Authenticity-washers hijacking social media?


How one workshop during London Social Media Week left half the room disgusted.

I learnt a harsh lesson when I spent a year in banking between my A-levels and university in the late 1990s: money could not buy me happiness. For other people, it does. But for me, the lesson was that beyond the basic essentials, there was only so far that the extra pound in my pocket could go towards a lifelong struggle for something that, because of my personal disposition in life, I’ll never achieve or realise. I had a full-time job but few activities outside of it – and in particular no one to share what felt like new-gotten riches. My first salary resulted in the mother of all spending sprees – piles of new clothes and CDs in particular. But what was the point of it all? The day before I left, the announcement was made that the office I worked at was going to be closed – everyone bar the top three senior managers were to lose their jobs, even though a new director had just come round the week before saying what a splendid job we were all doing & how we were all making a net profit-per-person for the corporation. Multinational corporations…too big to worry about the little people who are merely statistics in the grand scheme of things.

This was one of the reasons why I chose to go into the public sector. My values simply did not align with the values of mainstream profit-making businesses.

Your local friendly cuddly multinational corporation

My three years at university – or rather my three years in Brighton conditioned me to be disposed against multinational corporations. Given how I had seen at first hand how people had sand kicked in their faces – i.e. loss of job and livelihood – just before my move, what I found out about such organisations (one particular example being around the McLibel Trial) while volunteering in the Brighton Peace and Environment Centre only re-enforced what I already felt anyway. There were a number of groups, collectives and organisations I stumbled across – such as Corporate Watch, IndyMedia or Schnews that covered many of the stories that the mainstream media were missing – or choosing not to cover. It was also the time when Naomi Klein’s No Logo was a best seller too. Remember that this was all in the days before social media so you were still reliant on someone else to do the aggregating and filtering for you.


The BP sunflower? A classic case of a firm trying to show that it’s more environmentally friendly than it actually is. $1.6billion invested in alternative energy in 2011 vs $13billion in 2007, $18.6billion in 2008 and $14billion in 2009, $17billion in 2010 and $22billion in 2011 on oil & natural gas exploration and development costs? (It’s all here – though someone more familiar with these tables may want to check I’ve got the interpretation of the numbers right – from p36 ono).


It was in that workshop that the phrase ‘authenticity washing’ started screaming loudly. I’m not the first one to pick up on this either – as The age of authenticity washing shows. Whether it’s being trendy, cool and hip to being nice to the environment, treating your workforce with respect and trying to do good things ‘within the community’, authenticity-washing is all the rage. In an age where people are striking out to be different in an age of political and corporate blandness (ranging from our senior politicians to our buildings – the number of faceless featureless buildings going up in Cambridge is depressing), the last thing a big firm wants to be is identified with any of that. They would rather be seen to be at the ‘cutting edge’ (without realising that as soon as they get there, their sheer size blunts that very edge).

So how do you get that sought-after ‘authenticity’ for your brand and try and ensure that you’re not associated with all of the bad things that big brands have tarred on them? (But without changing the fundamental nature of being a multinational corporation trying to stomp out the competition). In your advertising for a start. That is one of the public faces of the brand. It’s not in the manufacturing – which has been outsourced to developing countries. It’s not in the selling – which is done either by franchise holders or large electronics or department stores (or online). It strikes me that the writers of this spoof article from The Onion back in the mid 1990s had no idea how close to the future they were getting to when writing it.

Yeah Poofles, but I want my brand to be “urban cool”, but I’m a grey suited man on a zillion bucks a week. I need to cut my costs too – these creatives aren’t cheap! Help me out here!

The depressing thing is that there is something out there that seems to do just that: I found it at this workshop. I’ll refrain from naming it [the whole thing made me that angry!] but it was at this workshop. Multinationals sign up, say “here’s a competition for you to design a new advert for us. The winner gets a cash prize and we get to keep all of the intellectual property from all of the entries that you have created!”

Anyone who knows anything about the creatives industry knows how competitive it is – it’s one of those industries where people trying to get into it have to do unpaid internship after unpaid internship in order to secure a post that pays the minimum wage. I know – my sister was one of them, spending nearly 2 years on them while being supported by my parents before finally securing a post. She’s not the only one. The situation is as such in part because firms are allowed to get away with this through lack of enforcement of minimum wage laws, and multinationals are allowed to get away with externalising the costs of hiring creatives onto…well…in many cases the parents of young people working in the industry. But fashion, journalism and even politics are not immune to this.

This is not fair

The worst aspect of this is that it hijacks social media language. This is not crowd-sourcing by any sense of the term. (In my book anyway). It is a standard procurement exercise but on a ‘prize-giving’ model rather than through commercial procurement. Procurement is not cheap for those that respond to tenders. At the expensive end of big industry, Richard Branson’s bid for the West Coast Main Line cost £14million to put together alone – money that he’s not going to get back. Perhaps he can afford it, but many out there cannot. They need to make a living. Responding to these ‘competitions’ is no way to make a living – especially as in the example I cited all of the intellectual property – i.e. work – is handed over to the corporation hosting the competition. They are using social and digital-media friendly language to hide what is really going on – externalising even more of the costs of coming up with new creative material onto the creatives who can ill-afford that burden.

But the creatives are responding, so what’s the problem?

Terms of trade. This entire day was about ‘business to business’ – which gives a feel of some sort of equality. Given the brands used as case studies, this was anything but. The big firms hold all of the cards. They just need enough people to respond (and by dangling what feels like a large carrot of a prize pot) and they are onto a winner. And they get to keep all of the intellectual property. Two of the key selling points in the seminar was that this was a significantly cheaper way for firms to get far more diverse content from more people, while the winner walks off with the prize.

While this may work for the big brands in the short term, it kills off the creative industries. Someone else has to pay them to make a living – whether it’s being supported by friends, family or whoever else. The costs of production – both of the advert and ultimately the overall costs of the firm – are externalised. This can either lead to nominally lower prices or greater profits – or both. Yet it is not good for markets in general because the costs of production are not being reflected in the prices. Hence you have an inefficiency.

But it’s perfectly legal, so what’s the problem?

It is, unless or until someone changes the law. One simple law change for ‘competitions’ such as this would be to tighten up on intellectual property laws saying that the creative content stays with the originator and that firms cannot make the free or transfer for a nominal price of the intellectual property rights a condition of entry. You pick your winner & buy the rights. You like what other entries have done? You buy the rights. Otherwise you are externalising the costs of your advertising out onto people and society. And for what? To make already stupendously wealthy multinational corporations even more richer than they already are?

At least I pay those talented people that produce my output.

This model disgusts me, it disgusted those around me and I hope it disgusts you too. There. Rant over.


3 thoughts on “Authenticity-washers hijacking social media?

  1. I respectfully disagree. Yes, it does suck that large corporations can get designs for next to nothing, but the source of the problem is that the design/creation industry is over saturated with people who see it as their dream job. There isn’t enough jobs out there for all of them so these competitions give someone with supreme talent a chance to rise above their peers and to be noticed. : /

  2. In effect Si seems to be arguing that because lots of people want this kind of job, the corporations who exploit them are just taking advantage of a supply/demand market tilted in their favour and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    But there is.

    I live with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe getting bigger and more expensive every year. What was originally meant to be a creative opportunity for people who wanted to do anything to show up in Edinburgh and do it, has turned into an expensive showcase for standup comedians who hope to be spotted and get their break into the big time.

    Competitions in my view are always something to be wary of. Especially if you’re paying an entry fee.

    Someone will always be making something out of the competition: that’s why they’re running it. Most of the entrants won’t get anything out of the competition: that’s the nature of contests. But the small print should be clear about what the entrant is losing. And in my view, when contest runners are demanding too much and offering too little (demanding full rights to the winning entry, if the prize is significant, may be considered a good deal: demanding full rights to all entries is outrageous).

    The only solution to sneaky attempts to take more than is fair, is doing what Puffles is doing: boycott and publicity.

  3. To some extent being given the freedom to be creative in a job in a luxury and hence demand for these jobs is high. However corporations not wanting to pay for innovation is an important point which I definitely agree on. This trend can be seen outside the world of the creative industries. There is a tendency for firms to engage in the type of cost cutting that is inherently short term and probably not in the long term interest of the society they come from. Two big examples of this are training and research.

    The lack of opportunities for apprenticeships are well documented. Equally well documented in the world of business are the withdrawal of many large firms from significant cutting edge R&D. In particular Pharma firms are increasing backing away from drug discovery and effectively outsourcing this to universities and small biotechs (that latter generally only made possible through research spun out of government university research). Likewise IT firms base their products on opensource products. Arguably many corporations are turning into rent seekers using their power in the market!

    Ironically I think a bit part of the problem isn’t (directly) economics but culture of the big firms. In Germany the family owned mittelstand are prepared to invest in training. In previous generations (up til the 80s) corporations were much more willing to invest in R&D. I suspect the problem probably relates to a culture of short term shareholder gain rather than longer term investment and seeing a company as less of a “gesellschaft” (society) and exclusively a means of profit for owners! I would strongly recommend the mayfair set (a BBC2 documentary) which documents this transition!

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