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  • Writer's pictureSamara Kitchener

The Battle of Narcissus and Nemesis in a Millennial World


Ever wondered how social media is shaping the first generation of digital natives, and why authenticity is this gens battle-cry? It turns out there is only so much curation that one generation can handle; it’s now time to keep it real. In this Vivid Ideas Exchange, the Public Relations Institute of Australia brought together a panel of experts from ReachOut, Viacom, lululemon, #TeamGirls and N2N to tackle ‘Keeping it Real in an age of curated perfection’.

​​The event – moderated by Samara Kitchener, NSW President PRIA and Director House of Kitch - explored the concept of curated perfection, the effect of influencers and role models that shape us in different ways, and how we as communicators can strive for authenticity. “We are experiencing an unusual dichotomy of authenticity vs curated perfection. On one hand you have leaders, brands and people striving for authenticity; and on the other hand, you have a generation of kids growing up in a new paradigm where being themselves is a challenge,” said Kitchener.

​The event was based on ReachOut research into curated perfection and associated challenges for young people. Each panel member brought a unique view into the curated perfection landscape.

Panel (L to R) Samara Kitchener (MC), NSW President PRIA and Director House of Kitch Jono Nicholas, CEO of ReachOut Australia Lisa Portolan, a senior consultant at N2N communications and author of ‘Happy As’ Clare McMeniman, former Australian Diamonds Captain and Suncorp #TeamGirls Ambassador Jessica Madruga, Research Manager of MTV, Comedy Central and Spike in ANZ Kate Russell, Community Maven Sydney for lululemon


Lisa Portolan, senior consultant at N2N communications and author of ‘Happy As: Why the Quest for Happiness is Making Us Miserable’, kicked off the conversation by outlining the origin of the notion of happiness. “Aristotle, Socrates and the like all sought to quantify, evaluate and determine the exact size and shape of happiness. Back when the Greeks considered the terminology, happiness – or eudaimonia – was a broader notion, linked to participating in political life, taking part in civic duties and overall spending a life well lived for the common good.” ​“Physical, moral and social perfection have come to define our notion of modern-day happiness. Despite the breakdown of so many of the societal rules and regulations that once defined our existence, we have developed new ones; dictated and projected from a digital sphere.” “We find ourselves at this place where identity and happiness have become intrinsically linked. That can become dangerous, especially when we try to define ourselves through milestones and consumer products”, said Portolan.

“This story goes right back to the beginning”, said Jono Nicholas, CEO of ReachOut. “With the myth of Narcissus, the young man who died as he became obsessed with his own reflection; and Nemesis who tricked Narcissus to see his own face reflected in a well, and to fall in love with his own image. Nemesis played on Narcissus’s weakness and sent him into a spiral of unobtainable longing. SOCIAL MEDIA – GOOD, BAD OR EVIL? “And so, thousands of years on, we need to ask ourselves - Is social media like an endless hall of mirrors, intermingled with aspirational filters, influencers and brands – filling us with unreachable and unrealistic expectations? Or is social media a wonderful way of connecting with others and finding like-minded souls? Or is it both?” said Kitchener. “Traditional peer pressure to conform and keep up a façade of being ‘normal’ has been turbo charged by social media. This puts pressure on what young people are being seen to do, wear, achieve and who they are with”, said Nicholas. “Curated perfection is the combination of positive emotion – I want to display or share positive things, but an anxiety that it may not be liked or appreciated. Young people admit that being their ‘true self’ can be challenging, as the pressure to fit in and meet expectations from different aspects is overwhelming”.

For its recent ‘Social for Everyone’ study, Viacom spoke to over 40,000 people aged 6-54 in 35 countries to understand the role of social media in people’s lives today. Jess Madruga, Research Manager of MTV, Comedy Central and Spike in ANZ provided local insights from the study. “More than half social media users worry about the impact of social media on their lives. They worry about images of themselves that could cause them issues later in life; they also worry about cyber bullying. But despite all of this, the positives of social media greatly outweigh these risks.” Madruga added, “82% saying that social media positively affects at least one area of their life – such as relationships, work, social life, or political involvement. Just 30% feel that social media has a negative impact upon any of these areas.” “The reason that social media is so ubiquitous is that it fulfills our core need to connect. It enhances our existing relationships and connects us with strangers who then become our friends and share our passions. It is also a source of creativity and inspiration. It gives people a voice that they didn’t have before. Finally, social media is fun. Globally, entrainment is the #2 reason why people want to use social media. Reason #1 is keeping in touch with family and friends”. “18-24 year olds have 56.4 interactions (commenting, sharing, posting, checking in) with social media a day. On average, Australian’s have 35.7 interactions each day,” said Madruga. While connection and entertainment are major drivers, an unintended consequence is comparison. “Comparison is often referred to as the thief of happiness – we naturally compare ourselves to others and create tribes around ourselves. This helps benchmark where we are at and what we want to become,” said Portolan. “Social media brings a broader comparison base – we compare ourselves to Beyoncé or Kim Kardashian – driving Lamborghinis and holidaying on the French Riviera. In comparison, your own life can appear quite mundane. In our own social media, we typically go to lengths to portray the best form of self; curating an image of who we are and how successful we are”, said Portolan.

Suncorp, together with Netball Australia, ReachOut and a range of industry experts and ambassadors, created #TeamGirls to promote and foster girls’ confidence through sports participation. Clare McMeniman, former Australian Diamonds Captain and #TeamGirls Ambassador, said “Teenage girls are seeking autonomy or independence; turning to their peers for advice, guidance and validation while they are seeking their identity – who they really are. That can be quite tricky in a social media space, because they don’t only seek validation from their friends, they are also reaching out to people they have never met before and seeking their validation. It does become about likes – teenagers have an obsession with likes and followers – if you have more likes and more followers it is in an indication that you are happier, more successful, that you are the best version of you. This comparison can lead to despair - the bad side.” “The good side, and what #TeamGirls is about is recognising that the world of selfies and perfection is not real. We use social media to share sources of inspiration - real life people to give you a reason to try something new or that you have failed at before”, said McMeniman. ​“Young guys have the same level of anxiety as girls of how they will be perceived; and a huge level anxiety about their future self and how they will be judged. Boys are not very verbal and expressive of their emotions – this can sometimes be mistaken as boys not having an issue. But young guys are just as affected – they just have a harder time talking about it,” said Nicholas.


Madruga outlined how MTV authentically connect with their audiences by truly understanding them. “Millennials highly value authenticity, and have an inbuilt ‘fake radar’. At MTV, we see our role as reflecting what is happening in culture. We ask our audiences what they are into, and delve deeply into why – so that we can authentically deliver on those interests. With authenticity, young people will be the first to call you out if you are fake. No young person wants to feel that a boomer is telling them what to think, feel or buy”. lululemon is a brand built on ‘embracing your authentic self’. Kate Russell, Community Maven Sydney for lululemon, said “Building authenticity is at the core of how we work. Our stores develop relationships with community at a hyper-local level. There needs to be true value alignment with our ambassadors as they are the representation of our brand. We will look at what is the person’s vision and does it align with our vision of developing leaders and elevating people. Clare McMeniman gave a personal account on how netball helped her find her authentic self. It is this insight that drives her to help girls on their journey. “I have been this height since I was 12 years old. I knew I was smart, but I didn’t feel beautiful. At a time in my life when all I wanted to do was fit in, I stuck out like a sore thumb. My place was found through sport – it was where I could identify my strengths and how I was valued as an individual. Being a part of a team meant I could identify value in other people too. I could recognize that different shapes, sizes and personalities all fit in and everyone had a role to play and something to contribute. “What’s really essential for girls is having role models – in elite sportspeople; but even more so role models in each other. They just want realness and authentic stories and to share relatable messages with each other that give them a sense of connection – and helps them understand how they fit into the world and what their place is. #TeamGirls helps girls realise they don’t have to search very far to find people in their life that will give them the confidence to be a really amazing version of themselves and realise their potential. And that they in turn have the influence to do that for those around them. They are role models within their own space,” said McMeniman. ARE BRANDS THE NEW CHURCH?

In a world where we have less faith in religion and politics, brands seem to be amassing followers. Are brands the new church? “There has been this breakdown in religion and sociocultural organisations over the past 100 years. People are left with questions of meaning – why am I here; what is my purpose; and so, we have to look around and find something to fill that void,” said Portolan. “Brands can to some extent play that role; but for those of us who have worked on brands, brands are very constructed and carefully curated – their language, behaviours, colours and emotions are all very clearly articulated. The brands that do well stay true to this. In social media, we often tend to portray ourselves as a brand. A human being is so much more nuanced than this. Trying to bring ourselves back to a mono-dimensional brand is doing a huge injustice to our depth and identity”, said Portolan. Jono Nicholas gave a pretty deep insight that in many ways brand and communicators are the modern-day Nemesis; playing on people’s desires, anxieties or needs. “Communication professionals and marketers often play the role of Nemesis – recognising desire, weakness or need and finding a message or product that fills that need. Authenticity is engaging with young people so that the product is not the end goal, it is a higher purpose that becomes more important. The brands that do authentic well get that relationship between the short play and long play goals. ‘You are interested in me as me, rather than just shoving this product down my throat’. The Suncorp example is a really good one as Suncorp has a genuine interest in the resilience of young girls and build a genuine relationship over a long term – ultimately building a better society,” said Nicholas. “The fundamental tension that exists with marketing today is how do you manage needing to sell this year’s fashion while building a connection to something greater. The flip of that is when you get the balance right and you are genuine, you will be successful,” said Nicholas.

HOW CAN WE KEEP IT REAL? Panelists summarised their thoughts on keeping it real. “All the research shows that understanding where your business interests align with a higher purpose drives staff engagement and consumer loyalty. Business purpose can become more sustainable and embedded when partnering with an organisation like ReachOut to genuinely deliver on social cause. We are living in a post trust era – civil organisations are one of the last trusted organsiations, but we will only engage with those who we feel have a genuine desire to do good.

“The risk of the whole movement to authenticity is if it is seen as something that isn’t genuine. This generation isn’t interested in stuff, they are more interested in where are we going and how are we going to be part of a bigger picture journey. If they think it is a short-term play or not genuine, you will find a trust deficit emerging.

“The brands who do authentic well, are the ones who genuinely believe it. When young people are surrounded by people that believe in them they are more likely to be happy and well. You need to ask yourself, what is your belief and are you willing to stick to that belief even when it carries business risk? Are we willing to give up commercial gain for this belief?” said Nicholas. “As communicators, we have a responsibility to keep it real. We have a social responsibility to those around us and to young people, to frame the debate and to create a more nuanced and authentic perspective on self. We advise our clients to align with higher purpose and values; to be transparent, authentic, and have meaningful connection reflecting their core tenets”, said Portolan. “We always talk about being in the real conversations; be vulnerable, have straight talk with those around you. Get clear on your (or business) values are, also what your vision is and stand by that. Don't compromise on it. Use it as your north star especially when creating collaborations or partnerships, or with our ambassador’s relationships. And spend time defining your purpose (applies for personal and business); what are you about? What do you stand for? And how do you live into that purpose daily?" said Russell. “Over the past year, Viacom has spoken to 1.5 million kids, youth, adults and families through research covering 83 countries. These learnings inform everything we do – the content we make, the way we market our brands and how we work with our marketing partners – so we can reflect our audiences in an authentic and genuine way. MTV will constantly evolve to stay relevant – appealing to what our audience’s values are at a particular time,” said Madruga.

“You are responsible for how young people are viewing themselves and have the power to shape those views. Don’t limit how they view themselves. Enable them to view the world in a way that acknowledges their value. You have a world of influence at your fingertips – treat it really preciously,” said McMeniman. ​

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