept that for the most part, the tradeoffs have been worth making. Yes, some things of value have been lost, but on the whole I think it’s been worth it.
But if there is one part of the pre-modern world that is well lost, it’s the absence of evidence-based medicine. Yet for some bizarre reason, the longer we live and the healthier we get, the more people become convinced that we are poisoning ourselves, and that modern medicine is not the solution to our woes, but part of the cause.
The turn away from the benefits of modern medicine is one of the most disturbing and pernicious aspects of the authenticity hoax. My book has been interpreted by many as an attack on “the left”, but it perplexes me that things like naturopathy, anti-vaccination campaigns, and belief in the health benefits of raw milk are considered “left wing” or “progressive” ideals. As far as I’m concerned, this is part of a highly reactionary political agenda that rejects many of the most unimpeachable benefits of the modern world. We know that naturopathy and homeopathy is a fraud; we know that vaccines don’t cause autism and that public vaccination is the one of the greatest public health initiatives ever; we know that pasteurization has saved countless lives over the years.