Sorry Salman Khan: celebrity contagions are not as valuable in India as they are in the USA

Objective authenticity relates to authenticity derived from the claims about an object being verifiable, for example, a pink Kimberley diamond from Western Australia or the red sequinned shoes worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Objective authenticity is the most straightforward of authenticity claims; but is it the most reliable cross culturally? An interesting recent article in PLOS ONE by Nathanial Gjersoe, George Newman, Vladimi Chituc and Bruce Hood asks this question, exploring the dimensions of objective authenticity across two cultures. In so doing, they draw an interesting boundary between objective authenticity and constructive authenticity.

Their article “Individualism and the Extended Self: Cross-Cultural Differences in the Valuation of Authentic Objects”, studies the valuation of authenticity across cultures. Specifically whether the effect of value attached to unique person (like a celebrity) has the same value in India as it does in the United States.

The Take Aways
This study demonstrates that the perceived value of an authentic object differs across cultures. The researchers investigated the perceived value of objects that were authentic because if their age (such as a dinosaur bone)  as opposed to objects that were authentic because of a contagion effect (such as an work by a famous artist or an article of clothing worn by a celebrity).

Their hypothesis is that individualistic cultures will value objects associated with unique persons more than non-individualistic cultures will. However both cultures will equally value authenticity not related to persons.

Their hypothesis is borne out in the study, where respondents from India and the USA were asked about the value tof objects that were authentic due to their intrinsic attributes (such as rarity and age) against objects that are authentic due to their extrinsic value (such as the people they may be associated with).

What they found was that intrinsic authenticity appealed to both cultures equally. However, authenticity associated with unique persons was more meaningful amongst the Americans than amongst the Indians. The authors claim that this is because of the cultural difference between India and the USA: the USA is a culture that values the individual more than India does. Although this may indeed be the reason, I have a sense that there may be many reasons why the results of this study turned out the way they did. However, this post is not about what the researchers claim they found; it is about something they did not address at all that their findings demonstrated.

Objective (and Constructive) Authenticity
Although this article is interesting in its own right, its by-product demonstrates something very important about the difference between objective and constructive authenticity: namely the boundary between an intrinsic authentic characteristic and an extrinsic one.

Objective authenticity is something that belongs to an object. It can be confirmed or refuted by an external body. Constructive authenticity is about the authenticity, and value, placed on an object from outside the object itself (as it is constructed by the individual). The value of a celebrity connection with a product experience is such a great way to test this. As it turns out, which celebrity connection one makes–along with the concept of a celebrity connection altogether–can vary depending on one’s individual values. It also varies based on the communal values and beliefs in of a particular culture. The Indian respondents simply did not value celebrity connection to an object, even when the celebrity was someone who is held in high esteem in their culture.

Literature on authenticity in marketing and leadership focuses primarily on the generator: the marketer, the leader, the firm trying to communicate authentically. Few studies have focused on the receivers’ participation in what the producer is trying to convey. Authenticity, and the value that arises from it, is not just about what the producer is doing. It is about what the consumer is prepared to receive.

One of the best movie scenes that illustrates this  from the Australian movie Priscilla Queen of the Desert, about three drag  queens trekking to a gig in Alice Springs. In the scene, Felicia (played by Guy Pearce) shows Bernadette (Terrance Stamp) her most prized possession in the world, an authentic souvenir from her idol: Agnetha of Abba fame. An explanation of what it is, and how its authenticity was verified by Felicia, both mystifies and horrifies Bernadette.

When marketers are expending resources crafting authentic experiences, one question they can sometimes fail to ask themselves is whether this kind of authenticity has value and if so how much? Like brand equity or price elasticity, the value placed on authenticity is not absolute and should be tested.

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Millennials want (and don’t want) authenticity on Social Media

In the northern spring of this year, Linnaeus University Masters students Guia Tina Bertoncini and Maria Teresa Schmaltz published their study on the millennial generation and their perceptions on social media through various lenses.

The Take Aways
Called “What’s on your mind?”, the study included a survey  sample size of 264 people who claimed to be between the age of 18-31 in 2013, putting them solidly in the millennial generation. Ninety-nine percent of respondents indicated they had a prsence on Facebook. Respondents came from 85 universities in 37 countries. Although there were a variety of questions in this, here are the graphs relating to my favourites:

social-media-authenticity

A majority of the respondents indicated they felt that social media increases the chance to represent a distorted self-image to others. At the same time a majority of respondents indicate they represent “nothing but my authentic self” on social media.

A majority of respondents also indicated that they put both positive and negative aspects of of the “real me” forward to others (generally); which is interesting, as research has shown–especially on social media–that people tend to display more positive versions of themselves on social media, as this “positive bias” is what generates the most positive response from an online audience.

Although the survey sample and analysis is limited, it is interesting how the individuals in this survey perceive social media presences to be likely to be distorting for others, but not themselves.

The conclusion the authors come to is that “…it is questionable…whether millennials are aware that social media revolution is not only altering our minds by influencing our brains and behaviors but directly the way in which we young individuals develop our sense of self-esteem and identity (p.87).”

This is an issue not exclusive to the millennial generation; the experiences we have, and the expectations of others, do distort the way we see ourselves and others.

Existential and Constructive Authenticity
Whether the perception that we are more authentic than others can be attributed to the Actor-Observer effect or the Hawthorne Effect (or both); the fact is we change our behaviour when we are being watched. 

Constructive Authenticity is a dimension of authenticity that looks at authenticity in reference to the cultural context. On Facebook, there are expectations around appropriate behaviour. Acting in accordance with those rules is not inauthentic; in fact to act against those norms may be considered inauthentic (as though you were doing something to intentionally upset someone else). However, the argument that Bertoncini and Schmaltz seem to be making is that millennials are confusing their online personas with offline ones. Perhaps partly because people may be pressured to be as happy and gorgeous offline as they portray themselves to be in social media?

Existential Authenticity is a dimension of authenticity discussed in several posts on this blog. One aspect of existentialist philosophy is addressing the pressure we feel from others to be a certain way. Cultural programming is strong, and can create anxiety when our inner selves do not align with the outer selves we portray–and a main cause of that anxiety is the expectation of others. Certainly social media has become the root of much more anxiety than we have had in the past. Growing up with it, millennials have an almost inevitable draw to use social media, no matter how it makes them feel. 

This question around identity will inevitably spill out into what millennials perceive as authentic as well. Although marketers view every generation as a segment with their own specific attributes based on a variety of factors, perhaps it is time for marketers to attempt to quantify and analyse this type of “distortion” in regards to authenticity and the affect it has on the millennials’ perception of it.