How to Remain Authentic in a World of Media Literate Consumers

June 10, 2022

With the world at our fingertips, it can feel as if access to information in the form of a Google search on a 4-inch screen is a human right. When you have a question, want directions to a restaurant or want to connect with a friend from childhood, you use the Internet and rely on the businesses on it to provide you with the right information. We blindly trust that the information we are provided in accurate because it is the Internet, and the Internet knows all.

However, what happens when the information isn’t accurate and doesn’t tell the whole truth? One of the great foundations of the United States is freedom of speech but with freedom of speech comes to freedom to say things that are misleading or untrue, so long as they don’t harm another person.

Why would someone do that? To fulfill an agenda they have, to get you to buy a product, believe certain things, perform an action. Even though not every person, company, or entity that puts out misleading or not fully factual information is ill-intentioned, consumers have an overwhelming distaste for being misled.

Demonstrating the Overwhelming Number of Messages We are Faced with Every Second of the Day, Advertising in Times Square, NY via Medium

This is where media literacy comes in.

Media literacy is the ability to decode the messages we are receiving through various media platforms, assess how we feel about those messages and what the company may have been trying to get us to feel, and determine what action we are going to take next.

In a world where every aspect of culture, every field of study, every hobby, interest, etc is likely involved in some aspect of the media it is now more important than ever that companies and consumers alike, are well versed in media literacy. Hence, the creation of Authen.

1. Back to the Basics

Before you can practice media literacy as a company, you must first establish what your goals and values are. You can’t determine if you’re meeting your authenticity standards if you don’t even know what those standards are to begin with. With the ever-increasing impact media has on our day-to-day lives, many scholars view media literacy as an evaluation of civic responsibility. Does this company value things that I value? What do their values say about how they treat others? Hence, it is no longer enough to say that a company has values, but in order to build that relationship with the consumer who is becoming educated on how to decipher whether your output matches your initial values, it is critical that the values you establish at the beginning of forming the company, business, brand, etc are at the forefront of every meeting and every sale. Values are no longer the foundation, they are the outside paint, the flowers in the garden, the freshly cut grass, and every other aspect visible to the consumer.

2. Know Your Audience

This may seem counterintuitive but in the world of media literacy, knowing one’s audience takes on a whole new meaning. Media literacy is all about analyzing messaging and determining what that message is trying to say and why. This practice of analysis is not free from pre-conceived biases and notions of society that exist in all of us. Therefore, two people can receive the exact same message and come away with two completely different analyses, leaving one customer very pleased and the other customer furious.

This makes it incredibly important as a company, that you one- know your audience and two-are honest with them and be prepared for the biases they may bring with them.

3. Know Thy Enemy (Or At Least Your Competitors)

Despite the overwhelming research regarding the importance of media literacy, not everyone fully believes in its value and therefore, does not do the work to build that relationship of trust and authenticity with their consumers. This gives you an advantage.

Know the information being put out there by other companies, agencies and businesses. See what consumers reactions are to it. Learn from it.

For example, in 2017, Dove created an ad campaign that intended to celebrate diversity and women of color but ultimately reinforced notions of white supremacy. While Dove’s intentions for the campaign were positive, the end result had the opposite effect. For consumers practicing media literacy and trying to determine what the underlying message of the ads was, the values they determined were important to Dove were completely opposite of the values Dove was trying to portray. Hence, other skincare companies can look to Dove as an example of how not to portray the value of diversity.

Consumers ended up viewing the ad as a black women becoming ‘clean’ by turning into a white women. This in fact, was not what Dove intended but that didn’t matter to consumers.

Dove Diversity Ad Claiming to be a company for all skin colors and skin types, via ABC News

This is not to say that agencies should not be creative and try new things for there is risk involved with everything. However, with the onset of media literacy companies should utilize the information already available to them to help craft future messaging. In general, companies would think an ad campaign promoting diversity as a company value can only be successful but when media literacy practices are applied, it can have the opposite effect, as seen above, depending on how they choose to portray it.

4. Practice What You Preach

The whole reason media literacy practices came about was in response to an overwhelming amount of information being put out into the world and an increasing ease with which consumers could access it. And if consumers can access this information, so can companies.

While this is overarchingly a positive thing, more information means more resources and an increased ability to take action and help others, it also means that consumers have lost their willingness to spend time searching for information, and instead, just use the first link, image, article that they see as a source.

Even though businesses, especially PR and communications agencies, are seen as the people who are putting out the information and selling the products, we also take in information as well and is just as important that the information that comes in is as authentic and true as the information we put out.

For example, if Dove decided to push diversity as an important company value, it was likely because they saw a statistic that diversity was becoming important to their consumers, and they wanted to reflect that their products matched the consumers’ values. Hence, it would have been critical that Dove found multiple scholarly articles and sources of data from representative samples that all came to the same conclusion that diversity truly was becoming an important value to consumers.

5. Own Up To Your Actions (Be Authentic)

While this rule should apply to all human interactions and circumstances, it is especially important when it comes to media literacy. There are some who believe media literacy is so important that it should be taught in school, as emphasized by the New York Times.

The article discusses how kids are now growing up in a digital age surrounded by information of all kinds at their fingertips, making it critical that they learn to discern what is true and what is not, at an early age.

While it is unlikely that this will become a topic alongside English and math, it does have serious implications for companies as it means consumers are empowering themselves, at very young ages, to read between the lines and determine what messages a company, agency, business, etc is truly sending. People are fed up with being misled or told false information. They want their power back, and they’re taking it.

In the failed Dove diversity campaign for example, consumers could have stayed silent and continued to accept the narrative. But they didn’t. They spoke out, and as a result, Dove did too. In a public statement, Dove fully owned up to its actions and made a sincere apology. It could have defended its actions and told consumers they were viewing it incorrectly, making consumers angry. Or they could have stayed silent, leaving people to assume guilt. Instead, it was authentic and thereby gained the trust and understanding of consumers which will stick with them as they analyze and interpret advertising campaigns from Dove in the future.

Dove made a formal apology on Twitter following take down of the ad.

At the end of the day, behind every company and consumer is a human being. People make mistakes and have misunderstandings. In a world that has become overtly digitized and de-humanized, it is important to remember the basics of human relationships to foster consumer relationships. No matter how auto generated a company may become, it still relies on people to buy or interact with the product and in order to do so effectively, you need to understand people.

Here at Authen, we try to bring people back to what we have in common, out identity as human beings. Remember that, and these five steps, and you should have no problem building those consumer relationships.

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