Special Session Summary Telling the Difference: Consumer Evaluations of Authentic and Inauthentic Market Offerings

Kent Grayson, London Business School
[ to cite ]:
Kent Grayson (2002) ,"Special Session Summary Telling the Difference: Consumer Evaluations of Authentic and Inauthentic Market Offerings", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 44-45.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 44-45



Kent Grayson, London Business School

Many postmodern writers have argued that technology and commercialism have undermined consumers’ ability to tell the difference between the real and the fake. Some claim that consumers have therefore lost interest in telling the difference between the two (e.g., Baudrillard 1983) or that they now prefer the easily accessible replica to the more inaccessible original (e.g., Eco 1983). Frow (1977) (among others) argues that this has destabilized the fundamental Western concept of "authenticity."

Authenticity (and its postmodern antagonist, hyperreality) has already received a modicum of interest from consumer researchers. For example, last year’s ACR annual conference featured papers on "counterfeit culture" and "hyper-real" retail environments. This (and other) previous work has supported two assertions that are relevant to our session proposal. First, there is now empirical evidence that consumers do sometimes prefer the fake to the real (e.g., Lu & Fine 1995). Second, there is also evidence that consumers understand authenticity in different ways, depending on what is being evaluated and under what conditions (e.g., Hughes 1995).

Each of the papers presented at this session addressed additional questions that arise from the above assertions. For example, under what conditions is a consumer’s preference for the inauthentic likely to manifest itself? What marketing activities and consumer discourses are likely to encourage (or discourage) this consumer preference? What specific criteria do consumers use to distinguish between the authentic and the inauthentic?



Kent Grayson, London Business School

Radan Martinec, The London Institute

Two of the most frequently visited tourist attractions in the United Kingdom are the Sherlock Holmes Museum and the Shakespeare Birthplace. These two sites have much in common. Both are associated with a famous personality from British literature. Both are situated where his famous personality is said to have lived (the Holmes Museum is at 221 Baker Street in London and the Shakespeare Birthplace is on Henley Street in Stratford-on-Avon). The site managers at both attractions strive to create an environment where visitors can imagine what the home might have been like when the famous personality lived there. The managers at both places therefore place emphasis on creating an experience for visitors that is "authentic."

However, there is one major difference between the two homes: Most visitors believe that Shakespeare really existed, while most also believe that Holmes is merely fictional. Thus, visitors tend to believe that the Shakespeare Birthplace is actually the location where Shakespeare lived, while the Holmes Museum is merely a mock-up of a fictional world. Our research uses this key difference between the sites to examine how consumer evaluationsBand in particular, their assessments of the authenticity of the two sitesBare affected (or unaffected) by links with fiction or history. In so doing, we examine the broader issues of how our respondents "consume" authenticity and the link between fiction and history.

Based on our analysis of the literature on authenticity, we have identified two key sources of authentic judgments. First, the object can be perceived to have been in physical contact with a famous person. Semiotic analysts refer to this as "indexicality." For example, at the Shakespeare Birthplace, a coat is claimed to have been worn by Shakespeare. Second, the object can be perceived to look like what was expected. Semiotic analysts refer to this as "iconicity." For example, a pipe in the Sherlock Holmes Museum was reported by visitors to look exactly how they envisioned the pipe would look

We also identified two key consumer attitudes that previous researchers have identified as resulting from a judgment that an object is authentic. First, consumers are said to feel as if they have gained a connection with the past. Second, consumers are said to feel as if the object is evidence or proof of something. Part of our research is intended to understand how iconicity and indexicality contribute to these attitudes.

Our research involves two phases of data collection. First, we undertook nearly fifty face-to-face interviews with consumers at each of the attractions. During these interviews, we explored whether or not respondents are sensitive to issues of indexicality and iconicity, and whether either or both are linked in their minds to issues of authenticity and memorability of their experience at the tourist site. Our results from this phase gave us a richer understanding of how consumers experience authenticity at these two sites, and supported our initial view that indexicality and iconicity are indeed potential contributors to consumer assessments of authenticity.

Building from the phase-one results, we developed and tested a valid and reliable scale for measuring the two different sources of authenticity and for quantitatively assessing how indexicality and iconicity contribute to assessments of authenticity. Our results show that both indexicality and iconicity contribute to assessments of authenticity at both sites, but show that indexicality can play an important mediating role in influencing the attitudes that result from authentic assessments.



Gary Bamossy, University of Utah & Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam

While many artists have entered into the realm of legend, where fact and fiction are virtually indistingushable, the mythology of Vincent van Gogh is a unique and particularly striking example of a legend of modern times. His life and works have inspired literature, films, opera, dance, music, pilgrimage, and a thriving industry of kitch. In spite of the well preserved volumes of correspondence from Vincent to other artists, and especially between his brother Theo, there remains as much fiction and myth about Vincent as fact. Van Gogh has been cast as a misunderstood genius, peintre maudit, paradigm of the modern artist, saint, martyr, personification of fraternal love, the painter who sold only one painting during his lifetime, and the painter whose work has fetched the highest prices ever paid for art.

Vincent’s suicide death in France on July 29, 1890 was followed six months later by the death of his brother Theo in a mental illness asylum in Holland. Theo’s early death left the task of introducing Vincent’s oeuvre to Theo’s widow, Johanna. But othersCpainters, critics, poets, novelists, film directors, actors, forgers, art historians, psychiatrists, collectors, patrons, curators and art dealers have been instrumental in creating the myths surrounding Van Gogh. These various discourses from art professionals, academics, and institutions not only create knowledge about Vincent’s life and works, they also become the reality they appear to describe. Even when scholars correct errors in the biography of Vincent, they are in fact often just challenging an outmoded myth, only to create a new one in its place. This research attempts to show how the mythical images of van Gogh have developed over time. Following Barthes’ work on mythology (1957), a critical assessment of the various discourses of Vincent’s life helps to highlight the on-going myth making process, and the ways in which these discourses convey meaning to the consumer and to the consumed (Hulsken, 1985; Costa, 1998).

Starting with the centenary celebration of van Gogh’s death in 1990, I have been collecting data on the images, meanings and beliefs of Vincent van Gogh in the form of interviews, surveys, and commercial materials. In addition to the on-going data collection at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, and the KrĂ·ller-Mnller Museum in Otterlo over the past 11 years, I will also be collecting observational, visual, and informal interview data at the gravesites of Vincent and Theo van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, during the summer of 2001 (a site of Japanese pilgrimage). Combining the critical analysis of discourses on Van Gogh with the various forms of empirical consumer data, this paper will focus on the production and consumption of myths, and why they are important to us. Vincent van Gogh is a myth of substance, and it will be argued in this presentation that his myth is just as important to consumers as his paintings. The data also suggest that the nature of the myths and realities of van Gogh are influenced by the age and nationality of those interviewed, with striking differences between younger and older subjects, and between North American, European, and Japanese admirers of Vincent’s works.



Caroline Lego, Auburn University

Natalie Wood, San Diego State University

Michael R. Solomon, Auburn University

Darach Turley, Dublin City University

Martin O’Neill, Edith Cowan University

Basil Englis, Berry College

Themed environments, from Disney’s EPCOT center to REI’s simulation of camping and outdoor activities in its sporting goods stores, have been touted as a potent enticement to lure shoppers away from their computers ad catalogs and back to the mall. In a related development, some retailers in the restaurant industry (e.g. Rainforest CafT) are cleverly blending traditional hospitality services, merchandising opportunities, and carefully calculated physical design and other atmospheric cues to offer consumption experiences that provide "one-stop shopping" for those wishing to combine entertainment with dining. One manifestation of this trend is restaurants and bars that claim to offer an "authentic" re-creation of another country’s cuisine and culture. An example of this is the proliferation of "real" Irish bars throughout the world. For example, Guinness PLC goes so far as to provide "authentic" pub artifacts to its licensees in Asia and elsewhere.

For many consumers, these artificial qua real environments may literally constitute their sole contact with a foreign culture. Thus, the specific strategies used to represent that culture are important both in terms of their marketing value (i.e., how to design a compelling environment that will lure curious consumers) and in terms of their socialization value (i.e., to what extent do consumers use the cues they encounter in such an environment to construct an image of the culture being represented). Yet as marketers construct these "authentic" environments are they truly matching consumers expectations of the culture they are seeking to represent? Does the ethnic environment’s authenticity decline the further away it is replicated from the originating country? Can consumers decipher what is a real ethnic environment from that which is recreated? How important is it to the consumer that the environment is "authentic?"

This presentation will explore the issue of cultural authenticity by focusing specifically on the perceived "realness" of Irish pubs by in-group versus out-group members. The theoretical focus is anchored by an Internet research study that examines respondents’ perceptions of Irish pubs located in three different countries. This virtual cross-validation technique is proposed as a methodological advance that will permit triangulation of authenticity effects across multiple cultural modalities.

Photographs of Irish pubs taken in Ireland, the United States and Australia were shown to a sample of students in each of the three countries. The pictures were then used in an online sorting task that asked students to identify in which country the pubs were located and to provide feedback regarding pivotal design characteristics that differentiated authentic retail environments from replicas. Analyses of data indicate that overall consumers do favor establishments that attempt to present themselves as "the real thing." However, consumers’ abilities to accurately distinguish between real and replica are mixed at best. Many respondents have difficulty identifying which of the photographic stimuli are of authentic Irish bars and which are replicas. Indications are that the hyperreal has triumphed over the real in driving consumer preferences.


Barthes, Roland, (1957) Mythologies, Paris: Editions du Seuil.

Baudrillard, Jean (1983), Simulations, New York, NY: Semiotext(e)

Costa, Janeen Arnould (1998) "Paradisal Discourse: A Critical Analysis of Marketing and Consuming Hawaii" Consumption, Markets and Culture, 1, 303-346.

Eco, Umberto (1983), "Travels in Hyperreality," Travels In Hyperreality: Essays, San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 3-5.

Frow, John (1997), Time and Commodity Culture: Essays in Cultural Theory and Postmodernism, Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Hughes, George (1995), "Authenticity in Tourism," Annals of Tourism Research, 22, 781-803

Hulsken, Jan (1985) Lotgenoten, het leven van Vincent en Theo van Gogh Weesp, The Netherlands.

Lu and Fine (1995), "The Presentation of Ethnic Authenticity: Chinese Food as a Social Accomplishment," The Sociological Quarterly, 36, 535-553.