In a recent post on Advertising Age online, Sam Levin describes a development on Facebook relating to tagging photos with friends’ names. In order to promote a cause, candidate, event or what have you, a Facebook user tags that photo with the names of “influential” Facebook friends. The photo then shows up in the feeds of all the friends of that influencer, tagged with his or her name, indicating — falsely — a connection or implicit endorsement between the influencer and the cause. Understand? (It took me a while.) What’s important is that the photo isn’t of the influential Facebook user, it relates to the cause. And, as someone else tags the user’s name to the photo, the implied endorsement is false. I guess you could call it deceptive testimonial advertising, Facebook style.
Mr. Levin goes on to say that this could be “a really terrific idea for someone looking to broadly push a message” and suggests the possibility of a marketing campaign working in this way. In a follow up post to comments objecting to the practice as misleading, Mr. Levin responds that this is simply a “re-purposing of a channel intended for one thing towards another end, but regardless of value judgment, any online communication platform is an exercise in design defining the way information is transacted. Systems will always be adopted for the most profitable ends possible, just as water flows downhill.” He goes on to say that “Social networks, just like email before them, are going to have to contend with the fact that through their constructions they open themselves up for use in ways they do not intend (which may or may not be sub-optimal for their user base).”
This assessment is disturbing:
1) It implies that any use of a medium, regardless of how deceptive, is justified if it provides profit to the media provider and enables marketers to achieve business objectives.
2) It encourages marketers to continue to use the old communications model of “pushing” commercial messages in front of people whether they want to hear them or not, rather than applying the marketer’s energy to find innovative models that work with, not against, the new dynamics of social media to empower communications and conversations.
3) It’s the kind of thinking that make people mistrust marketing — and rightly so. Sure, baiting people with a friend’s tag to get them to click on a photo that connects them to a marketing message may create a brand impression, but is a brand impression that tricks a person into receiving it under false pretenses an effective one? Especially when social media offers so many ways that can motivate people to opt in to hearing your message? I don’t think so.
Which brings me – in case you were wondering — to the title of this post. During his campaign, President-elect Barack Obama talked about the end of “politics as usual.” Americans, he said, were tired of the deceptive, misleading and shallow tactics of the Washington establishment, which they recognized to be more about each party’s hunger for political power, than about addressing the challenges facing the nation and helping secure a better future for its citizens and the world.
I think the country is hoping that come January 20th, 2009, we will witness not just the inauguration of a new president, but of a new era of honesty, transparency and mutual respect in politics. Is it to idealistic to hope the same for marketing and communications?
Okay — comparing misleading tags on Facebook photos to past evils in Washington may be a stretch. But the practice Mr. Levin suggests is symptomatic of a much wider array of marketing practices, supported by billions of dollars, that often manipulate the truth, mislead consumers, and bash them into submission with commercial messages in the hope of making a sale. Social media enables marketing and communications that, like the political tone many of us hope for, are grounded in honesty, transparency and mutual respect between the brand and consumers. Don’t we have more to gain by pursuing new communications practices that are empowered by the tools and the spirit of communities like Facebook, rather than manipulating those communities to try and preserve the old model of one-way, push communications?