Will Reality Ads and User Generated Content Destroy Brand Reputation?

04/14/2015 11:54 am ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015

"It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one to lose it." Benjamin Franklin

I'm fascinated by the rise of reality ads -- a gritty style of communication that looks like it was created by engaged consumers armed with smartphone cameras, not ad agencies with million dollar budgets.

Whether it's stunts purportedly filmed by hidden cameras, or real consumers purportedly speaking their mind, the ads replace traditional, slick persuasion with honesty, spontaneity and authenticity.

Or do they?

We all know reality TV is as authentic as Kim Kardashian. Still, we suspend disbelief for the sake of watching people humiliate themselves in seemingly unscripted fashion. Perhaps it's our subconscious desire to see real stories told by real people. Or maybe we all just love to play voyeur without risking arrest.

Where I stumble, though, is when you insert brand into the equation. Instead of simply watching people get real for our entertainment, we're watching people be real for the purpose of selling us candy bars or soap. The Febreze blindfold ads use a selling formula as old as the hills, but the addition of terrible lighting and bleeped out expletives pushes us closer than ever to the idea that this all just happened. As always, a few astute Youtube commentators poke holes in the reality narrative:

"If you were told that you would be paid for doing a survey and could potentially be in a tv commercial, you're likely to give favourable responses."

"It (the messy setting) may look disgusting but that doesn't mean it smelled disgusting too. No one got to smell it before they sprayed the Febreze."

And best of all:

"Why are the cameras hidden? Those people are all blindfolded anyways!"

All of which raises the question, is the appearance of honesty in advertising the most cynical persuasion technique of all? Anyone who has worked with big brands knows they don't leave their image to chance. Will this faux authenticity become a long term trend, or simply pass like so many other fads?

Honest reviews?

Today, we can get any answer we want in a few clicks. And when it comes to brands, the answers we trust generally come from consumer reviews.

Getting the straight goods from actual buyers is a great thing. But are the reviews real? A Guardian Money investigation uncovered fake reviews "...on an almost industrial scale...", written by freelancers in countries like Bangladesh, India and Indonesia. And a Harvard Business School study estimated that up to 20 percent of Yelp reviews are fake.

Not all fake reviews are intentionally duplicitous. Have you given a colleague an overly generous endorsement on Linkedin, or raved about your author friend's book on Amazon, after reading just the foreword? You probably wouldn't call yourself a fakester, even though you're messing with the honour system. It's a white lie, right?

My point is that technology and social sharing have created a new phenomenon in the brand world. And while things will ultimately self regulate, twisting the power of honesty and 'real' to sell product will create some serious brand reputation carnage.

Violating brand reputation values

Forbes' William Aruda had an astute take on the shades of impact that dishonesty can have on brand reputation. "Martha (Stewart) emerged from prison stronger after serving her time, despite having been convicted of lying to investigators about a well-timed stock sale. She didn't violate her brand promise. If we had learned that Martha can't bake a soufflé or make papier-mache snowflakes, her brand would have evaporated."

Brands take liberties with the truth. We're OK with that, despite the odd grumbling. We understand they want to position themselves in the best light possible. It's up to us to buy that positioning or not.

But when brands are caught crossing over from being vendors to pretending to be consumers, our patience wears thin.

So where will it all lead? Personally, I don't believe we'll turn our back on 'real' -- bringing back airbrushed models and utopian families in commercials. But if you look at this parody of a hidden camera ad, you might think that phenomenon has reached its saturation point. And as bestselling techno-thriller author Brad Thor wrote about a recent fake review scandal in the book industry, "In addition to fake reviews being morally wrong, they're incredibly harmful to our industry."

As is usual with new phenomena, I believe there will be bumps on the way, but brand reputations will continue to thrive or die based on simple integrity. In the long run, you can't fake that.