The Digital Day dilemma: Are we all liars now?

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By Andrew Girdwood, Digital Strategist, The Union

I’m convinced we marketers are all, thankfully, liars, and the Marketing Society cemented that opinion in Glasgow earlier this month.

A highlight of my marketing calendar is Digital Day, which is a Marketing Society Scotland success and export to the rest of the UK. One early train from Edinburgh to Glasgow and then a taxi from the station to the giant wall of illusions, the Science Centre’s IMAX screen, was all it took to get team Union’s delegates to this year’s event.

Yes, it’s called Digital Day, and yes, it was all videoed, but since business travel appears to be possible again, the chance to go to an in-person event and hobnob with fellow marketers was too good to ignore.

Here’s my takeaway; it’s all lies.

It might be for the best that we’re all liars now. That’s a strange claim, so let me unpack that for you.

Mid-way through Digital Day, I was being lied to. I was in a breakout session about targeting and attention, two vitally important topics for anyone from marcoms land. We had three AI companies talk to us about targeting, and that’s a telling stat, too.

One AI company was confident its technology faked the human brain well enough to look at fake ad placements and determine where and whether people would look at them.

One AI company faked digital product placement, inserting brands and logos into popular streaming shows, and planned to open their technology up to a self-serve market.

The other AI company faked whole people, digital doubles, that could stand in for celebrities too busy to attend filming days, make your actor speak in Chinese with clever matching lip sync or grab a likeness of someone from history for your documentary.

These cutting-edge doppelgangers all made the same claim; authenticity was essential to them, and two said it was a core principle.

I don’t buy it, and I don’t think you can run a service about faking things while claiming authenticity. At least, only if you change your definition of what authentic means. I would define a digital doppelganger as a lie.

I would buy the tech, however. It’s pretty cool! I’d happily have an ad featuring several digital cars, all of which look entirely real, drive through the picturesque Alps than the costs of shipping actual cars there and pick up the carbon karma to boot.

These interesting claims to authenticity were not limited to AI companies, however. While we sat in front of the stage, comfortable in our rows of seats before the towering screen, we learned about a multi-million dollar deal between a colossal computer games franchise and an international brand. That was authentic, they said. We learned how one dating app cleverly filmed an ad so that local dialect and market tweaks could swap in as the voice-over and how a payment provider worked with international influencers to stay fashionable. All this activity was authentic, too, according to the presentations.

None of it was authentic, according to yours truly, who argues it was all planned, arranged and then produced with marketing precision.

The phrase “The camera never lies” is now a lie. When you take a picture with your smartphone, it’ll automatically process through hardware and software adjustments.

Today, the camera lies. It’s never been the case that any ad campaign was terribly authentic.

Does it matter?

Authenticity matters because people, our customers, demand it. That’s why every brand at Digital Day, and every supplier, went out of their way to insist their crafted digital illusions were all authentic.

I will argue that people care more about what brands say than the technology or deals they strike to say it.

A January survey from Sensu Insight noted that less than a quarter (23%) of Brits believed the Environmental, Society and Governance (ESG) made by businesses.

The same percentage of employees said their business had been accused of greenwashing, while more than half of consumers said they would change how they engaged with companies they thought were doing it. The most common response? People planned to spend less on the greenwashing business.

I’ll pause here to note that Scottish marketers know this. Digital Day had a sombre presentation from the strategist Paddy Loughman who spent two years UNFCCC High Level Champions for Climate Action and spelt out the planet’s bleak future unless we turn things around.

It’s not just greenwashing. Last year, Statista wrote up an American survey which suggested that most people thought companies only released Pride Month statements for publicity.

However, there were some interesting exceptions. Gen Z only slightly thought business support for Pride Month was for PR. The next most willing-to-believe group? LGBTQ+ respondents.

Ask yourself, are US consumers more or less cynical than your customers? And yes, Digital Day knew this too – we had a presentation from Bumble, where women make the first move, who included lesbian relationships in their adverts.

Also, last year Stackla (now known as Nosto), the e-commerce solution, had a survey that confirmed 88% of people said that authenticity is important when picking brands to support and 83% of wanted shoppers wanted ‘more authentic shopping experiences’.

It does not matter

I’ve talked about needing to change your definition of authentic before some of these claims can be credibly considered authentic, and Merriam Webster gives us several different starting points.

Authentic could mean ‘not false or imitation’.

Authentic can also be ‘true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character’.

There’s also authenticity in the sense of ‘made or done the same way as the original’.

I’ve called this piece “The Digital Day dilemma” because if your brand has made considerable improvements in representation, diversity, and sustainability, that’s excellent news. Progress is better than being authentic and maintaining or recreating the original, less-than-ideal way of doing things.

It doesn’t matter that you’re not being authentic; it matters that you’re making the world less bad.

At a Marketing Society event more recently, again in Glasgow, this time at Trendspotting – Strategy, we heard from Rob Mathie, the founder of the ‘activist agency’ On the One. Mathie took us through a Smirnoff “Labels are for Bottles” case study, one that’s a few years old but still welcome.

It won’t surprise you to know that we heard how agencies helped by making changes, actively injecting more diversity into the campaign and that, once again the word “authentic” was used to describe the change away from the original and to something else.

Once again, marketers made the campaign better, fairer, and a better representation of people. I doubt anyone cares that the very act of changing something up, evolving it for current needs and using planned commercial partnerships can hardly be considered authentic.

Or, when Bumble told us at Digital Day how they make sure they can use different languages and scripts for one film, how they made sure to include same-sex partnerships or tailored experiences from France, where women want more traditional romance according to their stats, to Spain, where women want more voice, perhaps the brand was being authentic to their vision even if Bumble cleverly curated the output.

In conclusion

Lie, manipulate and abandon the authenticity of the past. Please.

If your brand guidelines frequently make running successful campaigns or avoiding outrage hard, then take the hint. Change the brand guidelines and perhaps even the vision behind it.

Embrace digital by using technology to be more sustainable, represent the world we live in more accurately and reduce costs.

You can do all this ethically. Artificial intelligence can and should be disclosed, and people must not be misled. Understand and consider how new tools and technology affect job security so that you can use them well, without backlash, and make incremental improvements.

What matters is that the brand and company behind it lives up to the promises made. Avoid greenwashing, pinkwashing, sportswashing or any form of washing, resist the urge to cash in on suffering with publicity stunts and stick to work you’re proud of.

If you’d like some help with improving your digital marketing capabilities, please do get in touch with myself and the team at Union Digital.