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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.

  1. MAD Men continue to morph and shed their skin with an evolving social technology, from DC to Hollywood, and don’t we all just love it!
    I too love the art, but it is so much like the Appalachian snake-handlers who rattle our cages with their own brand of altered states of consciousness.
    The best part of this ‘Mind-meld’ is we can do it with great glasses of wine in our hands.
    Steve, if you believe that the ‘game-changer’ is at hand, you’ve already bought the snake oil, and Alice or Allen now believe Wonderland is real.
    As usual, the writing is great, well thought out, but for me the finish is flawed Utopianism and not real.

  2. It seems that most advertising agencies are getting into Social Media. It makes sense from their standpoint. Their clients are worried about how to be successful in Social Media, so the agencies believe that they can extract more money from them by providing a “solution”.

    But the fact that they were great at old-style advertising doesn’t mean that they’re going to automatically be successful. As you note, the mindset needed is entirely different. The track record of successful companies being able to jump successfully into a brand new environment is pretty dismal.

  3. Dennis, you’re probably more realistic than I am. I’ve always had a streak of Utopianism.

  4. I see where you’re coming from, Steve. Putting the controversial Ogilvy Millennial strategy aside, I don’t necessarily agree with the idea that advertising was soley created to entice us to buy things we don’t need. I saw an ad on TV a few years ago for a new razor. My old one, made by Gillette, had just broken. I went and bought the Schick. Granted, shaving my legs is not a need like drinking water, but it’s pretty important if I don’t want my husband to divorce me.

    There are a lot of ads out there that are trying to convince you to buy things you don’t need. There are many ads that help you find products in categories you already want to buy. I think the key to the future of advertising is segmentation and customization. If advertisers can figure out how to deliver me information about the kinds of products that are relevant to my life–and do it in a succinct and convenient way–I am all for it. For example, I’m tired of watching TV commercials on Travel channel for a low-budget restaurant chain that doesn’t even have locations in Napa or Sonoma county. If there was a local commercial running during “No Reservations” that gave me a taste of the top wine events happening in Sonoma that month with a URL to go to learn more, I would absolutely visit that website and attend one of those events.

  5. Steve, why do you still act like social media is a new thing? Have you being paying attention to advertisements the past three or four years? Most ads direct consumers to the brands’ Facebook page and not the brands’ websites. I don’t know why you are surprised that advertisers are courting Youth. Young people are the consumers of tomorrow. Why did you start blogging? It wasn’t to get your name in front of the 60+ crowd? I’m guessing wine drinkers 30 and younger had no idea who you were before you started blogging. I don’t know if you know it, but I’m willing to bet that you are more well known as a blogger than the face of Wine Enthusiast. While your blog is not an explicit advertisement for Wine Enthusiast, I’m sure that you are doing your employer a promotional service with this blog. And I know that you are not a big ad agency, but you are a brand (and a brand representative) and you are selling yourself (and your magazine) with this website. I think that you do get social media and I think your whole pessimism towards it is a marketing strategy. I commend (reluctantly) you for that.

  6. I heart Lisa for her “No Reservations” comment.

    I agree with Lisa that there are different segments of advertising, but I will address this from the stand point of wine and wine blogging. In this regard, I think you hit on something very important Steve, the hidden (or not so hidden) influence of PR on private citizen wine writers. Some years ago, before large format ad agencies accepted social media as a powerful platform, independent writers were largely on their own. Not so any more.

    Increasingly, I see more and more bloggers talking about the same thing, the same region, the same wines. Why? Because they have all been contacted by the same PR agencies. The Wagner Family is a good example. In addition to some large traditional media campaigns, they have blitzed the blog market with samples and press packages. The result, I have seen more content about their wines in the last few months than in the whole of the last few years. Now, I am not picking on the Wagners. I know some of the people working on this project and they are good people that are doing their job, getting people to think and talk about their client (like I am here).

    But Steve makes my point: “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.”

    Much of what we are now seeing in social media related to wine cannot be seen as independence of thought, but rather an extension of traditional marketing. When you are talking about a press kit you received, when you go on a press junket sponsored by a distributor, alliance, or other group representing brands, you are in some way a part of the hidden (not so hidden) system.

    I am not saying anyone is wrong to do this, but lets stop saying all social media is a revolution. What I see happening with brands like Jordan is a revolution. Lisa and her team at Jordan get people to talk and think about their brand by genuinely engaging with people, not by press releases, but one on one. That is where the brilliance of social media is. It is the same for this blog, real conversation, not a stagnate email blast that shows up in my junk folder.

  7. James McCann says:


    Steve states above that the Hitler Youth was a precursor of the Nixon Youth… why do you continue to take what he writes seriously?? He’s obviously joking.

  8. Advertising makes the world go round, and everyone who directly benefits from it, including writers, are part of the process. The most important aspect of it is “ethics,” or as some used to call it, “Truth in advertising.” So, nothing’s really changed, all generations aside.

    Web 2.0 ushered in a new group of writers, who had yet to prove their competency. Once they have, they’re being gobbled up by publishers who are looking to sell advertising based on their popular content. What goes around, has come back around… ever so slowly.

    What writer, when the day is all said and done, would not love to be receiving a salary for his or her work? If we love what we do, doesn’t it stand to reason that we’d love to be paid for it, versus being paid for flipping burgers?

    So we write, and we’re compensated, and the advertising world has a platform. God forbid that the advertising world decided to completely dump publishers in deference to only radio and TV advertising. You and I would be back to reinventing ourselves, and I’m not ready for that one quite yet.

    Advertising is big business, and many of us are part of it, whether writers, publishers, and yes – my own profession – publicists. We’re all guiding messages… With the intention (most of us) to participate in an ethical way.

    I’m queried all the time from companies wanting to advertise on my blog, in really weird ways. I wrote about it a while ago… *The Latest Trend in Marketers ~ Not PR People, But Marketers Going After Bloggers* ( There’s an underbelly group out there, not concerned with truth in advertising, because there’s always a yin/yang in life. Once they’re completely outed, they’ll look for another way. For now, that group is willing to pay .01 cent per word. (Sweat shops for writers, imagine!)

    Nothing new, Steve, new words to an old song for each new generation to captivate them… And then, the rose colored glasses eventually have to come off. Where did I put mine, years ago, when I got a real job?

  9. Being a media major in college I learned at an early age how pervasive the media can be and that the FCC stands for “For Corporate Cash”. I still am a believer in the integrity of the individual and used properly, social media can be a powerful tool (look at the middle east right now). The big corporations have infiltrated the wine industry just like everywhere else, just look at Napa now compared to the 1970’s. I value the recommendations of my peer, I have however gotten better at filtering out the BS!

  10. In my world, most people seem to be trying to convince me to do something, most of the time. Whether it’s an evil corporate overlord spending millions to trick me, or my mother using guilt to compel me, life seems to me quite a “caveat emptor” experience. And joy is the result when someone is selling me (or offering me) something I actually want. Yes, we can be fooled. And yes, it’s a pity when we become cynical and jaundiced about what’s offered us. But I’m not sure I’d blame that all on advertising.

  11. First, take a chill pill Steve. Not been sleeping lately? As always an interesting perspective, but FB and other sites have to make money to stay alive and well…that means advertising or a money angel. Having worked in the corporate consumer product world for over 30 years, one thing was always a constant – get the word out about the next thing you can’t live without.

    I laughed when the last few companies I worked for started to wonder if they should figure out how/if to use FB, Twitter or even blogging to sell their products. They formally passed on them because they didn’t understand it (yet), except one because the average age of the workers was under 30. They stumbled, but started to figure it out recently a bit.

    See, any company/brand is looking for eyeballs to sell what it has and if that means internet, FB, Twitter or whatever else comes up on the horizon then so be it. You have to be quick and nimble to figure out the best way to use it and what I have found is that it isn’t always your ad agency that truly can get you there. They have a learning curve too.

    So no matter what comes along to keep our interest and take the front row of our lives or make us a better civilization/society/world you can bet money (literally) on it to have a message we may like, but can’t see the man behind the curtain.

  12. I don’t have any problem with ad agencies helping business create a message. The same medium they use to create consumer influence is more than amply filled with independent research and activism about the topic or product.

  13. Kurt Burris says:

    All advertising is a tool, including using social media. If the content of the ad (or blog or tweet) is interesting (Apple and the Super Bowl)and relevant it gets noticed. If it’s not, it doesn’t. (I don’t even remember the chain restaurant that advertises on No Reservations.) Unfortunately really, really annoying ads sometimes still break through the clutter. They don’t get me to buy however. Maybe I’m naive but I think the consumer is media savvy enough to see the difference between engineered press releases and genuine content.

  14. Ryan Flinn says:

    Steve, no self-respecting hipster social media millennial type would be caught drinking an appletini. They’d probably have something with homemade bitters, organic herbs, and barrel aged liquor. You should correct your post immediately.

  15. Horrors, Steve! The Corporations have discovered Social Media, and they are plotting to use it to take over the world and make us all buy stuff we don’t want or need?! So what has really changed. They’ve been plotting to sell stuff since Christ wore rompers. The sheer clutter of it all works against the effectiveness of any of it. It is up to every individual to take personal responsibility for sorting through the barrage of media – whether advertising, information, opinion or gossip – and making sense of it. Or discarding it. Or ignoring it. Anyone who cannot do that will, in fact, be prone to being manipulated. Nothing new about that.

  16. Ryan is right about that appletini. I had the same thought — hey wait a minute–appletini? That’s my generation (i.e. Gen X) not the Millennials! They can’t have my martinis. @Ryan–you’re brilliant.

  17. Steve, nothing happens until something is sold – even your writing. Advertising (marketing communication)makes us all better off – not every time of course, but certainly on balance. If nothing was sold, we’d still be living in caves and eating each other (another subject).

  18. “Young People” – now probably the most ad-prood demographic ever. They’re a lot smarter (as well via social media) than corporate america is ready for.

  19. I don’t think its any surprise that corporations are jumping on the social media bandwagon. The biggest surprise is that its taken them this long and they weren’t first. I think it maybe harder for them to pitch products in this realm as they have to be more transparent, like you say Steve. That is perhaps a benefit to the medium. I think taking what your friends and acquaintances say about products is more useful and real way to get products you actually need as opposed to what you want. Of course wine is a luxury product and not a necessity, but its certainly gets a lot of play on FB & Twitter. I have seen how it has far outweighed the cost benefit and ROI when compared to a traditional advertising campaign and as far as engagement, you can’t compare. I’ve actually been able to have a 2 way dialog with a fan on FB about our wine that never could have happened 3 years ago.

  20. Steve – I always get the feeling you’re highly suspicious of social media even though you are a participator. (One doesn’t have to be exclusive of the other.)

    The suspicion may have arisen from (others’) perception that social media/blogging has leveled the playing field between professional wine critics/writers and those who leaped into the fray without the backing (credentials) of a major print publication.

    So where is credibility going in the social media world? (This crosses all industries, of course, not just wine writing.)

    I’ve no crystal ball, but Martin Lindstrom posted a rather interesting piece yesterday on Ethics in Branding:

    As for the leveling of the field, while it may seem corporations can/will get the ‘upper hand’ on social media sites, clearly some of the biggest still make enormous errors here — or rather their customers or non-fans knock them down to consumer height:

    So far, it appears the truth will out! …until it doesn’t… We’ll have to stay tuned.

  21. “Art & Copy” – a fabulous documentary that does a great job revealing the intent of well-received advertisers.
    It doesn’t touch upon Social Media, but one can connect some of the dots.
    It’s made me appreciate my job, and the job of other wine marketeers (both traditional and social media) a whole lot more.

  22. I see advertising as an over friendly handshake. Even as a child riding in a car I would look at all the billboards cluttering up the landscape, thinking who needs this?

    If all advertising was banned everywhere except for “The Advertising Channel” would any of you watch? I wouldn’t.

  23. Rob, how would all the great journalists be paid or make a living if it weren’t for advertising revenue?

  24. Ron Saikowski says:

    Social media is only a part of the big picture. Music influences this cowboy more in what I buy, but social media informs and amuses me. Very few times I have bought based on social media. Music moves me and will continue to move me with passion to buy. In Social Media, there is no passion, only conflicting views!

  25. Adam, If a magazine chooses to include some advertising in their magazine or media, that is their choice and I accept it. If however there becomes an imbalance between the purchase price and the amount of advertising that I am subjected to…I will no longer purchase. And that is why I am not interested in social media.

    I used the billboard analogy because there were in fact laws limiting the use of billboards. At least in some self respecting communities.

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