The importance of being (or appearing) authentic

Political wonks often like to think about the next big thing in political and electoral campaigning. I personally have the feeling it could be authenticity. Take a closer look at UK politics for example: on the one hand you have the evidently staged David Cameron and Ed Miliband. You can sense that every performance, every appearance, even every joke they make, have been prepared, rehearsed and carefully choreographed in advance.  Now contrast this with the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. The latter couple have generally managed to pass themselves off as genuine. Just consider Johnson’s knack for getting into trouble by saying one outrageous thing or another. And consider Farage’s “pints and fags” profile. One gets the feeling they have both managed to create colourful personas for themselves that distinctly stand out in a world of bland politicians, who always try not to trample on anyone’s toes or sensibilities and govern by opinion polls and focus groups.

That is not to say of course that these personas are necessarily real. I suspect that even Boris’s hair is somehow kept purposefully untidy, while Nigel’s background hardly lends itself to the image of the “guy next door”. But that is par for the course. The important thing, speaking strictly from a campaigning and public perception perspective, is that they have convinced a significant number of people that what they see is what they actually get. They are recognisable and appear convincingly authentic and genuine. Voters have, to a large extent, caught up with many of the existing tricks in the communications book. They can more easily see through the curtain, meaning that today’s campaign advisor needs to not only make his or her candidate look nice but also genuinely nice. It is definitely a tall order.

The creation of an image is of course only part of the story. A politician needs to also have at least some content, ideas, policies, convictions. Investing far too much in just an image risks moving things to the other extreme: veering dangerously towards populism and demagoguery, seeming as if lacking seriousness for high office. But in a political era where the mainstream Left and Right are blunting their ideological swords, coming closer together in pursuit of the “Holy Grail” of the Political Centre Ground, standing out from the crowd undoubtedly gives one an edge.

Yes, image, and nowadays, convincing image, has undoubtedly increased in importance, often at the expense of a clear ideological identity. Perhaps appearance and content are like Frank Sinatra’s “love and marriage”: they go together like a horse and carriage. Care to guess which is which?