Even Fake Reality Has Rules

The first time the young woman said it, it barely registered. Then she said it again and several others in the focus group agreed, so one would have to be either nodding off or deep into the bowl of M&M’s to miss it.
We had asked the group to discuss what makes for a good e-commerce Web site experience and showed them examples from actual sites to stimulate discussion. The woman said something on one of the sites “looked like advertising” — and she clearly didn’t like it.
Her comment sparked discussion and the quick consensus was that what she had pointed to did indeed look like advertising — and that the others in the group didn’t like it, either.
This left us puzzled, because what she’d pointed at wasn’t “advertising.” At least, not in the usual sense. It was a brief video product presentation that seemed somewhat better produced than the other parts of the site, perhaps a little more slick in its look and feel, but not notably so. And not to get overly meta here, but the point could be made that the entire site was “advertising,” so why pick on this video?

Discussing it later, we concluded that the group had no quarrels with advertisements, either in concept or on a Web site. Clearly, advertising wasn’t really the issue. What they seemed to be trying to tell us is that there are things they expect to see and things they don’t expect to see when shopping at a given site, depending on their perception of the brand. When they encounter things they didn’t expect, it obstructs the experience.

In this case, it seemed that an uneven visual presentation undermined the authenticity of the brand experience.

The incident got me thinking how easy it is to fall into the dark pit of literalness when it comes to authenticity. Down there, things must be either real or fake. This obscures the possibility that fake can be real if the consumer wants it to be, which is often the case. If you need an example of this phenomenon, tune in to any reality TV show. A condition of this transmutation, however, is context.

Even fake reality has rules, one of which says it must be consistent in its look and feel, as well as tone and narrative. Like a good play, it must command audience participation with a presentation that is strong enough to cause the audience to willingly suspend disbelief. When the context is broken, such as by inconsistent narrative or visuals, consumer engagement suffers. This is what our focus group was trying to tell us.

Consumers approach any visual medium with defined expectations regarding what they expect to see. Meet these expectations and, no matter how promotional the messages, the consumer is inclined to accept its contextual authenticity.

It’s this trait that allows consumers to accept even overt brand placement in movies and television programs without a peep of complaint. It also explains why most feel fine seeing brands embedded in Facebook and YouTube, and why many welcome a stream of tweets from movie stars, TV personalities and celebrities promoting themselves and their projects.

I suspect that, in many cases when the viewer discovers creatively presented commercial messages for favorite brands within other content, it enhances the authenticity of both the content and the brand. The familiar brand narrative helps orient the viewer within the larger story and may even contribute unexpected meaning that supports the story.

Along these lines, I was struck by the final episodes of that amusing television show about advertising, Trust Me, which recently disappeared after a short stint on cable. Somewhere into the season, the actors playing creatives in the show began creating ads for products that were also featured in the very real spots run during the commercial breaks.