The [increasingly] dark side of social media
I’ve always had mixed feelings about advertising. I like the creativity it elicits from smart, talented and artistic people. Some ads themselves can be minor works of art (Apple’s Super Bowl commercial). And advertising is a huge source of revenue for many hard-working people, from actors and graphic designers to makeup artists, copywriters and photographers.
But there’s a dark side to advertising. Years ago, a friend of mine called it “the evil art,” because the actual intent of advertising isn’t to amuse or educate or entertain us; it’s to persuade us to buy things we don’t need. Advertising appeals to (or tries to appeal to) subconscious levels in our minds, wherein dwell our deepest anxieties, desires and atavistic instincts. We, the manipulated, usually don’t even know we’re being trifled with. But advertisers know. They understand that they’re the Wizard of Oz, behind the curtain, pulling the levers and pushing the buttons of mass consumerism.
That’s pretty scary and depressing, and the only silver lining on this dark cloud is that most people seem to understand advertising and are pretty cynical about it. That doesn’t stop them from being influenced by it, though. Advertisers actually factor cynicism into their equations when designing ads, the same way political strategists know that, when they turn off voters through the sheer negativity of a campaign, it benefits the extremists on their side.
The advent of the social media promised to end this dominance of huge, impersonal forces on the American people. The Millennials said, in effect, that social media would liberate them from being manipulated and influenced–by, for example, newspapers and television–and instead allow them to communicate among themselves in unprecedentedly direct ways. This peer group communication, it was thought, would lead in new and surprising directions, re-fueling democracy, re-establishing independence of thought and action on the part of social media users, and in general revolutionizing the way social intercourse occurs.
Well, guess what happened on the way to the future. Corporate America is now in the process of seizing control of the social media, not in the usual way of overtly taking it over (although they’re doing that, too), but of infiltrating it so that they can control the message, without leaving their fingerprints on the smoking gun. Consider, for example, this report in yesterday’s New York Times that Ogilvy & Mather, one of the world’s biggest advertising agencies (American Express, BP, Nestlé, Barbie, IBM, Dove and scores of others in 120 countries) “is starting practice units that are devoted to helping clients navigate two areas that are rewarding but confusing: social media and youth marketing.”
This should trouble anyone who likes and uses social media, and especially those against whom Ogilvy & Mather’s new strategy is targeted: young people. One of the company’s honchos told the Times, “Social has become such a huge priority. It’s core to the way consumers behave. They talk about you, and they talk about you online, and it’s measurable, and you can get involved in the conversation.” Well, we’ve heard that before, haven’t we–from every defender of social media. I’ve been lectured countless times that “getting involved in the conversation” is the way to break the stranglehold of the elitists who have always dominated communication, whether it’s Big Government, Big Advertising or Big Dinosaur Wine Critics. But what happens when those “getting involved in the conversation” are secretly influencing it in directions they want it to go, using their arcane and largely invisible arts?
One of the new units responsible for penetrating the youth segment of the market is called Ogilvy Youth (which, for those of us of a certain age, brings unpleasant memories of “Nixon Youth,” which had its precursor in “Hitler Youth”). If you go to Ogilvy Youth’s tumblr page, it sounds very idealistic: “We’re a diverse group of Ogilvy and independent experts & collaborators dedicated to sharing and discussing the freshest Youth news, trends, and ideas.” Sounds rather like a party. Let’s have some appletinis and pizza, sit in a circle, play Adele in the background and rap about stuff we “Youth” (with a capital “Y”) care about.
But don’t be fooled: the only thing Ogilvy Youth is “dedicated to” is making you buy the products and services of the businesses that pay them. This is what the social media is being relegated to: just another way to sell stuff.
However, the glass-is-half-empty position I seem to be taking here could have a more positive outcome. We don’t really know where the whole social media trip is collectively taking us, but it could actually increase ethical standards, in a way in which advertising (“the hidden persuaders” in Vance Packard’s immortal phrase) has been notably lacking since, well, forever. Check out this piece on “The Future of Ethics in Branding.” It argues, somewhat counter-intuitively, that society just may be on the brink of “a rise in the importance of ethics” in advertising. The author lists ten bullet points he believes will increasingly come to bear on advertisers. “Be 100% transparent. Nothing less…All your endorsements and testimonials must be real…Every time you launch a campaign, a new product, or a service, secure an ‘ethical’ sign-off from your target group.” That’s powerful stuff. Can you imagine [fill in name of gigantic corporation] taking seriously whether or not its customers think its business practices are ethical? I mean, not just going through the motions of asking us, but actually listening, and then altering behavior as a result? That would make the social media truly what it was meant to be, and still could: a game changer.