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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How many TripAdvisor reviews are fake? And does it matter?

Full disclosure: I am not the first to write about this groundbreaking research in this blog post. The Economist beat me to it in their article  “TripAdvisor’s fake battle”. This article by Mayzlin, Dover & Chevalier and published on the Social Science Research Network in 2012 is called “Promotional Reviews: An Empirical Investigation of Online Review Manipulation”. As the title suggests, the focus of the paper is are customer reviews, specifically fake ones. They use an economist’s perspective to theorise who may profit the most from false positive and false negative reviews on travel sites. Then they test the theory using Expedia.com as a control group (as only those who book through Expedia can post reviews there) versus TripAdvisor as an experimental group (where anyone can post a review without evidence of ever having stayed at the accommodation). They do a whole bunch of other stuff to ensure their data is valid for comparison.

Before going to the take aways, there are two things to note. First, more research on inauthentic reviews have to do with what people say in their review. These authors pioneer a new way of looking at it, by looking at probabilities of reviews being fake by both the context of the review, reviewer and the object of the review. Second, this is the first study that uses a control and experimental group for reviews in this particular way. Third, these authors theorise about who is most likely to post fake reviews and then look at those specific profiles.

The Take Aways
This article really has to be read, because the reason the authors believe what they do, and then the way they go about testing their theory is really fantastic. I don’t like to gush, but this is Freakonomics territory. Some takeaways:

(1) The authors posit that accommodation providers most likely to post false reviews (positive on their site, negative on their adjacent competition’s site) are independently-owned or small operators (or both). Their study supports this.

(2) The authors posit that fake reviews are more likely to be either 1, 2 or 5 star. Fake reviews are more likely to come from single posters (reviewers with only one or two posts). The data bears out that this is likely to be the case.

(3) The authors posit there is more positive manipulation (fake good feedback about your own hotel) than negative manipulation (fake negative feedback about the competition in the neighborhood). The study bears this out.

(4) The authors propose that about five percent of reviews are fake for isolated small hotels. The authors propose if a hotel is not isolated, the number of fake reviews would climb to about 10 percent.

(5) Although there is more manipulation for positive reviews, the effect of a negative review on the average star rating of a hotel is more significant. Therefore, although there are less fake negative reviews, they carry a greater weight overall in affecting the hotels overall score.

(6) In their study, 23% of the TripAdvisor reviews would have been eligible to be considered fake. They were posted by one time reviewers and were on the extreme end of the spectrum.

The authors conclude that even though the proportion of reviews that can be considered fake is high, they are not attempting to prove that any one particular review is fake, and they do not believe that the proportion necessarily negatively affects the customer impressions on an open-ended system: “Our empirical results show that the hotels are essentially able to self-police so that while they engage in some manipulation, the amount is not big enough to overwhelm the informational value of the site.”

Objective Authenticity
This post focuses on Objective Authenticity. According to Wang (1999), Objective Authenticity is when something is what it claims to be. Whereas one of the sites studies uses a system where only those who book through the system can leave a review, the other is an open system, meaning anyone can post. All you need is an email.

Objective authenticity is really important for these site’s credibility. An open system is attractive because it casts the widest net for opinions; however it leaves the largest margin for duplicity.

Moreover, an averaging star rating based on reviews means that negative reviews (fake or authentic) weigh more significantly than positive ones. So those with an intent to punish n establishment, are more incentivised to generate a lower score.

TripAdvisor has mechanisms to attempt to weed out fakes. They have an internal system, as well as the ability for hotel operators to identify reviews that may by fake. However whether something is fake or not is left to TripAdvisor to adjudicate.

Sure, there is a bit of caveat emptor here. If one is using a site to make a buying decision, it would behove one to understand how the site works. However, presumably the credibility of the site, and the reviews on it, also something that grows and changes as the person uses, or doesn’t use the site.

However, if users of the site found that the reviews on the site did not mirror their experience in some way, it would not be as successful as it is. Existential Authenticity, is where someone’s experience is consistent with a product expectation, with enough variance to engender genuineness, develops when one’s experience is close enough to TripAdvisor for the user to decide it is a useful guide, without the expectation that their experience is exactly what TripAdvisor says.

Authenticity Matters

I couldn’t find an article with a better title to kick off this first blog post.

Authenticity Matters” is an essay published in the Annals of Tourism Research in 2006*. It was written in response to another excellent article published in the same journal.

This article is a bit heavy on the scholarly theory. As the goal of this blog is to be accessible to everyone, I will not belabour or restate the many points of this article here. Rather, I will focus on the main take-away form this article from my perspective.

Take-Away
This article reinforces the position of previous articles: namely that the definition of authenticity (specifically objective authenticity) is in flux. Some researchers are saying that  this is problematic and therefore the term should stop being used. If there is not unanimous consensus on the definition of a word, if it continues to be used then someone is always using it wrong. Plus they argue (based on reasons stemming from philosophy) that it probably is not a valid concept anyway.

“Authenticity Matters” is an essay written in response to the above position. Hang on, it says, we cannot agree on a meaning; however that does not mean we should stop using the term objective authenticity. On the contrary, the discussions that arise while contemplating the term has value. Why shut those discussions down? Plus, people in industry (firms, customers, marketers) all use that word. So not discussing it will stifle our opportunity to shape what the word means beyond the scholarly realm**.

Applying the idea to 360da
So there is value in the term “objective authenticity”, and there is value in being part of the discourse shaping the meaning of the word. Authenticity, like most words in any living language, is subject to change based on how the majority of speakers use it. I acknowledge that it is problematic. I also acknowledge that I like discussing how problematic it is with other people. I like thinking that I might win them over to my definition and then my definition becomes the main one. Or maybe they will win me over and I will learn something. I acknowledge this does not seem like the best was to “do” science. But that is kind of how science is done.

Objective Authenticity is a cornerstone of 360da as per Wang’s killer 1999 article. We just have to use it carefully. That means when you are using it, explain what you mean.

An illustrative anecdote
I watch the TV show Catfish. I partly watch it because I like the hosts, Nev and Max and their interaction with each other. I love Max’s cynicism and Nev’s idealism. I also watch it because I have been with my husband since 1995, and therefore never internet dated, much less social-media dated. I watch with horror and delight.

On Catfish, people write in and request that Nev and Max bring them together with someone they have been dating (usually for years) who they have never met in person. All dates are over  Facebook, texting, the phone and other non-video technologies. The person writing in is thinking that the person they are dating is not what they seem (although they  hope they are what they seem).

Usually what happens is that the person who is evasive about meeting is not objectively authentic (although they may be authentic in other ways). Someone who is says they are playboy playmate online turns out not to be one. Boys turn out to be girls and so on. The climax of Catfish is the unmasking. Are you who you say you are? 

Not being the person you claim to be in your photos and bio is a deal breaker (romantically) on the show even if every other aspect of your relationship is authentic. For me, that is what objective authenticity is. On Catfish, as in marketing, lying about who you are is a dealbreaker.

(Objective) authenticity matters.

* Belhassen, Y., & Caton, K. (2006). Authenticity Matters. Annals of Tourism Research, 33(3), 853-856.

** I do not use the term “in the real world”. Why I don’t use that term will be explained in a blog post to come.