A real craving

Increasingly suspicious of anything overly slick or seductively shiny, Jim Davies goes on a quest for ‘real’ in all its guises, hoping it’ll be more than a fad

Real is the new black. We want it in all its multifarious guises – real love, real coffee, real men, real gold, real bargains, real opportunities, and, for those hairy, bearded types,real ale. But what actually is it? Men and women with far more between the ears than me have scratched their heads in search of enlightenment.

Designers and advertisers have been using the idea of ‘real’ to sell to us for centuries. Significantly, two common vernacular sayings which use the word have their roots in marketing slogans. ‘The real McCoy’ is a shortening and slight bastardisation of ‘A drappie ‘o the Real McKay’, a line used by a popular Edinburgh whisky distillers from the mid-19th century onwards. Then, exactly 40 years ago, the mighty Coca-Cola transformed ‘It’s the real thing’ into a worldwide catchphrase.

What they’re both saying – in the language du jour – is ‘accept no substitute, we are the original and best’. But the problem here is that we have to take their word at face value. And nowadays – punch-drunk on a vat of lies, spin and scandals from politicians and corporations – we’ve become a bunch of hardened sceptics. Someone simply telling us they are the genuine article no longer cuts it. Our quest for the real has become something far deeper. We want to see the fine print, we want proof.

Because what we’re actually looking for is (real) integrity. Brands that don’t posture or spin us a line, but present the full picture – even if it’s a bit wobbly. We’re big enough to accept small failings, but what really gets our goat is someone trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Take an organic carrot… If you can detect a bit of mud, if it’s oddly proportioned, you’re reassured. This is no cloned, suspiciously clean, laboratory-made carrot, you tell yourself. This is a carrot of good character, one that can lie proudly alongside my free-range roast chicken resting easy (not to mention crispy) after a wholly contented life.

Today, we want to know more about the provenance of everything we buy. Where’s it come from? Who’s responsible for the design, and is it responsibly designed? What’s the age of the person who made it and under what conditions? What’s in it exactly? How did it get to the shop? How can it be disposed of? Were any small animals hurt during the production process? And that’s not all… We also want to know about the fat cats who run the company – are they at the cream when they shouldn’t be, or keeping their whiskers clean?

At the same time, we’ve come to mistrust slickness and overproduction. Teeth too white, models too perfect, locations too gorgeous. We look suspiciously at packaging with fancy embossing, airbrushed images and glossy finishes. If something’s worth having, why dress it up? We want substance, not style. So simple, earthy and childlike are the order of the day. Rough edges are embraced. Matt, recycled stock, rough-and-ready illustration, hand-drawn typography – these speak of an honesty and openness, and glow with primitive beauty.

It’s naive to think that we’ll never again be seduced by shiny, extravagant objects of desire. That’s human frailty. But at least many of us have started hankering for something more grounded and worthwhile. Designers are already tuning in to the new zeitgeist, but they need to do so wholeheartedly. Paying lip service is disingenuous and dangerous. Always keep it real.

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