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Perspectives

Authenticity
Authenticity

Shawn Mak

Creative authenticity and the art of advertising deception

Last month I ran what’s called the Boy Scout Tree Trail. Located in Northern California’s Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, this is a magnificent sprawl of ancient redwood forests sprouting out of plush carpets offerns, which a few miles in, give way to huckleberry bushes. This undulating trail is a breathtaking showcase of the world’s best redwood scenery. But it isn’t a very long one, and I quickly found myself reaching Fern Falls, which is the turnaround point. Instead of hoofing it back, I continued pounding the trails and soon found myself traversing the Shasta-Trinity Mountains, a rugged region of remote beaches, with more ancient redwoods and thundering herds of Roosevelt elk. We’re talking hundreds of miles inland.

Before you get too impressed, it’s not because I’m that great a distance runner. I owe it to great equipment. So bless the good folks at LifeFitness; they have produced a treadmill that lets runners run from the New Zealand mountains to the Arizona deserts without so much as lift a passport. The machine is truly intelligent. Besides giving the runner a first-person view of the trail (there are several to choose from) on an LED screen, the machine automatically adjusts the incline to match the undulations of the terrain. It’s as close to being out on the trails as you can get.

Is it cheating? You betcha.

With technology, we can cheat just about anything and anyone. We’ve worked with photographers who can convincingly turn day shots into night, I’ve seen water bottles sweat cold beads under the sun even though it’s holding just lukewarm water (and there wasn’t any sun). Add to that the neverending parade of clients’ requests: Can we make her eyes bigger, make me smile wider, erase the years from those trophies, have the dog wear glasses and happier….

Yup, clients are onto us. They know everything is possible with the marvels of modern-day digital imaging. Unfortunately, they’re also less likely to want to invest in original photography now (when a generic stock image, coupled with some nifty DI will do!), and are reticent about spending much time at shoots (“2 days? Let’s do it in 1. You can make up for it in post, right? It’s cheaper.”). They’re taking approvals more lightly too; after all, they can always change their minds and make us “fix it later”. It’s lamentable.

I attended an Adobe Create Now event back in Jul, where a photographer said something that struck home: That we shouldn’t take a photo and spend half our lives manipulating it to perfection, but that we should aspire to take perfect photos, which we can then improve if needed. (Ironic, considering the event’s programming highlight was wowing us with the latest image manipulation tools that we can adopt into our creative process)

It just isn’t the same.

J.J. Abrams and the Star Wars cast knows this. There is just no substitute for real sets and real actors. The Force Awakens used lots of practical effects to ground the film, giving it a denser, much richer and relatable experience that feels more believable and present than anything Lucas ever conjured up in the prequels, where everything was digitally rendered. Tarantino and Scorsese know this, which is why they’re passionate about championing films as films rather than mp4s. There is a certain quality (a warmth, urgency, ineffable beauty and authenticity) in real life constructs that will forever be missing if we’re merely pixel pushing. Anyone working with creativity ought to know this.

So maybe we deserve the bad rep we get in advertising: That it’s a sham. There is no authenticity in design and advertising. Not when there is so much creative sorcery we are all capable and guilty of as an industry. Our plea to clients (if you are one and reading this), is to work with your agency to create perfection, and then improve it if necessary. Your first instincts shouldn’t be to ask them to cheat authenticity. Authenticity always wins.

So for awhile now, I’ve been craving the headwinds in the forest, acknowledging fellow runners on the trail, and pining for the smell of nature (oh the smell of nature!). But until the haze clears and nature smells less like polluted air and burning wood, visual trickery and self-deception (and LifeFitness) are all I’ve got.