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Absolut and authenticity

So, why did the clever but heavy-handed Absolut Brooklyn marketing campaign strike such an awkward chord with some people? (More discussion here, here, and here.)

I think it has to do with contested term authenticity, which got a lot of play in February, thanks to sociologist Sharon Zukin's new book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, and subject of a major New York Times article.

What exactly is authenticity? Zukin writes:
Claiming authenticity becomes prevalent at a time when identities are unstable and people are judged by their performance rather than by their history or innate character. Under these conditions authenticity differentiates a person, a product, or a group from its competitors; it confers an aura of moral superiority, a strategic advantage that each can use to its own benefit. In reality, few groups can be authentic in the contradictory ways that we use the term: on the one hand, being primal, historically first or true to a traditional vision, and on the other hand, being unique, historically new, innovative, and creative. In modern times, though it may not be necessary for a group to be authentic; it may be enough to claim to see authenticity in order to control its advantages.
Authenticity at work

So the Barclays Center markets "brownstone" and "loft" suites, and a canvas bag distributed at the groundbreaking places the giant arena next to the Brooklyn Bridge.

A nondescript new residential tower is dubbed The Brooklyner, and its advertising fudges the neighborhood description to encompass more amenities.

"New residents are using this idea of authenticity to soften their entrance into Brooklyn," observed academic and former Brooklynite Jonathan Silverman at the Dreamland Pavilion conference last October.

He cited retail and entertainment businesses like the bar Brooklyn Social, which maintain names, signage, or details from the past, even as they are part of a neighborhood's gentrification.

Authenticity and Absolut

Enter Absolut Brooklyn. A Swedish vodka company with a commodity product--albeit tweaked slightly with flavor--and a history of innovative advertising went local by enlisting a beloved film director (and advertising maker), Spike Lee, and a deft spoken word artist, Lemon Andersen.

They signed up to sponsor the Brooklyn Blogfest, which is fine, but Lee's highly-touted presentation turned into a self-censored Absolut commercial--"This is to celebrate Absolut, so we're not going to get into gentrification tonight"--rather than an opportunity for dialogue.

Absolut, aiming at a new tradition--there's no history of Brooklyn vodka, unlike, say, Brooklyn beer--not only got Lee to put a Brooklyn stoop on the vodka bottle, but recruited bloggers (in some cases requesting a quota of posts) to write about Absolut and Brooklyn stoop life.

The problem? Absolut saw it as "a viral, underground effort" and, until criticism surfaced, several collaborators didn't see fit to disclose their compensation from Absolut.

As far as I can tell, Absolut's partners genuinely didn't think there was anything wrong with the deal.

(Absolut should've known better--it may be an FTC issue--and Blogfest organizers should've provided some leadership. And bloggers in general are getting a reminder that even if they don't think of themselves as journalists they may have some ethical responsibilities.)

Had Absolut done it as a contest--inviting independent bloggers and others to submit Brooklyn stoop stories for prizes--it might have reaped a good deal of the same publicity.

But it wouldn't have been as coordinated, or viral. Nor as authentic.


  1. Absolut's marketing plan for this was slapdash and devoid of any real connection to Brooklyn, regardless of Spike and Marty Markowitz's appearance.

    The organizer of Blogfest probably was just so happy to be recognized (or used, depending on your point of view) by a major corporation that she couldn't even consider the ethical downsides of such a partnership. The Absolut proposal should have raised so many flags and that it didn't makes me think wow.

    I think Blogfest and other grassroots event producers want to have corporate sponsorships similar to BAM and the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

    This is where their desire for authenticity (or for people to believe they are authentic) clashes with the reality of the marketplace.

    And on some level, it's understandable because money + social currency is important to people regardless of their zip code.

    It would be nice for honesty to go along with it.


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