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The Quest for Authenticity in Consumption: Consumers’ Purposive Choice of Authentic Cues to Shape Experienced Outcomes

Michael B. Beverland , Francis J. Farrelly
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/615047 838-856 First published online: 1 February 2010

Abstract

Drawing from image-elicited depth interviews, we investigate whether consumers pursue the consumption of authentic objects with specific personal goals in mind. We find that consumers are motivated to focus on those particular cues in objects that for them convey authenticity (what is genuine, real, and/or true) and that this decision-making process is driven by a desire to draw different identity benefits (control, connection, virtue) from authentic objects. Our interpretive analysis elaborates contributions to theorizing related to consumer agency in seeking authentic consumption experience. We provide cultural explanations for the desire to assert the authentic self in these particular ways.

  • Beliefs
  • Brand Loyalty
  • Cultural Theories and Analysis
  • Depth/Long Interviews
  • Motivation/Desires/Goals

The nature of authenticity in consumption is contested. Researchers explain authenticity as original and staged (MacCannell 1973), fabricated (Belk and Costa 1998), iconic, indexical, and hypothetical (Grayson and Martinec 2004), self-referential hyperauthenticity (Rose and Wood 2005), symbolic (Culler 1981), existential (Wang 1999), literal or objective (Beverland, Lindgreen, and Vink 2008), legitimate (Kates 2004), sincere (Beverland 2006), approximate and moral (Leigh, Peters, and Shelton 2006), and emergent (Cohen 1988). Differences also emerge as to the nature of the objects (or cues) that can convey authenticity. For example, authenticity has been identified in the patently fake (Brown 2001), obvious reproductions (Bruner 1994), and mundane mass-market objects (Miller 2008), while others consider such examples the very antithesis of authenticity (Eco 1986).

What can account for such difference in conceptualizations, objects, and cues? Our findings help to explain this diversity by demonstrating that the process of authenticating an object or experience is contingent on the consumer’s goals. In doing so, we extend previous research identifying the relationship between goals and authenticating acts (“self-referential behaviors that reveal or produce the true self”; Arnould and Price 2000, 8), a focus on sincerity of intent in defining an authentic member of a subculture (Belk and Costa 1998; Leigh et al. 2006), the relationship between shifting community goals and the nature of brand authenticity (Kates 2004), and the active information processing strategies employed to find authenticity in the less likely of objects such as reality television (Rose and Wood 2005) and fictional tourist sites (Grayson and Martinec 2004). Rose and Wood (2005) note that much may be gleaned by better understanding how “personal predilections” shape the way authenticity is constructed. To this end we seek to account for what constitutes authenticity by examining how goals underpin assessments of authenticity including the purposive strategies employed by consumers to achieve this assessment.

This article has the following structure. First, we provide support for the relationship between consumer goals and authenticity through a brief review of the relevant literature. Second, we outline the interpretive methods employed to address our research objectives. Third, we present our findings and identify three goals underpinning self-relevant assessments of authenticity (control, connection, and virtue). We also provide a sociocultural account for these findings and identify four strategies employed by consumers when conferring authenticity to an object. We conclude the article with a discussion of theoretical contributions and suggestions for future research.

Theoretical Background: Authenticity and Consumer Goals

The notion that assessments of authenticity in objects are underpinned by consumer goals is based on the notion that consumers actively seek authenticity to find meaning in their lives, and in line with associated personal goals (self-relevant objectives people pursue in their daily lives; Emmons 2005) prefer brands and experiences that reinforce their desired identity (or identities). Arnould and Price (2000) offer insight into why such goals have become a critical part of the authentication process. They establish that the loss of traditional sources of meaning and self-identity associated with postmodern market characteristics (caused by globalization, deterritorialization, and hyperreality) has encouraged consumers to become active and adept in appropriating authenticity.

Often described in terms of a “search” or “quest,” the desire for authenticity is also said to be a response to standardization and homogenization in the marketplace (Thompson, Rindfleisch, and Arsel 2006). Arnould and Price (2000) identify two means of appropriating authenticity to achieve self-authentication. The first is where the consumer cocreates product value or a consumption experience as part of self-authentication (an authenticating act). The second, described as authoritative performance, is a cultural display (such as rituals, festivals, or protest actions) representative of a social unit (e.g., family, affinity group, profession, and ethnic group) and what the consumer deems are important aspects of life. Common to both is that the consumer is purposeful in linking the object or experience to stories of the self.

There is widespread agreement that authenticity is a socially constructed interpretation of the essence of what is observed rather than properties inherent in an object (Beverland 2006; Beverland et al. 2008; Grayson and Martinec 2004; Rose and Wood 2005; Thompson et al. 2006). Consistent with goal-driven behavior, the essence of what is observed can represent who one desires to be (Cohen 1988; Culler 1981; Ferrara 1988; Postrel 2003), a personal point of view (Wang 1999), knowledge and expectations (Belk and Costa 1998; Holt 1998) including a person’s need to match the object with their idea of how it should be (Grayson and Martinec 2004), and belief systems and stereotypes (Bruner 1994; Rose and Wood 2005). The link between goals and authenticity is also evident across the literature on subcultures of consumption and brand communities with respect to the consumer’s purposeful efforts to participate and gain status (such as consuming the “right” brand or engaging in legitimate behavior; Kates 2004; Leigh et al. 2006; Quester, Beverland, and Farrelly 2006).

Bruner (1994) and numerous others (Arnould and Price 2000; Chronis and Hampton 2008; Leigh et al. 2006; Postrel 2003; Rose and Wood 2005; Wang 1999) have pointed out that the meaning given to authenticity is context and goal dependent. Different interpretations of authenticity are often a by-product of the personal goals that influence which properties of a context are uniquely identified as significant and relevant. In the case of the New Salem site Bruner discusses, some visitors gave preferential treatment to nostalgia for a simpler bygone era. For others authenticity was conferred if the site catalyzed ideas around progress. The goals that distinguish the curator from the merchandise seller, the family, or the teacher who brings students to the site for educational purposes underpin different interpretations of what is authentic.

It has also been demonstrated that the conferring of authenticity to an object involves conscious negotiation or production of meaning, including the active use of brand cues. For example, Beverland et al. (2008) consider the relationship between different levels of goals (from situational to identity based) and the degree to which consumers actively scrutinize brand materials. When confronted with the need to make quick decisions about the authenticity of a class of beer, for example, consumers reduce claims to a few verifiable indexical cues (see also Chronis and Hampton 2008). When seeking long-term identity goals such as supporting local communities, consumers drew on a broader range of cues to actively construct a sense of authenticity that reinforced their desired sense of self. Leigh et al.’s (2006) study of the MG brand community identifies the creative use of cues among community members when assessing the authenticity of members. In this case, community members overlook breaches of indexicality (such as modern adaptations to historic sports cars and the use of nonstandard or original parts) and focus on cues that signal the sincerity of the owner’s efforts to maintain public awareness of the brand.

Two recent studies demonstrate how consumers actively find authenticity in seemingly fake or contrived objects. Rose and Wood (2005) reveal how consumers actively negotiate the paradox between the subjectively real and the contrived or fantastic to find authenticity in reality television. Underpinning our view that goals influence assessments of authenticity is the observation that Rose and Wood’s (2005) informants were as likely to value the contrived elements of reality television shows as the connections to personal reality because both facilitated purposeful efforts to establish authenticity. Grayson and Martinec (2004) establish that consumers purposefully blend fact and fiction to authenticate objects such as the so-called historical residence of a fictional character Sherlock Holmes. In doing so, these consumers actively construct authenticity because they are motivated to realize associated benefits, such as a sense of escape (from the phoniness associated with modern life), feelings of assuredness (based on perceived evidence that what one believes in is real), and connection with the past (cf. Rose and Wood 2005).

Significantly, despite the multiplicity of terms and interpretations applied to authenticity, ultimately what is consistent across the literature is that authenticity encapsulates what is genuine, real, and/or true (Arnould and Price 2000; Bendix 1992; Berger 1973; Costa and Bamossy 1995; Thompson et al. 2006). And, as others have highlighted, consumers do not find authenticity in the fake but rather are able to find elements of what is genuine, real, or true in consumption experiences or objects that others may deem to be altogether unreal or false (Grayson and Martinec 2004; Rose and Wood 2005). What needs to be better understood is how these different interpretations come into being, and it is here that much is to be gained from an exploration of the nature and role of personal goals and their cultural underpinnings.

Methods

As we are working within the meaning-based tradition of research, we adopted an interpretative approach. Both authors conducted all interviews, which were held in the informants’ homes. Our primary data were derived from semistructured depth interviews with 21 informants (see table 1 for details). We used a recruitment agency to locate informants, and we instructed the agency to provide a diverse sample in terms of age, gender, income, and educational background in order to gain a rich range of experiences and insights into views of authenticity. Long interviews allowed access to consumers’ firsthand personal experiences and meanings associated with authenticity and inauthenticity. To facilitate articulation of unconscious meanings and motivations, we asked informants to have at hand possessions, pictures, or memorabilia reflective of important experiences and favored (hated) objects. To stimulate further discussion, we developed a file of around 100 images, including pictures of day-to-day life, tourist sites, historic figures/events and artifacts, local and foreign brands (new and old versions where relevant), and cultural icons such as sporting paraphernalia. The choice of items was informed by the literature on authenticity. These images were made available to informants at the interview after they had discussed their own objects. These techniques were particularly useful in facilitating informants to articulate their views of authenticity (cf. Belk, Ger, and Askegaard 2003).

View this table:

The authors asked a mix of grand tour questions and floating prompts (McCracken 1988). At the beginning of the interview, informants were asked to think about the general meaning of authenticity to them. Since the informants would often approach this question with personal stories or experiences, further prompts were used to understand the significance of such events. Following a general discussion of authenticity and authentic experiences, we focused on commercial objects, including brands and events. Informants were asked to discuss three brands they thought were authentic and three they considered inauthentic. Informants selected these from their own experience or from the image file discussed earlier. The informants sometimes struggled initially to define authenticity, and they often enriched, refined, and in some cases altered their view during the interview in a spirit of joint discovery and critical reflexivity. This enrichment occurred because of the availability of prompts and the noninvasive nature of the interviewing and because informants relaxed as they told their stories. Although the interviews were broad and only semistructured, informants were asked to elaborate on various statements they made; provide more explanation for the experiences, objects, people, advertisements and brands they referred to; and elaborate on the personal relevance of the subject matter. Given this method, informants spoke for virtually the entire period, with the researchers only engaging in floating prompts (following the initial grand tour question), asking for clarification on certain terms and every so often summarizing informant responses or views. Interviews lasted on average 2 hours, although several lasted considerably longer. Interviews were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim, resulting in over 2,200 pages of text.

Both authors analyzed the transcripts. We first read the transcripts and conducted our own interpretation before meeting to discuss the findings in more detail. Our initial classification involved establishing the links between life stories and judgments of authenticity and whether these transferred to objects. In our close readings of the textual data, we noted that participants’ comments suggested benefits, standards, and motivations and that these factors underpinned their attraction to cues conveying an object’s authenticity. At this point, theoretical categories were elaborated on during open and axial coding procedures. We then began a process of dialectical tacking, moving back and forward between our findings and the relevant literature to deepen our understanding of the nature of authenticity and the processes by which consumers assess objects and the underlying goals involved (cf. Spiggle 1994). As a final step, we interviewed one more informant to further explore situations where consumers dealt with conflict between different goals.

Valued Identity Benefits of Self-Authentication: Feelings of Control, Connection, and Virtue

Our findings highlight the inseparable link between determinations of authenticity and informant personal goals (i.e., the desire for self-authentication), as well as the critical need to look beyond assessment of the object to more fully appreciate the meaning of authenticity (Rose and Wood 2005). A summary of the findings is provided in figure 1. When conferring authenticity to commercial objects such as experiences, brands, and events, our informants realized positive identity benefits in the form of a favorable characterization of the true self. Three distinct personally relevant benefits (also referred to herein as goals) were evident across our cases (table 2 provides summary details): control, connection, and virtue (each desired benefit reflected wider sociocultural norms). Importantly, whether in the case of brands, objects, or experiences, these identity benefits were a reflection of the interpretation of what was considered genuine, real, and/or true. Informants were also active in applying standards and information-processing strategies to cues when assessing authenticity.

Figure 1

Authenticating Objects, Brands, and Experiences (OBE)

Feeling in Control

The first account of authenticity related to agency and the desire of informants to achieve mastery over their environment (see also Leigh et al. 2006). In this sense, control is an end-state (whereby consumers seek to be “in control”; Richins 2005) rather than a process. Hochschild (1983) observed airline cabin crew sometimes engaging in small rule-breaking actions to regain a sense of control over their work. Importantly, Hochschild’s research identified that these workers were seeking control in order to reaffirm their identity as professional skilled individuals (i.e., such actions were driven by a desire to reaffirm work role authenticity). Extending this line of research, a number of informant passages associated authenticity with feeling a sense of personal control over their surroundings and life in general. For example:

Interviewer:Your picture of surfing. That’s authentic?

Phil:Surfing has taught me lots of things like persistence because it takes ages and because it is up to you to keep improving all the time for yourself. No coaches, as you say, you might go with your mates but once you are out there it is just you, and I like it like that because … you rely on your abilities. And that lesson and experience is the most authentic thing of all that you carry with you. And it is good, you know, in knowing what you are about and making choices even with surf brands—I mean why buy Quiksilver or Volcom or Ripcurl just because it is the brand of today that supposedly carries the cool factor, buy it because you reckon it’s good for you, maybe because it helps to be better in the water. This says something about you that is real and as I say I use this outside of surfing too in my work and that is absolutely real to me anyway.

Like several of our informants Phil merged his notion of what was real (including surfing experiences and buying brands and products) with a conception of self associated with self-improvement and self-reliance through personal achievement and informed choices. Achievement in surfing requires persistent effort and dedication. Although one can receive coaching and guidance, mastery of the activity is self-determined. As well, standing alone in surfing is authentic because it provides lessons for success in other activities such as business decisions and consumption choices. Phil rejects social influences such as fashion or peer pressure, preferring to select brands that help him achieve personal mastery. For Phil, these brand choices represent an authenticating act (Arnould and Price 2000).

Just as Phil identifies authenticity through the application of qualities unique to the individual (knowledge, experience and skill), Tony associates authenticity with deliberate choices, careful analysis, and realistic expectations. For example:

Tony:First of all authenticity is not a mistake … authenticity is a checking process.

Interviewer:Checking process?

Tony:I mean to determine whether something is authentic or not you need to be able to test the system.

Interviewer:And anything else?

Tony:Realistic I suppose is authentic.

Interviewer:What do you mean by realistic?

Tony:It’s a realistic achievement, a realistic goal … a vision as something that I have that I aspire to, that I know that I can get.

Interviewer:Right.

Tony:I’m getting towards the end of my working life where I have managed to be able to achieve and accumulate like wealth, possessions, and that becomes a part of the history of my life, which becomes authentic. So that sort of covers everything, my home, my car.

Interviewer:So why are they authentic?

Tony:Because it’s a realistic achievement. It’s things that you could turn round and say, because I studied and I was diligent I was able to achieve these things. I mean, I don’t know, almost a shrine to your life.

Tony draws a connection between sustained effort over many years and the authenticity of his objects. Like Phil, Tony transfers the lessons gained from a character-forming activity (in this case engineering), where personal application was central to success, to other aspects of life, including consumption choices (see his passage on ING below). For example, just as an engineer achieves mastery over nature and materials through the careful application of theory to reality and an understanding of tolerances, so Tony appreciates the need to set realistic goals in other life events. As a result, Tony plays a central role in shaping events for his benefit. Objects, such as his house and car, are the physical manifestation of his mastery over his environment.

The mastery evident in Phil's and Tony’s passages was also central in other accounts of consumption—as noted in table 2. Rowena, for example, desires the “genuine article” in order to retain control over her health. Michael views an Apple computer as authentic because it empowers him and others to engage in tasks they could not normally manage. Apple (selected over other computers because Michael views this brand as being first to market with a mass-market, easy-to-use computer) thus allows Michael to achieve mastery over events. William also desires to retain control over his consumption decisions by refusing to accept marketer claims at face value. Instead, claims that are relevant to the offer (in this case the relationship between country-of-origin, quality perceptions, and price) are subjected to further examination.

Overall, when consumers seek to be in control, they desire personal sovereignty (the exclusive right to control oneself) over consumption choices and prefer objects and experiences that help realize associated benefits. For example, Meg’s desire for control over her diabetes forces her to review mandatory ingredient labeling on food products, which in turn results in increased mental and physical effort on her behalf (one-and-a-half hour shopping trips) and in the choice of brands like Yoplait that she knows from personal experience have no physical side effects. Consistent with this desire for independent judgment and empowerment, the informants focused on performance claims when assessing the authenticity of a brand. In cases where functional claims could only be experienced through use, brands were judged authentic only after personal experience of the reputed benefits (i.e., value in use). For example:

Interviewer:What do you mean cynical?

Tony:Well, I tend to get cynical about advertising and brands. When you turn around and say authentic brands, generally I would say a product that’s not built by huge massive advertising dollars. It’s advertised by showing me exactly what the product does.

Interviewer:Right.

Tony:This sort of might indicate what I’m saying. On my computer I switch it on and I get that ING will give me 5.25% interest. But it’s not telling me that, you know, I’m a smarter person for going to ING. You know what I mean? It’s stark. It’s clear. It’s not giving me any other reason to invest my money in them than the fact that I get 5.25%.

Interviewer:And you can prove it?

Tony:Yes, that’s right. I can just go up to the Commonwealth Bank and say, okay, how much are you going to give me?

Meg reports: I’d say they’re [brands] authentic in terms of what they’re trying to promote, so … if the shampoo says it will ease frizz control in your hair and it does, then okay it’s achieved my objective in purchasing it. If it doesn’t, then I won’t buy it again. So I think it’s the proof in the pudding. You can tell it does this and this, whiz bang, lights, cameras, and action, but until I try the product I’ll never know that. So I think it needs to be very honest in terms of what it can deliver.

In each passage above, informants related authenticity to functional performance benefits and thus desired factual information because it enabled them to make informed decisions. The ING brand has particular value to Tony because the espoused claims, rather than being advertising puffery, provide him with information critical to establishing the truth as to what is the best brand. The brand focuses on “what matters” in relation to banking—interest rates. Meg also desires information that conveys just the core benefit of the brand. However, unlike interest rates, the performance benefits of Meg’s shampoo must be experienced directly. Thus, Meg prefers marketers to make realistic claims that address practical problems (“frizz control”) that she can confirm through experience.

Feeling Connected

A second account of authenticity discussed by our informants related to a feeling of being connected to important others, to community, place, culture, or to society in general. Key benefits associated with feeling connected were an idealization of community, personal enrichment through being part of something, and being proximate to like-minded others—consistent with the desire to develop an authentic self as an active member of the community. These informant accounts expressed a distinct preference for brands that represented a means to experience connection. Central to this account of authenticity was a strong preference for proximity to place, people, and culture because such activities represented a higher ideal—that of valuing fellowship within a community. For example:

Scott:I was in Egypt and I had a guide who was local … so the authenticity of the tour feels something a bit different than if you had an Australian trying to take that tour.

Interviewer:So what creates that authentic feeling, do you think?

Scott:I think it’s the knowledge of the person. For example, I could have the knowledge of Egypt but I’m not Egyptian, so I think it’s the culture and understanding and feeling of being Egyptian that would give it the authenticity of traveling through the pyramids … the authenticity in, I suppose, a travel perspective is that you’re enveloped by the experience, meaning that you do not feel like you’re three or four degrees of separation, in a way you’re with that one other person, so you only feel like you’re two degrees away. So getting the authentic feel of being wherever you are … it is enriched to a point where you feel like you’re part of it, you don’t feel that far away from it. And it narrows the gap between me and somebody who has lived there all their lives.

Throughout his interview, Scott states his desire to be personally enriched by connection to place and to have locals reflect back to him what it means to be part of a particular society. Central to Scott’s account of his travels is his preference for proximity to local people. For example, while Scott was touring Egypt, having a local guide relay the nature of place to him enabled him to come the closest that he could to understanding what it really means to be Egyptian.

In their accounts of connection, informants repeatedly mentioned places, events, community, and tradition as part of their identity. For example (see table 2), being part of the local cycling community and participating in a fund-raising ride (Around the Bay in a Day) is real for Nick because it connects him with like-minded others. This desire to be part of something with like-minded others is what Relph (1976) refers to as existential insidedness, where individuals relate to a place or a community event as though they are inside it. By engaging in this relatively grueling ride, Nick, who is an experienced cyclist and part of the St. Kilda, Melbourne, cycling fraternity (“I do maybe three days per week. I live in St. Kilda, so there’s a fairly big cycling culture down there. I go before work, about 5:30. There’s large groups, so it’s a fairly social sport”) reinforces his desired self as someone who plays a part in the community. This idealization of community and participation in communal life (as a means of ensuring continuity) is identified in Zoe’s passage below:

Zoe:There is a surf school and ongoing events like small local surf competitions and get-togethers and that is very real for me. Funnily enough, there is talk that one of the local surf shops outlets wants to sponsor it, which is good because they see the need to keep it going too. It is really important, and it says a lot about people in the area and how surfing brings people together … who might not know each other but all want to be there for the same reasons. It is a great way for the kids to learn a great outdoor sport but just to experience life in a community and getting together with the other parents and kids and pitching in to make sure something like this runs. One of the guys made a big barbecue trolley that we wheel around, and it might be a small thing but, you know, it is often the centerpiece after all the surfing is done, and people gather around it … someone else might have brought some music and all are welcome. And the little things like that make these things a community and that is important for us here and why it is a great place to live.

Interviewer:So things that contribute to the community are authentic?

Zoe:Yes.

For several of our informants, important local events represented an authoritative performance (Arnould and Price 2000) in the way they enabled characterization of a self that sought to celebrate and sustain community. In Zoe’s passage, the surf school and local surf events fostered shared values. Her mention of “pitching in” (whether this involved sponsorship, providing music, or the barbecue trolley) symbolizes the importance given to unity and having as a common objective the desire to connect (with members of the community) and the positive socialization of the children. Adding weight to the power of these events as authoritative performances is their widespread support as evidenced by how long they have been in existence, growth in participation, and the wider involvement of institutions such as the local school and surf shop.

The valuing of connection to place and community was also reflected in purchase behavior. Louise recounted her desire to buy something that reminded her of her time spent in London. A common ritual among young Australians is the “Big OE” or overseas experience whereby people spend time following high school or university working and traveling overseas (for historical reasons London is the destination of choice). At the end of her stay in London, Louise sought an item that would connect her back to place and her memories of friends made there. For example:

Louise:I bought a bracelet that was very authentic.

Interviewer:So what was it about that bracelet?

Louise:I was in London and I went down to my favorite market, which is Portobello Road, and I really wanted to buy something that reminded me—I was about to leave London, I’d been living there for about 5 years—and I wanted to buy something that reminded me of my experience in London, and I didn’t want anything too materialistic, I wanted something special. So I went to the market, and I bought three rose gold charms, and I knew that by buying those it would be something that I’d wear all the time and it would remind me of London.

When seeking an object that connected her back to her time in London, Louise deliberately chose to go to the markets at Portobello Road—a favorite among Londoners. Rather than selecting an object that Australians might associate with “Englishness” (i.e., typical tourist items), Louise selects something that reflects her almost insider status (i.e., her two degrees of separation). This object connects her back to a place and time she values and would signal to other expatriates and Londoners insider knowledge, potentially allowing her to form connections with them.

The value attached to being a part of a community was also reflected in informants’ accounts of brands and authenticity. John’s passage in table 2, for example, reflects the relationship between being accepted by the mainstream and authenticity. Offering an unusual take on the legitimacy of cigarette brands, John evaluates them as historic icons that are now no longer viewed as authentic. Critically, this loss of status is not due to the health risks associated with cigarettes but to consensus in the community that the advertising of such products should be banned. As a result, these brands are no longer real because they do not play a visible part in community affairs as they did when they were sponsors of major sporting events. It is the case that changes in societal attitudes toward smoking have seen this activity move from the mainstream to the periphery, with the result that cigarette brands no longer define individuals (it was common among smokers to identify with advertisements celebrating the “Marlboro man” or the “Alpine woman”) or provide the basis for connection.

Nick’s selection of the cycling brand Campagnolo reflects this valuing of contribution to community. For example, he reports: Campagnolo is more traditional. I think it’s going back to the grass roots of cycling. Whereas Shimano make fishing rod reels and all that sort of stuff; so you get the feeling that Campagnolo are completely focused on what they’re doing for cycling and that makes them a little bit more authentic. … I always relate the general sense to a feeling you get, its just people talking about them [Campagnolo] more than anything else. I’ve never used them before but I assume they’re better.

For Nick the Campagnolo brand is run by passionate cyclists (like him) who dedicate themselves to producing quality products that benefit the sport. This brand is valuable because it provides him with a means to indirectly connect to a living tradition of cycling (i.e., the grass roots). The importance Nick attaches to this view is further revealed by the fact that, although he has never used the brand, other cyclists constantly talk about it as the quality leader, which lends it subcultural legitimacy (cf. Kates 2004) and therefore authenticity. This valuing of brands as conduits for connection was central to many informant accounts. For example:

Interviewer:How about the Simpsons? (Picture prompt.)

Rowena:It’s big, worldwide.

Interviewer:Big?

Rowena:I can identify it you know. I’m on that couch at 6 o’clock at night watching the reruns of The Simpsons, word for word. It’s been around for 12–15 years. It’s a popular program and you can—little kids can relate to it, my grandmother can relate to it, so you know.

In her discussion of authenticity Rowena stresses how The Simpsons enable her to connect with her children and parents, as well as other people in general (by being able to recount “every word”). For Nick and Rowena, these objects are valuable because they enable them to engage in shared experiences on a daily basis. Again, central to both Nick's and Rowena’s accounts of authenticity is an idealization of “being together” or community and of how particular brands allow one to feel engaged with others (cf. Thompson 1997). Rose and Wood (2005) examined how such a contrived event as reality television could be authentic. We believe that one reason is that these highly popular shows (Big Brother, Survivor, and American Idol) allow people to connect to shared experiences by providing the basis for “water cooler conversations.” For example, Rowena’s stress on being able to recount episodes of the Simpsons (such as mimicking signature phrases) would enable her to communicate with others who shared her love of the show.

Feeling Virtuous

The final account of authenticity we identified captured informants who represented their authentic self by making judgments based on purity of motive. Conferring authenticity in these accounts was akin to expressing one’s morals. Associated benefits included the feeling of virtuousness that comes with staying true to one’s morals and the spiritual enrichment that comes from seeing desired universal values in practice. Caroline, who defines herself as a “nonmaterialist” and “not much of a consumer,” repeatedly recalled her experiences in India when discussing authenticity:

Interviewer:What about your pictures of India?

Caroline:I have done a lot of traveling in my life, and before I went to India every year, I went to a different country, and then I got to India, and I have been back 13 times because I feel there is a level of honesty and everything that is lacking in other places.

Interviewer:Okay. I have never been to India so could you maybe explain what is it about India that is authentic?

Caroline:I feel unlike other countries it’s been less touched by Western consumerism, Western values, Western civilization … so when I first went there it was a country like I had never encountered … the food was different, the religion, the way people related, their values. They seem to live life on a different level, concerned with different things that I think are more authentic and more meaningful.

Interviewer:What are the things that they are concerned with?

Caroline:The way they approach people I think is more authentic. They are concerned with family, with a basic sort of values perhaps because life is harder for them. Again I am generalizing because recently now they are open to the West, you know, there’s Star TV in India, there’s computers, outsourcing, so they are changing very, very rapidly, which I find sad.

Interviewer:Yes.

Caroline:But before all that they are concerned with the universal things about life that are nothing to do with consuming.

Caroline’s passage reveals that she regularly seeks spiritual enrichment by traveling to India. She gains a number of positive outcomes from such self-authenticating acts. First, she believes that by traveling to places where people live her values, she can engage in more meaningful relationships, particularly as the local inhabitants are more genuine because they are less interested in material pursuits (“People didn’t want anything from you so they were interested in you as a person”). Second, Caroline is able to present herself to others as someone of moral conviction because she is active in living her values. Caroline’s account of authenticity idealizes a set of values she feels she cannot find in her everyday life in Australia. Her attraction to these values is emphasized in Caroline’s discussion of the totality of differences between Australia and India (in terms of food, religion, customs, and values). These differences demonstrate that another world (a world she values) is possible if one is prepared to reject consumerism.

Consistent with Caroline’s attempt to transcend materialist pursuits, informants’ accounts of virtue revealed notions of innocence and being free from false pretense. For example:

Interviewer:Can you explain in detail what you see in this picture?

Anita:Yes. There’s a small child with his socks down playing with a cricket bat that’s been handmade by a couple of pieces of wood. There’s a couple of kids looking, and there’s another child squatting down behind him ready to catch the ball.

Interviewer:So what do you see, and how is it related to authenticity?

Anita:Well, I thought it was related to authenticity because it looks like an honest, down-to-earth picture, just the innocence of children playing. You can’t get more truthful than children playing.

Caroline:I picked Michelangelo’s Pieta because I think that encapsulates really authentic emotion. It’s the mother with the dead son and the grief, and it’s a very emotional piece that taps into universal feelings.

Interviewer:So the sculpture describes the authentic feelings?

Caroline:Yes. The person who sculptured it has produced a sculpture that is about very authentic basic human emotion. Every mother would experience that if she lost a son.

Interviewer:So not Michelangelo himself that you would associate with authenticity but the feelings?

Caroline:Yes, what he has produced. He may have sculptured that for money. Someone may have commissioned him, in which [case] the authenticity doesn’t really come from him, but he has produced something beautiful and honest. To me it’s authentic.

Anita’s and Caroline’s focus on notions of universal innocence, honesty, and truth characterized other accounts of virtue. For Anita, children were seen as authentic because their play was not compromised by self-interest. Caroline also draws a link between authenticity and universal emotions. She virtually dismisses the role played by the artist (and his motives) and those of his sponsor, attributing authenticity only to the universal emotion conveyed in the work itself.

Consistent with the accounts of control and connection, informants applied notions of virtue to their assessments of brands. Caroline and Renee judge Nike to be inauthentic because of a lack of morals (see table 2 for further examples). For example, although Renee recognizes that the brand became a market leader through creativity, it is the perceived lack of social ethics that drives her judgment, including her subsequent decision to stop using Nike. Judy judges Barbie to be inauthentic because of the negative impact on the body image of young girls (while Cabbage Patch dolls are authentic for the opposite reason). For these three (and other) informants, breaches of ethical norms resulted in a loss of authenticity because the brands were judged as lacking moral fiber. For example:

Mario:McDonald’s I suppose would be the prime example of dishonesty.

Interviewer:How?

Mario:Well, in the past they have always kind of promoted their food as giving well-being and happiness and really it was a bad product.

Interviewer:Authenticity and honesty, are they the same?

Mario:Yes, for me for something to be authentic it’s got to be honest.

Interviewer:Okay.

Mario:And not trying to cheat someone or market something when they know that it’s not a good product.

Central to accounts of virtue were notions of honesty and a lack of ulterior motive. Both Mario’s and Renee’s (see table 2) assessments of McDonald’s and Nike reflect this ideal. In both cases, the offending brands are viewed as trying to gain something by stealth, such as perceptions of quality or higher margins. Once these brands have been “found out” they are judged as inauthentic brand partners because of their suspect motives. In each case, brands are judged against a moral standard—McDonald’s was viewed as deceitful because of the gap between the marketing messages and the healthiness of the their products, while Nike was a cynical exploiter of workers and consumers because they presented themselves as the world leader yet failed to live up to this claim in their day-to-day business practices.

Consistent with notions of transcending the self, when seeking virtue, informants were critical of luxury brands because their pricing was not proportional to the product’s utility. This business strategy reflected false pretense or the promotion of conspicuous consumption. Such selfish motives were seen as out of step with the real necessities of living. In contrast, brands focused on serving people’s basic needs were judged more favorably. For example:

Caroline:Like some of those handbags that cost hundreds of dollars. Chanel and Givenchy. … They are just a handbag but I think to create a desire amongst people for something that costs so much money which is out of proportion to the worth of the item is immoral when people are starving. That’s not authentic to me. It’s not honest. I am looking for things to have a meaning, and if you pay for something it’s got to have a commensurate value.

Interviewer:What about the VW Beetle?

Caroline:I think so because the original car was made for everyone to be able to afford, so I suppose it’s authentic.

Caroline’s passages reinforce her earlier statements about pursuing what is meaningful, in this case by challenging the morals of brands that charge so much for a functional item. Her stress on a universal claim—people’s basic need for food—over all other claims that Chanel and Givenchy may make about quality or symbolic value is consistent with her earlier statements in which she attributes authenticity to an entirely different set of values than those held by luxury goods companies. Caroline’s choice of the old VW Beetle contrasts with her criticism of luxury accessory brands earlier. Caroline values the Beetle because it was developed for the common person and because it was affordable. The object is authentic because there is a reasonable relation between price and function, and importantly, because the car was developed to provide transportation for the masses rather than for perceived superficial values such as prestige or status. Caroline’s emphasis on the motive for production as the source of the brand’s authenticity reinforces her view of self as a person of moral conviction.

Summary of the Accounts: The Goal Contingent Nature of Authenticity

The three goal-inspired accounts of authenticity should be viewed as being representative of self-relevant conceptualizations of authenticity rather than as a by-product of personality traits. This is demonstrated in two ways. First, the accounts of authenticity covered above reveal the same informant (such as Meg and Rowena) seeking multiple benefits. Second, the following two passages identify conflict between competing goals. In Ross’s discussion of McDonald’s, two benefits of authenticity (control and virtue) are important. I think they’re [McDonald’s] authentic for what they, maybe they’re not, may be—I think it really comes back to the fine lines of what’s authentic. Certainly, it raises some serious concerns about health issues when you’re talking about McDonald's, which you would say was authentic; it’s clear they’re delivering the same product the same way and in the same environment every time. So they’re trying to deliver what I would say was an authentic product. In terms of what they’ve don’t tell you, these things are going to lead to high obesity, but I don’t think that makes them not authentic.

Although Ross recognizes that McDonald’s products may be “morally gray,” he can still find authenticity in the product when he is seeking a guaranteed consumption experience (regardless of global location). Ross compartmentalizes authenticity around a series of situations—McDonald's may not be an authentic product when seeking something healthy, but it is if one desires fast food. A second example provides further evidence of a goal-contingent view of authenticity. In Phil’s account, reference was made to the need to be realistic in establishing what was authentic. He spoke of his work and his desire to be environmentally conscious: Well, I was thinking and the fact is that my four-wheel drive is still authentic in its own strange way. I value the environment, and it really does affect what I buy, and I think you should have values that you stick to. Yet I know that driving a big four-wheel drive seems a contradiction, but when we are talking about authenticity, I still see it as authentic in that it helps me do my job but also reminds me that I need to keep making an effort in other ways.

Phil’s passage above involves a tension between two desired identity benefits—control and virtue. Phil spoke with pride about his achievements in building his own business and of his four-wheel drive as being necessary to perform effectively (he needed a car well suited to carrying heavy surveying equipment). But as a committed environmentalist he was also aware that such a vehicle has high emissions and low fuel economy. Like Ross, Phil does not consider the four-wheel drive inauthentic but rather views the “offending” object as a reminder that he must make extra effort to look after the environment.

Authenticating Standards: A Cultural Account

A central tenet of consumer culture theory is that human agency operates within a social context (Arnould and Thompson 2005; Ratner 2000)—that is, individual expressions reflect more widely held social views or dominant myths (Hirschman 2000; Thompson 1997). We propose that the three personal goals (the desire for control, connection, and virtue) reflected informants’ desire to respond to dominant sociocultural norms (Gergen 1991; Lifton 1993). Put another way, prevailing cultural influences give rise to the standards that are applied in the conferring authenticity to objects, brands, and experiences (Ferrara 1998; Taylor 1991). The standards underpinning accounts of control, connection, and virtue reflect three dominant sociocultural norms: being practical (control), participating (connection), and morality (virtue). For example, informant accounts of control reflected attempts at situational problem solving and an identity associated with achieving performance-related goals. Accounts of connection focused on immersion in something larger than oneself and “doing one’s bit” as a community member. Accounts of virtue reflected the widely held view that there are universal moral principles of right and wrong.

Being Practical

With regard to control, we identified four critical standards: firsthand experience, independent judgment, verifiability, and instrumentality. These four standards reflected a desire for consumer sovereignty, practical problem solving, and efficacy across a range of situations. Brand authentication influenced by the desire for control involved an application of standards appropriate to informed decision making. The significance of firsthand experience, independent judgment, and verifiability was evident in Tony’s emphasis on testing the system when dealing with brands like ING, Meg’s desire for direct experience of product performance claims, Rowena’s desire for healthy products, and Phil’s focus on selecting surf brands based on his own judgment and not that of others.

When seeking control, informants desired messages that conveyed verifiable performance benefits, such as high interest rates, frizz control, or ingredient information, and they rejected more emotive claims. The skepticism (or cynicism—see Tony) toward marketing claims preexperience and the desire for verification of these claims (e.g., Meg and hair care products and William and Swiss watches; see table 2) provides further evidence of a requirement for independent judgment through firsthand experience and personal verification.

The informants’ passages also provide evidence of their desire for instrumentality (of brands and self). For example, Tony appreciates ING’s campaign because it enables him to make accurate comparison with other brands, thereby increasing his chances of getting the best possible result—a point reinforced by Michael’s comments about Apple and Phil’s selection of surf brands. Phil’s appropriation of the meaning of surfing and his SUV provide other examples of instrumentality in the way they reflect his ability to be successful. Our informants shaped desired benefits by using their experience and ability to make informed choices (see also Holt and Thompson 2004).

The nature of control and its associated standards have rarely been explained culturally to better understand authenticity—in fact, the benefits and standards associated with control are often viewed as inauthentic because they indicate self-interested problem solving (see, e.g., Taylor 1991; Hochschild [1983] provides a rare counterexample). As well, such actions are often viewed solely through the lens of intentionality or agency (see Postrel [2003] for an example), which holds that individual actions occur with little recourse to wider social forces (Ratner 2000). However, the cultural idealization of the aforementioned standards are evidenced in the love of sporting achievement, the denigration of academics (in Australia often referred to as impractical “pointy heads”), and the preference for pragmatism over ideology in many “New World” countries (Blainey 1994). Many top-rating shows in Australia are crime or police dramas, such as the Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) franchise, which has taglines such as “Trust the evidence” and “Let’s see where the evidence leads.”

The informants’ attitudes toward brands and associated marketing messages reflected a dominant cultural theme usually associated with the inauthentic (insofar as commercial motives are rejected as not authentic by the “sovereign consumer”; Postrel 2003). The informants’ accounts reveal a desire for agency through independent decision making—choices not influenced by the emotions that often underpin marketer-driven iconic cues. The standards used by informants when seeking control reflected what is called “economic rationalism” within Australia. Often commentators will denigrate this term when discussing authenticity by arguing that it leads to the dominance of large corporations, reduction in consumer choice, and the loss of consumer power (e.g., Boyle 2003; Harris 2001; Seabrook 2000).

However, free market politicians and business commentators regularly emphasize the power of the consumer to cease doing business with even the largest organizations (Rand 1967), and consumer agencies regularly test the functional performance of brands to identify the best-performing product/service and the best value for the money. Thus, in stressing functional performance benefits, consumer sovereignty, and rational decision making, informants are reflecting a culturally embedded norm that values an empowered, sensible consumer as opposed to a consumer as dupe (in fact, irrational acts such as impulse purchasing or extending mortgages to pay for luxuries are regularly denigrated at the cultural level as being the expenditure of the “credit rich” or “spoilt” youngsters). To date, these seemingly pragmatic norms have not been identified in research on authenticity.

Participating

In the case of the connection-based accounts, we identified three standards driving judgments of authenticity: proximity, communal norms, and ubiquity. Across the informants’ accounts of connection, emphasis was given to being close to others. Brands and events provided the conduit for people to connect by bringing community members or loved ones together as part of an authoritative performance (Arnould and Price 2000). For example, in Scott’s discussions of his various encounters in Morocco, he emphasized getting an understanding of the meaning of everyday Moroccan life (communal norms), but as he felt he could not fully appreciate this without living there, he was less concerned about traveling to the back region than having a local guide who could relay information.

Louise, Nick, and Zoe stress being close to others (as represented by people, place, time, and culture) as central to authentication. This view is also shared by Rowena and reemphasized in her desire to see tennis stars “up close and personal” and “out there sweating and working hard for the crowd. … You can really see these people giving their all rather than being on the news.” Therefore, when seeking connection, informants often sought situations that put them in close proximity to others. Such a desire also feeds into two other related standards—communal norms and ubiquity.

Nick stresses the importance of partaking in a communal cycling event because it represents an activity that genuine members of the St. Kilda cycling fraternity engage in. He also points out that people are there because they want to be and that they undertake the grueling annual event out of a sense of duty. This sense of duty was reinforced by Nick’s attitude that one should follow the rules of events and adopt a “mustn’t grumble” attitude to minor inconveniences such as waiting for ferries and the early morning start. Zoe emphasizes similar themes, stressing the importance of “putting in” and “giving back” in her discussion of the role of community members and organizations in bringing people together and ensuring the vibrancy of the community through the socialization of children into such rituals. Scott’s acceptance of a local guide’s views as more real or true than what an outsider can experience also indicates how communal norms form the basis for assessment. This emphasis on communal norms to establish authenticity also translated into a preference for brands that were thought to reinforce cultural traditions. For example:

Scott:I think they’ve [Kraft] dropped the Australian part to it because they can’t claim that anymore, but I don’t think that they need to actually keep telling people that, because people know it, or they believe. It’s originally Australian, … it’s still around now, we’re basically the only country in the world that eats it, and as far as we’re concerned it’s still Australian. It’s not an Australian-owned brand, but for all intents and purposes Vegemite is Australian.

Interviewer:Because Australians eat it?

Scott:Yes, and our parents and our grandparents had it when they were growing up as well, so as far as we’re concerned it’s an authentic, original Australian product.

Scott’s passage represents several aspects of the standards underpinning informant accounts of connection. Because Vegemite is no longer an Australian-owned brand (thus one form of indexical connection to place has been lost), Kraft downplays any direct link to place. However, Scott regards this as unnecessary because the brand is an established icon among all Australians, remains a part of the fabric of Australian identity, and is therefore authentic despite being owned by a global parent company. The brand still enables him to connect with place because it is widely adopted by the community, is shared across generations, and remains something that “all true Aussies eat.” For Scott, the consumption of Vegemite marks one out as Australian.

In the accounts in which emphasis was given to the importance of connection, informants regularly selected high-profile established mass market brands—objects not usually associated with authenticity. These brands are often viewed in highly benevolent terms (Rowena: “It’s [McDonald’s] good for the economy; it’s good for Melbourne”), with their ubiquity a sign of their relevance (and therefore value) to the community and their democratic nature (because they are available to all comers). For example:

Interviewer:McDonald's is authentic?

Zoe:Yes.

Interviewer:What is it about McDonald's?

Zoe:McDonald's, it’s everywhere.

Interviewer:What do you mean—being everywhere is authentic?

Zoe:It’s just everywhere, McDonald's is McDonald's.

Interviewer:What is it about the brand?

Zoe:Everyone loves it. And it’s just there, in your face, everywhere. It’s just something that everyone indulges in without, you know, worrying. McDonald's is just there, it’s just there to be enjoyed all the time.

Interviewer:It’s affordable?

Zoe:Yes.

Rowena comments: Nike, it’s a common brand. The golden arches—Big Mac, you get deals, cheeseburger, french fries, worldwide. You can’t miss it. You go down St. Kilda Road or wherever and see the arches and you know. You can find it anywhere. Or you see signs saying McDonald's 500 meters next right.

In Zoe’s and Rowena’s discussion of McDonald's and Nike, it was the ubiquity and common nature of these brands that made them authentic. The value Rowena placed on mainstream shared experiences and traditions resulted in a preference for mass brands as demonstrated in the value she attributed to the widely shared ritual of watching The Simpsons and the fact that all ages can participate in the experience. The passages above highlight how authenticity is attributed symbols that literally define the social landscape (in this way, authenticity through connection is influenced by cognitive legitimacy—a determination driven by whether the object in question is an inevitable part of the environment and necessary for a comprehensible account of social reality; Suchman 1995, 582–83). Major brands are highly visible representations of the social fabric because of their omnipresence and their age (i.e., they were institutionalized; Suchman 1995) and because they have evolved in line with changes in communal norms. These characteristics of brands that allow connection also explain John’s view regarding the decline in the authenticity of cigarette brands and the authenticity attributed to Campagnolo by Nick (despite the fact that he has no direct experience of the brand).

Although community tradition is often seen as one pillar of authenticity (Arnould and Price 2000; Kozinets 2002), unique to our data on connection is the preference for ubiquitous, mass-marketed objects and emphasis on the mainstream as authentic. This finding sits in direct contrast to research claiming that mass-marketed objects, or objects that appear tainted by the market or motivated by commercial considerations, lack authenticity (Beverland 2006; Boyle 2003; Kates 2004). In their accounts of connection as an expression of authenticity, the informants are reflecting a number of cultural norms all of which can be broadly classified as “participating.”

First, within Australia much of the popular cultural discourse celebrates mainstream traditions, the everyday, and middle-class values, as demonstrated by the popularity of reality television shows and the increasing casualization of news and current affairs shows hosted by “ordinary” presenters (who operate solely on a first name or nickname basis) addressing day-to-day issues such as parenting tips and financial advice for teens (McCamish 2008). Also, pop culture (including brands) has been elevated in status, while notions of “high culture” as special are downplayed or challenged as elitist. Second, emphasis is placed on mutual responsibility, or everyone doing their part to make society better, and there is genuine concern at the decline in volunteering, manners, local customs, and traditional events (cf. Putnam 2001). Further evidence of the sense of responsibility can be found in the public debates around national and local identity (i.e., what it means to be an “Australian” or a “Melbournian”). Fueling this debate is the acknowledgment of renewed interest in shared traditions by younger generations (such as dramatic increases in attendance at the dawn service to remember Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought in the two world wars) and a sense that other important traditions are under attack from policies usually lambasted as “political correctness gone mad” or “un-Australian” (e.g., attempts to remove Christmas celebrations from schools under the guise of multiculturalism).

Third, despite claims that traditional family units are in decline, families are the preferred unit within much social discourse in Australia. The 2007 election featured a contest between two parties—one stressing the needs of “working families” and the other of “mortgage belt families.” We believe a desire to preserve mainstream traditions, “do your part,” and value “family” results in a preference for ubiquitous commercial objects because they reflect these values. For example, the brands referred to in informant accounts of connection were part of mainstream popular culture, espouse the importance of “giving back,” provide the conduit for shared intergenerational traditions, and have become a part of the social landscape to the extent that they gained iconic status. The very ubiquitous nature of these objects reflects that they are inclusive and open to all in the community.

Morality

For virtue, we identified the two interconnected standards of purity and universality. Purity represents a consistent application of a set of morals, while universality means that these standards override other considerations. Purity was demonstrated by associations between notions of innocence (often reflected in images of children playing) and selflessness. Universality was reflected in connections between identity characterizations, such as “nonmaterialist,” and general condemnations of commercial culture, a preference for cultures wholly different from Western ways of life, the application of universal assessments reflected in terms such as “dishonest,” “cheated,” and “worthwhile,” and a preference for brands that addressed universal needs (such as transport) rather than prestige or patriotism (these informants disliked Vegemite because it was promoted as “Australian”). The application of universal standards was reflected in informant assessments of people (Ben Johnson) and brands (Nike and McDonald’s) that have breached ethical standards or have failed to take into account their wider impact on society (Barbie). Regardless of the recognized merits of brands such as Nike or McDonald’s, informants seeking virtue were intolerant of moral lapses. Behavior perceived as unethical overshadowed all other considerations in judging the brand as (in)authentic.

Caroline’s account of her travels to India reveals how these standards underpin her assessment of authenticity. In her comparative assessment of Western versus Indian culture, Caroline believes India symbolizes her values (whereas “the West” may be considered profane) and represents the universal application of these values across different areas of life. When combined, these two standards allow Caroline to feel that her values are both moral and practical and that holding them is possible. Caroline’s emphasis on the lack of materialism (both hers and that of the Indian locals) is representative of a universal judgment—both against what she views as meaningless material pursuits and in terms of giving necessary priority to core values (interpersonal relationships, family, sharing, and survival). This point is reinforced in Caroline’s sadness regarding India’s rapid economic growth, adoption of Western goods, and the displacement of core values. This process of establishing purity carries over to brands—hence, Caroline’s preference for utilitarian brands whose motivation is to fulfill the needs of everyone (e.g., her positive assessment of the VW Beetle because of its affordability) and through her rejection of upscale brands that charge prices well in excess of the product's utility value (e.g., Chanel and Givenchy).

Despite sustained philosophical attacks on notions of certainty in universal standards, concern with morality and universal standards of right and wrong remain as widely held sociocultural norms. The informants' accounts reflected universal norms, such as the lack of authenticity in contemporary consumer culture (often associated with “Western culture”), universal notions of right and wrong, environmentalism, and a sense of a “fair go” (as reflected in concerns about Nike’s employment practices—the notion of a “fair go” is a cornerstone of Australian identity; Blainey 1994). In each case, authenticity is associated with certain moral ideals that may involve disillusionment with the Western world (Taylor 1991), idealization of the innocence of “primitive societies” or nature (seen as innocent, pure, or free from self-interest; Campbell 1987; MacCannell 1973), and a desire to transcend self-interest (Trilling 1972). Although practical people are celebrated in society, so too are moral purists who sit outside institutions (such as universities, churches, and parliament). These individuals are often affectionately referred to as “impractical dreamers” or as having “their hearts in the right place” (Blainey 1994). Such views represent a moral longing on behalf of society to transcend practical selfish concerns.

The use of these varying standards in the different accounts suggests that informants engage in selective information processing and interpretation depending on the desired benefits sought (i.e., consumers may draw on all three accounts at different times to advance different identity goals)—an issue we turn to next.

Authenticating Strategies

The previous section demonstrated that informants actively sought self-authentication across a wide variety of contexts. In each account informants related authenticity to positive identity benefits and in so doing gave precedence to certain information cues while downplaying or ignoring others that were inconsistent with their assessment. In this way each informant was an active consumer (or creator) of authenticity rather than a passive receiver of information. The active processing of information to give preference to self and/or situationally relevant cues has been revealed in a number of studies on authenticity (as identified in the Theoretical Background). This processing involves motivated reasoning and more particularly the biasing and elaboration of certain pieces of information for use as evidence in determining what is authentic (Kunda 1990). Goffman (1959) identified that, while there is a strong desire to have others know us as we really are, the reality of time and a myriad of other pressures result in purposeful editing and a selective projection of information in an attempt to convey the authentic self. As part of the motivated reasoning process, our informants employed four strategies (placement, inference, reduction, and projection).

The first strategy we identified was placement. Interestingly, where Arnould and Price (2000) identified internal orientations (such as spontaneity or intrinsic valuing) conducive to self-authentication, we found that informants located themselves externally in particular places or situations conducive to self-authentication. This involved traveling to places, attending events, engaging in particular experiences, and remaining loyal to certain brands. Across our accounts was a deliberate search for particular places that offered the possibility of self-authentication. In the section above, various informants stressed the number of times they had traveled overseas or emphasized their regular attendance at key events or ritualistic attendance at certain events. In seeking outcomes associated with virtue, Caroline traveled widely before settling on India as a favored destination (and, as identified in her passage, she seeks a particular part of India—that not tainted by Western consumerism). Accounts of connection were replete with examples of placement, including using shows such as The Simpsons as a conduit for familial connection and shared experience (Rowena). Finally, accounts of control featured stories about going to the back region to seek out “life as it really is,” as opposed to “the front people put on” (William and Kate). In each case, placement involved informants availing themselves of a means to enact their identity goals.

Motivated reasoning involves accentuating information that confirms identity or preferred outcome/position while giving less credence to contradictory evidence (Kunda 1990). Within the passages provided, informants regularly inferred meaning from events, people, or cues in their interpretation of authenticity. For example, to feel part of a shared experience, informants seeking to connect would infer shared motives and values among other participants at their chosen event—Nick, for example, took it for granted that other cyclists shared the same motives for being at the Round the Bay in a Day ride. Likewise Zoe inferred like-mindedness and commitment to community from the intent (sponsorship) of local surf shops. Caroline infers from the friendliness of locals and their impoverished conditions that they have transcended selfish motives or material desires. Tony and the other informants infer from emotional brand messages a desire to trick consumers into parting with their money.

Reduction involves eliminating superfluous elements to find the essence of a brand. For example, despite Tony’s claim that ING only focuses on rational product performance in its advertisements, this statement represents the result of removing the lifestyle messages in the brand’s marketing communications (advertising for the brand features Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, who emphasizes that by choosing ING you are a smarter person—in contrast to Tony’s claim to the contrary). William’s assessment of the redesigned VW Beetle involves stripping away the marketing claims and focusing on whether the new version resembles the original one he owned and loved—“I don’t believe what they have put down as words because it’s just marketing words and hype. But I look at the product itself, and I can relate to the product because you can still see an outline of the old car.” Likewise, accounts of virtue involve reducing the brand to a “moral core,” while accounts of connection focused on evidence that suggested being part of a community—such as heritage, adoption by the mass market, and ubiquity.

The strategy of projection has been identified in previous research on authenticity, particularly where informants must negotiate paradoxical situations. For example, several of Rose and Wood’s (2005) informants projected desired values onto cast members in reality television shows in order to build an authentic connection with the show. Our informants projected their desired identities onto events in order to reinforce their personal narrative and gain desired benefits. For example, in seeking virtue, Caroline projected her desired values onto Indian locals whose friendliness reflected a certain moral stance. Tony engaged in projection in his discussion of the ING brand. Central to Tony’s account of ING’s authenticity is that it provides him with factually testable information to allow him to make the best possible judgment. This reflects Tony’s desired identity (as did Michael’s discussion about Apple) as someone who has achieved the best possible outcomes by applying his resources (knowledge, effort, skills, wisdom). Rowena and Zoe project their motives for attending various events onto other attendees to reinforce the belief that they are connected to a community. Nick projects his belief that he is a “true cyclist” onto the Campagnolo brand—he determines that Campagnolo creates quality products to benefit the cycling community because it focuses only on cycling.

Discussion

Our findings contribute to our understanding of the consumption and production of authenticity in a number of ways. We identify that, when consumers have different goals, they seek authenticity in different kinds of experiences. Three broad goals are identified (control, connection, and virtue) that drive the systematic selection and evaluation of different consumption experiences as being (in)authentic. However, despite the different goals, experiences, and cues, our informants shared a common quest—the desire for the real, true, and genuine (i.e., the authentic). That is, consumers ultimately seek the same thing (authenticity) in different objects, brands, and events for different reasons (control, connection, and/or virtue). In articulating our findings, we also provide an overarching framework for understanding consumer judgments of authenticity. Our findings demonstrate a hierarchy of meaning and causality in regard to the production of the authentic. This is identified in figure 2.

Figure 2

The Manifestation of Authenticity in Objects, Brands, and Experiences (OBE)

Figure 2 identifies the interconnectedness between consumers’ search for authenticity; different categories of experiences that lead to assessments of genuineness, reality, and truth (control, connection, and virtue); and specific experiences that lead to assessments of control, connection, and virtue. Importantly, notions of control, connection, and virtue are not in and of themselves authentic; rather they are viewed as authentic only when they lead to genuineness, reality, and/or truth. Specific objects, brands, and events provide the means by which consumers make assessments of control, connection, and virtue, and therefore judgments of authenticity. The same event may be judged (in)authentic by the same or different consumers depending on the goal. For example, the Simpsons may provide the route to connection (and genuineness and authenticity) for Rowena because of the show’s ubiquity, while in a different context the show may provide her with a feeling of control because of its child-friendly content (lack of profanity, violence, racism, etc.).

In identifying the influence of personal goals on judgments of authenticity, we counter claims by Baudrillard (1988) and Eco (1986) that authenticity is impossible where common standards for what is real or fake are lacking. The problem with this line of thinking is that it presupposes universal standards. However, as our findings clearly show, different personal goals and standards enable people to find authenticity in a range of objects, brands, and events that others may deem as fake. Therefore, we add support to Rose and Wood’s (2005) notion of hyperauthenticity, in which consumers actively construct personally useful notions of the authentic. In doing so, we also identify the consumer as an adept, creative, and capable producer of authenticity against a background of seemingly competing societal norms.

In contrast to previous research or philosophical reflections on authenticity, the informants in this study found authenticity in functional and ubiquitous objects. Far from needing to be rescued from mass culture (Benjamin 1960; Boyle 2003), authenticity was found in mainstream events and brands, including fast food, mass fashion and entertainment, and bathroom products. Our research also helps to explain Grayson and Martinec’s (2004) finding that consumers attributed authenticity to a Sherlock Holmes tourist site. For many Anglo-Saxon consumers, Sherlock Holmes was a childhood hero and a part of social reality. Thus, such a tourist site enables visitors to reconnect with shared childhood experiences and provides a coherent account of Holmes’s life that fits with the socially constructed view of reality. Put simply, the object (the Holmes site) is a vehicle for people to connect.

By identifying the goal-contingent nature of authenticity judgments and the standards and strategies employed, these findings provide a bridge between previous and future research on the consumption of authenticity. They also go some way toward reducing the fragmented nature of research on authenticity (see Beverland 2005). To date, the majority of this research has focused on the cues that indicate authenticity. Although such research is necessary, there are two major limitations in such studies: first, they result in a diversity of conceptualizations of authenticity; second, they are unable to account for unexpected results, such as consumer inclination to attribute authenticity to the fictional (Grayson and Martinec 2004). The identification of a contingent relationship between consumer goals and particular cues overcomes this latter limitation, suggesting that the relationship between how one achieves self-authentication and authenticates an object is tighter than previously suggested (Grayson and Martinec 2004; Leigh et al. 2006).

As well as providing an overarching framework for previous research on cues, we also identify processes consumers use to realize the benefits of authenticity. Rose and Wood’s (2005) focus on the processes underpinning authenticity judgments represents an important point of departure from previous research because it avoids dichotomies between the real and the fake and focuses on how consumers interpret authenticity in everyday events. We extend this by drawing explicit links between identity goals and the means by which consumers authenticate brands, thus locating process issues within the consumer’s life world.

One such example of process strategy that adds to our understanding of the inclination to negotiate paradox (Rose and Wood 2005) and suspend disbelief (Belk and Costa 1998; Grayson and Martinec 2004) is that, through repeated exposure (placement) to the context—for example, online social networks—other goal-oriented processes such as inference or projection become paramount as they enable consumers to attach themselves to idealized values or identities that validate their concept of self (Schau and Gilly 2003). Extending this further, and consistent with Rose and Wood’s (2005) thinking, advancement of the self-authentication goal (e.g., validation through online social networking of the importance one places on community) may in future engagements overshadow any concerns that elements of the experience might be inauthentic.

We also extend Arnould and Price’s (2000) focus on outcomes of self-authentication by identifying how consumers deal with the seeming flux of the postmodern marketplace. By accounting for goals (benefits), standards, and processes, we highlight the creativity or adeptness of consumers in finding authenticity in the postmodern world. Just as an overemphasis on the self or the other may lead to isolation and alienation or a lack of individuality, our informants are aware of the need to forge an identity that marries the self-interest with community norms while tapping into universal moral norms. These findings suggest that consumers are very adept at adjusting to changes in the macro environment (see Thompson 2000). Far from struggling to distinguish real from fake (hyperreality) or suffering identity crises from declines in traditional markers of authenticity, our informants were highly competent when it came to sorting real from fake, creating the genuine through selective use of cues and finding, retaining, reinforcing, reimagining, and creating traditions. Also evident in the findings is the consumers’ chameleon-like ability to adapt to, or morph across, changing surroundings by drawing on particular strategies, standards, and cues to achieve self-authentication.

Figure 2 identifies the relationship between specific objects, brands, and experiences and the search for authenticity. In this search, consumers may look for indexical cues that signal authenticity. However, consumers may also transform iconic cues (using the four strategies identified herein) into indexical ones. That is, successful goal attainment involves consumers taking personal ownership of experiences, thus giving objects, brands, and/or events an indexical character. Although Beverland et al. (2008) suggest that indexicality and iconicity are interrelated, our findings identify why this is so and how iconic cues are transformed into indexical ones. Future research is needed to examine whether some goals are more powerful than others in achieving this transformation.

Several other potential lines of inquiry emerge from our findings. First, it is unlikely that we have uncovered all the goals, underpinning standards, and strategies that underpin different interpretations of authenticity in consumption. Research is therefore needed to expand upon our findings. Future research on the effectiveness of each strategy (or strategies) in achieving self-authentication goals is also needed. Although we identified four strategies underpinning authenticity judgments, we were not able to examine whether consumers used single strategies or specific mixtures of strategies when seeking particular goals. For example, is placement critical for connection but not so important for control? Further interpretive and experimental research is needed to explore this issue.

The second stream of future research requires a shift of focus from the authentic/inauthentic dichotomy to how consumers reconcile competing interpretations of what is authentic. Informants such as Ross and Phil adopt different approaches when dealing with conflicts between different standards. Ross, for example, compartmentalizes meanings associated with McDonald’s so that it is seen as authentic when desiring a quick and safe meal overseas but is judged less than favorably when viewed from a moral standpoint. Phil, in contrast, synthesizes the competing standards of control and virtue by using the SUV both as a symbol of his personal effectiveness and material gain and as a reminder to be even more mindful of environmental issues in other aspects of his life. Future research is needed to explore the means by which consumers deal with competing standards. Such research could explore the creative approaches used by consumers to manage this tension and the capabilities underpinning this creativity.

It may also be possible to gain a richer understanding of the processing of information by examining if the self-authentication motive biases information processing in predictable ways. Beverland et al. (2008) propose that literal or indexical authenticity is desired when correct but prompt in situ decisions are necessary. For example, in the context of beer selection, cues that clearly reinforce one message and the absence of cues that undermine this message are desired when informants want to make the correct beer choice. Thus, Beverland et al. (2008) provide evidence for a relationship between a desired benefit and the process of reduction. We find a similar result in relation to control—brand claims are reduced to key performance-related information. Future research could investigate these relationships using controlled experiments.

Gergen (1991) proposes that the postmodern self is essentially a relational self. The pluralistic framework proposed here supports such a view as consumers draw on capabilities to relate to their immediate surroundings, a sense of community, and humanity in general. As well, the capabilities demonstrated by our informants in reconciling conflicts between competing interpretations of authenticity suggest that the capable consumer is similar to the protean self, whereby authenticity is realized by not only recognizing but embracing the complexity and ambiguity of postmodern life. The three interpretations of what is real, genuine, or true provide insight into how consumers manage to create a self that is at once fluid and grounded (the protean self), in that they emphasize the continuous effort consumers engage in when seeking to create a self capable of the multiple presentations necessary in a postmodern environment (Lifton 1993, 8–9).

References

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