Authentic Representation | Marketing Practices

Authentic Representation is a depiction of (1) who you want to be (2) created without deception. Let us explore these two elements individually.

Who you want to be is the vision for your organization, program, university or self. This vision is an expression of values. If your program aspires to be environmentally sustainable, then you may have recycling quotas or a carbon offsetting program. And you would depict these values in marketing materials through photography of students’ recycling, for example. Because this depiction is an expression of values, it is necessarily idealized. That is, who you want to be is the ideal.

Deception is the false presentation of your actual program. How many pounds of material you recycle or how much carbon offset you purchase are the objective details of your program. That is, those details are who you concretely are — the actual. To exaggerate or alter these details is deceptive. For example, if your program has no recycling program, photography of students recycling would be misleading. Even if your intentions are good, the ideal cannot override the actual.

Because your program is always striving to be better, there is always a tension between the ideal (who you want to be) and the actual (who you are). Authentic Representation occurs when the two are appropriately balanced. For example, imagine your program is constructing an environmentally friendly building. You could use photography of students raising money, blueprints for the building or your LEED certification. These photographs demonstrate your green ambitions, without suggesting that you are further than you actually are.

The tension between the ideal (who you want to be) and the actual (who you are) is at the heart of Authentic Representation. To depict only the actual is to ignore the ideal; to depict only the ideal ignores the actual. This tension reveals that you must depict both at the same time. And to do that, you must show the process of the actual becoming the ideal. That is, you show the process of attaining your vision.

In the above example, blueprints are one step in the process of attaining a green building. Therefore, blueprints are proof that who you are (a typical campus) is becoming who you want to be (a green campus). As such, they depict the actual and the ideal at the same time. Blueprints demonstrate the process of attaining your vision.

Accordingly, inauthentic images are inauthentic precisely because they depict premature attainment. For example, using stock photography to attract students of color because you do not have students of color.

More broadly, Inauthentic Representation results when there is a mismatch between the ideal and the actual. That is, a university that desires inclusion without practicing inclusion is inauthentically representing itself. For example, if a university included diversity in its mission statement but failed to offer scholarships to LGBTQ+ students.

Likewise, when a university does not value diversity but supports diversity, it is inauthentically representing itself. For example, when a university publicly rebuffs LGBTQ+ students but internally permits students to establish an LGBTQ+ student group. It may be useful to think about this latter case of Inauthentic Representation in the following terms. Your program could recruit a variety of students and so create a diverse program. However, if those students feel marginalized or disallowed to participate, then your program has failed to achieve its ideals. That is, your program has obtained diversity without achieving diversity.

Authenticity vs. Marketing

At times it may seem like there is also a tension between authenticity and marketing. For example, you may want to show real students, but you also want the “right amount” of diversity in your photo. In that case, is it okay to use stock photography? To hire actors?

One way to answer the above is to ask, “Who benefits?” Does the university benefit because more students seeking diversity and students of color pay tuition (regardless of how they feel once on campus)? Or does the potential student benefit because they have a more accurate understanding of campus culture?

Of course, the above is a false dilemma. “Who benefits?” also reveals that there is actually no inherent tension between marketing and authenticity. There is no reason an advertisement cannot be good for both parties. The role of marketing is to benefit both the consumer and producer — that is, the student and the university. 

If you have a supportive environment or diverse student groups, then you depict them. If you can’t authentically represent a subject, then you must work to build that subject on campus. Otherwise, you choose another communication strategy. For example, your marketing budget may be better spent on scholarships for students of color then on models impersonating them.

Deceptive photography practices are a short-term strategy. You may recruit more students of color or students with disabilities to campus, but they may drop out or feel resentful when they find the environment is not as advertised. Authenticity, on the other hand, gets easier as time goes on.