Everybody aspires to authenticity — or at least the secret of how to fake it.

Much media commentary, particularly that quoting advertising people, about Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott has been about this indefinable quality. Most of them think the answer is the right slogan and the right branding approach rather than something more fundamental.

A more fundamental approach came from Groucho Marx who said (with a little bit of paraphrase): all you need to succeed in life is honesty and sincerity and when you learn to fake those you’ve got it made.

If framing is the PR industry’s holy grail, then how to be authentic runs a close second.

Authenticity was, for a while, the new black. Authentic brands, authentic language, authentic travel experiences, etc, were the keys to business and political success.

One of Kevin Rudd’s major failings was lack of authenticity — witness “a fair shake of the sauce bottle” which may be a uniquely Queensland euphemism for onanism but has never been heard by any folkloric scholar anywhere else.

I once tried to sum up what corporations should do to address the “authenticity question” arguing that you could aspire to authenticity by building trust through transparency. At the time it seemed to be a bit better than your average multinational PR company quick-fix slogan but it caught on so fast doubts began to mount equally quickly.

So — how do we rate the two on authenticity ratings?

During an interview on ABC Radio recently, the presenter questioning me and mentioned that some people thought Julia Gillard looked a little bit like Tilda Swinton. Admitting that I thought Tilda Swinton was gorgeous, I also had to admit that the similarity had escaped me, but that I had heard that many people thought the Prime Minister had s-x appeal and that a Crikey survey a few years ago confirmed this. My wife and daughter thought the same thing about Steve Bracks although that also escaped me. Not even Hollywood has totally destroyed s-x appeal as an indicator of authenticity, although whether it plays well politically is another question.

Abbott also has authenticity but he struggles against it because he is influenced by what he thinks, or is advised to think, about what he should say, rather than what he wants to say. Whether saying what he wants to say would get him elected is another question, of course.

A good guide to authenticity is smiles. Angus Trumble’s A Brief History of the Smile (2004) explored what the smile meant in different societies and contexts.

Equally good guides are body and sign language. Australia has never had anything quite like Andrea De Jonio’s 1832 The Mime of the Ancients Investigated Through The Neopolitan Gesture (A more accessible version is that edited by Adam Kendon, Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity , 2000)  to guide us on the subject. However, today many pop psychologists retail views about how people use body and sign language and what it means and gallery journalists can always be relied on to over-interpret the things even pop psychologists find beyond them.

So, on the basis of observation, historic study and training people to fake authenticity, some totally unscientific conclusions:

  • Captured on camera or TV, Gillard has a natural and infectious smile. Abbott’s eyes in the same situation are different — he’s smiling but looks calculating at the same time. Hollywood is right about the camera being kind to some people.
  • Abbott has real authenticity but the advisers around him are terrified of it, perhaps justifiably, but equally because they are trying to make him into a white bread politician.  Mark Latham may have been odd but his observations on white bread politicians are profound.
  • Both are really good on the campaign trail — engaging, real, humorous and sincere. This is an Abbott quality underestimated by those who see him muscling up on TV.

What does it mean for the campaign? Perhaps nothing, although we should never forget that one of the reasons George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan defeated Al Gore and Jimmy Carter respectively was that both rated as “more likeable” by people who had never met them.