I've heard it claimed more than once that, in focus groups, women universally love Dove's 'Campaign for Real Beauty' positioning. Nonetheless, when it comes to getting ready for a Friday night out, these very same women will reach for a more aspirational brand instead.
What interests me isn't the extent to which this anecdote is true or not but the contention at its core. That at the all-important moment of truth there are times when unconsciously or otherwise we choose fantasy over authenticity.
As the agency which has proudly helped L'Oréal create and popularise beauty trends over the last forty years, we understand better than most the effect cultural context has upon the relative importance of these two drivers. So it was interesting to watch the brief news meltdown that accompanied the release of Melania Trump's official White House portrait. Before long every Tom, Dick and Sally with a keyboard had spewed forth their unsolicited opinion. Much of it unsurprisingly centered around its high-fashion styling.
In and of itself this shouldn't really surprise us. Michelle Obama and even Barbara Bush came in for the same critique...black dress (timeless), pearls (unthreatening), conspicuously displayed wedding ring (family values), sitting or standing (strong or approachable) etc. etc. The public knows these things are heavily choreographed so why all the fuss over this particular portrait? What should we infer of the cultural zeitgeist from the Western world's Twitterverse? Pre-Pepsi implosion that is.
On the face of it, Melania represents a welcome counterweight to The Donald's brash arrogance. The first naturalized First Lady in the country's history, for whom English is a second language; the Slovenian immigrant from a modest background. She's protective of her kids, wants to tackle cyber-bullying, and seems relatably uncomfortable in her newfound megawatt media spotlight. And yet here's a portrait that screams glamour, and not just any glamour, but a super-charged 80s Farrah Fawcett meets Stephanie Powers kind of glamour. Arms crossed, lips glossed, hair coiffed, a detached 'approach me if you dare' kind of glamour. Melania's inscrutable gaze is pure TV land fantasy.
But, hang on a minute, aren't we told we're living in the era of authenticity? It's the mot du jour - plaguing briefs and brand onions throughout adland in the way that 'passionate' did a few years ago. We advertisers zealously tell clients that the path to lasting, more meaningful connections between their brand and customers isn't image but relatability. It's not just what you say but what you do that signals to your audience that you're their pal and not just another anonymous corporate hydra. If we think of the FLOTUS brand, wasn't Michelle Obama the very embodiment of this kind of relatable authenticity? Friendly smile, active and inclusive body language, a whirlwind of activism for women and girls everywhere. So what should we make of Melania's frosty portrait demeanor? Have we gone backwards or, if this is forwards, have we advertisers got it all wrong?
The Independent quoted one woman's tweet in response to the portrait as "This look is so unrealistic to the average woman". Well yes, but perhaps that's precisely the point. People no longer crave relatable authenticity, from FLOTUS or any other brand. If Trump and Brexit have taught us anything it's that we're not good with complex realities; be it NHS funding, the pensions crisis, or the impact robotic automation will have upon the global job market. In a world of complexity, we crave the simple and the straightforward. Gove was right when he said "Britain has had enough of experts" ...and guys forget about Article 50, let's focus on 'Legs-it' yeah! In times of great upheaval and stress or even just when you want to feel a million dollars on a Friday night, authenticity takes a back seat to fantasy. Melania's official portrait may yet prove to be quintessentially of our time. I'm not sure anyone believes she's this strong but she certainly projects strength and maybe that's enough. The comforting aspiration of her portrait may not match the relatability of her actions, but at least she manages to look human which, frankly, is more than can be said for her husband's Mar a Lago 'The Visionary' portrait.