February 5, 2016
Once upon a time, I occasionally played with Barbie dolls when it was too rainy to build forts outside. My Barbies lived in a fold-up dream house that could transform from a triangle-roofed cottage to a mansion that really just consisted of two long decks that I decorated with unicorn stickers.
Apparently it never rained in Barbie World.
In retrospect, I never thought of Barbie as a real person or an authentic expression of anything. Instead, she opened a gateway to pure fantasyland, where both you and Barbie could be rock stars, peaches-‘n’-cream dreams and important business ladies at the same time. Still, I never aspired to be Barbie. I preferred to launch her yellow RV bus down the steep hill of our driveway until it crashed on its side.
Fast-forward a few decades. So far, I’ve led a lot of social media efforts for different brands in my career, and there’s often a certain tension between the real and the aspirational. When I worked on the Nature Valley brand, we experimented with bringing its purpose of encouraging people to experience the great outdoors to life in different types of nature photos. No one wanted to see photos of a suburban backyard – that’s too close, too real. Instead, they engaged with awe-inspiring mountainscapes and impossibly blue alpine lakes. In other words, they wanted an excuse to daydream. Plan adventures that may or may not ever happen. Imagine a new kind of life touring the country in their log-cabin-inspired tiny house on wheels.
Like Barbie, those epic nature shots beckoned people to step into fantasyland. If you think about it, social media offers a continuous opportunity to turn a dream into a carefully crafted expression of reality. If you’re carving out your own digital persona, you can be anyone you want to be – and you can make other people believe in your particular dream. If you’re shaping the digital persona for a brand, you can invite people into an aspirational world that the brand somehow makes more accessible.
But what happens when lots of people – and a slew of brands – start to grasp at the same dreams with the same visual cues?
I’ll answer that one: Clichés happen.
Several months ago, Wired ran a story with an interesting headline: “Hipster Barbie Is So Much Better at Instagram Than You Are.” The opening graf pretty much says it all: “Barbie’s traded her pink Corvette for a Subaru, her designer purse for a Filson backpack, and her ordinary specs for Warby Parkers. She’s living #authentic, celebrating #socality, and effortlessly being so much better than you.”
The woman behind the @socalitybarbie account, Darby Cisneros, cut the finger off a knit glove to give Socality Barbie her authentic winter cap; her backpack was hand-made from a patch; her so-authentic-it-hurts Pendleton blanket is merely a piece of felt with painted stripes. And she aimed for satire: “People were all taking the same pictures in the same places and using the same captions,” she says. “I couldn’t tell any of their pictures apart so I thought, ‘What better way to make my point than with a mass-produced doll?’”
She places Socality Barbie in the quintessential poses that represent the #liveauthentic lifestyle. Barbie often has her back to the camera as she contemplates how blessed she is, a mountain lake calling to her to live closer to the earth. She hangs on to her authentic vintage hat, a line of railroad track disappearing into the trees beyond. She goes on the ultimate #PNW hikes with her pal, Kent, an authentic barista/model/writer/woodworker. She graces the cover of the authentic person’s bible, Kinfolk. She offers up wisdom such as “Whatever consumes your mind controls your life.”
She’s just so authentic, in case you didn’t get the message. And the satire is brilliant.
But it also suggests a cautionary tale. While the @socalitybarbie story aims to poke fun at shallow Instagram accounts, I also think it serves up a hearty dose of insight about how some brands play in the social media space. If a collection of competitor brands, for example, are all tapping into the same visual cues, how does any one of them gain a stronger foothold on the market? How do consumers tell them apart? What happens to brand loyalty if a bunch of, say, puffy-jacket manufacturers all participate in the same mountain-scene seduction?
So thank you, Socality Barbie. You’ve definitely got me thinking about what authenticity means in the art of brand storytelling, in the play between the real and the imagined.