Recently, a standard, celebrity endorsement TV commercial started a mini-firestorm across the blogosphere, twitter and even mainstream media.
In the spot, Jennifer Lopez seemingly drives through the Bronx in a Fiat and describes how much her old hood means to her:
It turns out, as exposed by The Smoking Gun and other blogs, when JLo tells us how the Bronx neighborhood where she grew up inspires her "to be tougher, to stay sharper, to think faster", she is actually in L.A. doing a voiceover -- and the person we see in the Fiat is a body double.
To make matters worse, reporter Ed Morales witnessed the shoot (it took place close to his home), and took a photo that showed that the car in the commercial actually broke down.
If this weren't enough, the graffiti artists who created the giant heart you see at the beginning of the spot, also cried foul. Their work, which Fiat used without permission, is copyrighted (Fiat ended up settling with them out of court).
And then, in the midst of all this, during Lopez's performance at the American Music Awards a Fiat appeared suddenly in the middle of her act, offering an instance of product placement so blatant, a fellow performer questioned her integrity. The Fiat appears a little over a minute in...
The Authenticity Dilemma
Amusing as all these exposes are, initially I came away wondering, as Anderson Cooper did, what all the outrage was about.
After all, part of advertising's mystique has to do with the whole real or fake dilemma ads pose. This is a genre of communication that delights in ambiguity. Think of the iconic headline that launced Clairol in the U.S.: "Does she or doesn't she?"
You could even argue that one of the thrills consumer goods provide is the tantalizing possibiity that they allow you to try out and even adopt new identities.
But with a little reflection, I could see why people got irked. Lopez has built her brand around the image of a superstar who keeps it real by staying in touch with her roots. Who can forget those lines from her most famous song:
"Don't be fooled by the rocks that I got
I'm still, I'm still Jenny from the block."
And it's this aura of authenticity that Fiat wants to associate with its cars. Here is Fiat's marketing guru, Olivier Francois:
"Jennifer fits perfectly with the brand not because of who she is but because of what she is -- authentic, passionate, modern, and a fighter determined to stand out from the rest. As you look at her career path, she embodies the Fiat philosophy, 'Life is Best When Driven.'"
Francois has reason to be confident with such a strategy. He used the "authenticity" sell in his remarkably successful re-launch of Chrysler -- with TV spots starring blue-collar heroes like Eminem and others (covered on this blog here and here). And an earlier viral video ad connected with the Lopez campaign ranked 4th most popular of its genre this year.
Nevertheless, you can see the contradiction contemporary ideas of authenticity often entail. Francois praises Lopez for her driven, competitive personality. She is authentic because, despite the odds against her, she fought for her individual vision.
Yet, the spot isn't so much about her individuality, but her loyalty to her community. In fact, it's her "street cred" that affords her, as a performer, much of her bravado, swagger and authority.
Perhaps, then, the source of irritation with this spot drives from an issue Michael Lally (from Lally's Alley) has brought to my attention recently -- that of co-optation.
The fact that Lopez and Fiat simulated her cruise through the Bronx, appropriating its urban art, street scenes and people for their own uses, no doubt seemed to offer a particularly ungraceful example of cultural co-optation.
All of which makes me wonder if questions of authenticty become particularly acute for celebrities with working class roots. On the one hand, they've got to transcend, even betray, their backgrounds to get over.
On the other, they've got to stay loyal to their cultural milieu in order to use it credibly -- especially if their artistic personas draw on their class or ethnic identity.
In any case, Fiat must be hoping the accusations about the ad's fakery don't reflect upon their car.
For in the past, Fiat has had its own problems with authenticity. I've read that the last time the brand made a push for the U.S. market, instead of a hip, urban ride, it got a reputation as a car that broke down a lot.
The brand's name, in fact, became an acronym for "Fix It Again, Tony." Thoughts?