How to Advertise With Authenticity (Or At Least Look Like You Are).


Right now, authenticity is one of the buzziest buzzwords in the business world. It’s generally taken to mean some nearly ineffable combination of transparency, realness, genuineness, legitimacy and honesty. Some people believe that a lack of authenticity did fatal damage to a recent presidential candidate’s shot at the White House (do not send me emails about this). And it’s a quality that the consumers most marketers consider most valuable – those born roughly between 1976 and 1996 – absolutely require in the brands they engage with.

Of course, I’m talking about millennials, those undeniably savvy consumers who’ve grown up with instant access to troves of online information about brands and products and with perfect awareness of themselves as a target market. They know marketers are always trying to sell things to them and they know that most of those things are not going to fundamentally change their lives or make the world a better place, so let’s not pretend that they are.

See, at the same time Millennial consumers crave authenticity, they categorically reject marketing messages that are deemed “too earnest”, perceiving that as a sign of either cluelessness or cynical duplicity (this is one place that Pepsi’s ill-conceived Kendall Jenner commercial went off the rails, but only one place, and enough has been said about that already).

So where does that leave a marketer who needs to demonstrate the authenticity, the legitimate realness of his or her brand without getting too earnest or serious about it? How, for example, do you create something as patently synthetic and deliberately mercantile as a TV commercial that doesn’t set off Millennials’ hyper-sensitive bullshit alarms?

This Looks Like A Job For Metamessaging

One way to do it is with a technique that I’m calling metamessaging. Forgive me for piling onto the “meta” bandwagon but in this case the term is apt. The prefix “meta” comes down to us from Greek through Latin and connotes beyond, above or transcending whatever term follows it. In literature, meta usually refers to something that refers back on itself or, more specifically, something that pokes fun at the conventions of a genre.

So, in advertising, metamessaging refers to ads that poke fun at the conventions of advertising as a way of demonstrating that we’re all on the same side of the table, here.

Since everything is artificial, let’s make the artifice apparent.

There’s a trend afoot in television commercials with the underlying message, “Look, you know we’re trying to sell something. We know you know that we’re trying to sell something and, finally, you know we know you know we’re trying to sell something. So let’s drop all pretense. We won’t even attempt to surreptitiously establish an emotional connection between our brand and you, the viewer. We’ll discard all those traditional, rhetorical tools like pathos, ethos, empathy, story arc, character, setting and all of that stuff.  After all, those techniques are innately untransparent and inauthentic.

“Instead, we’ll make a connection by admitting, in fact, demonstrating, that this is a commercial, and that we know you know it’s a commercial. See, we’re not stuffy, old conventional marketers. No! We’re all in on the gag together. Now, don’t you love us?”

It’s the advertising equivalent of actors “breaking the fourth wall”, stepping out of their hermetic onscreen or onstage environment to address the audience directly (Think of Frank Underwood’s asides and soliloquies in House of Cards and do not send me emails about Kevin Spacey).

Here are four commercials that illustrate the trend. They each use metamessaging in slightly different ways, but they each proclaim loudly and proudly, This Is A Television Commercial And We’d Be Sincerely Grateful If You’d Consider Buying Our Stuff. They’re all running currently, as I’m writing this.

AT&T “More”

AT&T Grab 2

The spokesman who’s standing too close to the camera thinks he’s standing too close to the camera.

Demographically diverse, attractive and sharply dressed spokespeople slowly fill the shot, one by one, each making a different sales point about the “moreness” of AT&T’s offering. They address the camera until, around 00:15, one guy drops the Transparency Bomb by blatantly referring to himself and his onscreen colleagues as spokespeople and promising you even more spokespeople to come.

The denouement comes from the last spokesperson who’s so close to the camera that he’s not even fully visible. “I think I’m too close,” he says, acknowledging the presence of the camera and the fact that he’s mostly out of frame. We are truly though the advertising looking-glass.

Sprite “Vince Staples/Random Teenagers”

Sprite Grab

You know this is a Sprite commercial. And we know you know it’s a Sprite commercial. So let’s just have a big sign that says Sprite Commercial.

This commercial, featuring rapper Vince Staples, comes out of the gate presenting its advertisement bona fides. In fact, you need a scorecard to check off its numerous meta references.

(1) The setting actually displays the words The Sprite Commercial on a giant sign.

(2) This is clearly directed at the 12 to 18-year-old demographic who drinks fructose-sweetened carbonated soft drinks, but just to make that abundantly clear, Vince greets another actor with, “Hello, random teenager.”

(3) As an actor begins his oh-so-familiar “guzzle shot”, to the accompaniment of some corny music, a huge wave of liquid washes over him, representing instant refreshment. But wait. This clichéd sequence is interrupted by Vince, setting up the closing product shot.

(4) “Make sure they see that logo”, Vince says. “Right there, into the camera.”

(5) Finally, Vince announces. “OK, the commercial’s over” as the scene cuts abruptly to blackness.

There’s no hidden agenda here, consumers. Not one bit. This is a Sprite commercial that’s all about Sprite commercials. Get it?

Xfinity xFi Wi-Fi “Dinnertime”

Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 3.18.42 PM

Hang on a second, voice guy. See, we all know that we’re living in an Xfinity commercial so there’s nothing odd about speaking to an off-camera man.

This commercial for cable provider Xfinity’s xFi Wi-Fi service starts out looking pretty conventional. We see warmly convivial families gathered around dinner tables through the ages as a voiceover describes dinnertime as a time for family connections. Around 00:15, we arrive in the current day and see a family at a dining table, “connecting” via digital devices and ignoring one another completely.

At this point, mom looks off camera and asks the disembodied announcer to stop talking, “One second, voice guy.” The announcer hears mom and obeys her request (very meta) and she uses her own smartphone to pause the family’s Wi-Fi signal, forcing the family to talk to one another in person.

In my unsolicited opinion, this is an excellent commercial. Metamessages aside, it presents a relevant, human benefit based on a unique product feature in an entertaining and engaging way. It’s also the only ad I can think of that pitches the ability to turn off the advertised product as an exciting and unique attribute.

Nationwide Insurance, “Peyton Manning/Brad Paisley/The Jingle Sessions”

Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 3.29.19 PM

Brad Paisley sings “What did I just get into”, to the tune of “Nationwide is on your side”. It’s meta piled upon meta.

I’ve saved the most meta for last. It’s not just a commercial that acknowledges it’s a commercial for a brand. It’s a commercial about the jingle for a brand. The “Nationwide Is On Your Side” jingle was introduced 48 years ago and it’s so ingrained in the American psyche that Nationwide and their ad agency, Ogilvy & Mather, believe all that’s required to drive home their brand’s message is to reference that famous, seven-note phrase.

In this ad, former quarterback Peyton Manning (who’s been in so many different commercials that he’s practically a metamessage unto himself) gives singer Brad Paisley helpful input on how to render the jingle, “in your heart”. There’s never a mention of anything about Nationwide, no attempt to differentiate the brand from dozens of competitors. It’s just a single, musical phrase, repeated over and over and over and wrapped in some amusing bro-banter.

Does Metamessaging Work? Insight From A Sample Of One, Certified Millennial

 As I was writing this, I had the opportunity to bounce the premise off a millennial friend (who’s not in the advertising or marketing business). The only one of these commercials she remembered seeing (they’re all running currently, as of mid-November, 2017) was the AT&T spot described at the beginning of this article. She’d only seen that one because it had run in the New England Patriots versus Atlanta Falcons football game the previous Sunday. And she only saw that because football games are the only conventional television programming she and her friends watch with any regularity.

She did have an opinion on the AT&T commercial. She liked it a lot. She described it as “Brash and nervy” because, “It pokes fun at the same thing I’d poke fun at. It’s preemptive fun poking. We’re all sharing the joke. It’s sassy.”

My friend gets it because AT&T gets it. The commercial worked for her precisely because it acknowledged, without the slightest trace of earnestness, that it was selling cellular service and pounding out more and more features with more and more self-acknowledged spokespeople.

But did it work as a persuasive message? Probably not exactly the way AT&T would hope. Here’s the rest of my friend’s review:

“Commercials may help with initial introductions, to see what’s out there in a broad sense (like browsing through a dating site and throwing out the dogs). But I always need some real, unscripted voices behind the things I buy. If I was looking for new cell service, I’d look at Reddit or other sites for reviews. Maybe ask some friends what sucks about their carriers. But even a cool commercial wouldn’t sell me. This specific commercial just didn’t annoy the crap out of me.”

So, metamessaging is one way to “not annoy the crap out of” our audience. I hope that isn’t the best that advertisers can hope for in the long-term. But it may have to do for now.




  1. I was OK with all this until I got to the part about advertising Sprite….if you have a good product, let people know about it and it will sell itself based on reputation and your on-air or print reminders that it’s out there for sale. If you don’t have a good product – and in fact have one that’s contributing to major health problems across all age groups – I’d go with something like “It’s your life – live it the way you want – be independent and a self-determined person”, rather like the Virginia Slims’ affiliation with the feminist movement in the 70s/80s …and then I’d shoot myself. The most instantaneous turnoff for me is celebrity spokespersons – the money must be very good for these people to prostitute themselves and ruin their on-screen presence at the same time. It’s hard to buy into the screenwork of an actor who’s been advertising God-knows-what every half hour on TV for weeks on end. Final comment for this first pass: authenticity is like creativity – you can’t fake it, no matter how hard you try or how many client dollars you waste trying to get around that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the great comment, Carson. I appreciate your interest as well as the variety of topics to be pondered.

      (1) On marketing “evil” products, like Sprite and Virginia Slims:

      Successful marketing requires two, distinct applications of “creativity”. One is creating a product that people will want to buy and the second is creating desire for a product. I have a number of colleagues that I hold in high esteem who share your views; they admire and endorse the first type but are diffident about the second. But they’re both necessary for success.

      A great product will fail without intelligent promotion, but even the most brilliant promotion won’t make a bad product a hit for every long. I disagree fundamentally with the idea that, if you’ve got a good product, you just need to let people know it’s there. That might have been true – and for me it’s a big, big might – in decades past, but not today. There are too many choices and it’s too easy to produce new, slightly different products now. Furthermore, consumers have a lot more information available to them and I think they’re lot smarter than they used to be. I’m not advocating outright lying. In the end, that will fail and suffering will ensue.

      But without establishing some form of an aura of specialness around a product, something that sets it apart from the competition in a way that’s emotionally resonant to a consumer, you’re not going to succeed for long.

      Besides, that second form of creativity, creating desire, is fun to do. It requires all sorts of insights and leaps of cognition. It requires really knowing how humans work and figuring out how to satisfy needs they can’t even articulate. It requires talent. And the result is that you make people happy (for a while).

      Each individual has to decide how to use his or her talents and not be forced to, as you say, “shoot yourself”. RIght now, I can say that I’d never apply my tools and talents to a political candidate of any party or to tobacco products. But I’ll admit that I’ve held these commitments for most of my career and yet have worked on both types of products in the past.

      (2) On celebrity spokespeople:

      I agree with you, mostly. I correspond regularly with a former Ogilvy & Mather colleague who I love but disagree with on just about every marketing-related topic, except this one. He recently said (I’m paraphrasing slightly), “I’ll let to Tiger Woods sell me golf equipment all day long but when it comes to cars, f__k him.” I’m not quite that vehemently bifurcated.

      The right spokesperson can be effective as a tactical element in a multi-layered campaign and it doesn’t always have to relate specifically to that celebrity’s particular area of expertise (Tiger Woods for golf clubs, for example). I think that Neil Patrick Harris’ commercials for Heineken are great and they’ve done a lot to revive that brand. To the best of my limited knowledge, NPH is not a beer expert and I don’t expect him to be. But he’s charming, funny, erudite and hip and the commercials he’s in are designed to take advantage of that. The commercials would be funny and maybe even effective if, instead of NPH, you had an unknown but skilled actor portraying a person who’s charming, funny, erudite and hip. But NPH is a quick, efficient way to get that same effect.

      You’d have to get to know an unknown actor in the role of spokesman for his charm, humor and hipness to begin to accrue to the beer. You’d have to see the commercial a few times or see several different executions of the campaign. But as soon as you see NPH, your brain goes, “It’s Barney from “How I Met Your Mother,” I mean it’s Neil Patrick Harris. He’s kind of cool.” In this case, far from being a waste of money, spending extra for a known actor makes the communication more efficient.

      Watch this:

      (3) You can’t fake authenticity.

      Sure you can.

      We all do it every day. Con men and politicians do it every minute of every day. Whether we’ll admit it or not, tactically donning masks and temporary personae is wired into us at the genetic level. It’s how we’re able to form bonds with our fellow humans and work together to create entire civilizations. We can’t make it through the day, interacting with other folks, without a thousand, tiny, tactical deceptions. It’s why people on the Asperger’s spectrum have difficulty integrating with the world, they don’t fake authenticity and they don’t get it when the other’s do. You might say they’re the only, truly authentic people.

      What saves our souls is that most of us (who aren’t sociopaths) can sustain the inauthenticity for long periods. And we don’t have to.

      Read these books:

      “Everybody Lies” by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz –

      “The Moral Animal” by Robert Wright –
      A note. This book is 20 years old. It was one of the first layman-oriented books published on the topic of evolutionary psychology and I think it’s still excellent, but it does not acknowledge the idea of epigenetics because we didn’t know diddly-poo about that two decades ago. I’m just telling you that so you can read it without going “Yeah, but…” every couple of hundred pages.


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