Very few people who work in the ad industry have the balls to question the ethics of a campaign — ethics, in advertising? — because doing so could burn a bridge from a potential client. But what the hell — we’re not here to play nice, we’re here to advise our clients about what works, and that includes not making mistakes that damage their future reputation.
So let’s take a look at, oh, perhaps Chevy’s current SXSW campaign. Say hypothetically you’re a car company trying to boost sales among a younger demographic, and the MRI data shows these people are avoiding TV and spending more time in social media listening to peers. It’s really hard to buy advertising against that demo. And then your agency guru walks in wearing a black T-shirt talking about SIM scores suggesting there’s a way to “earn media” — and NOT pay for it — by letting a handful of young people borrow cars and drive to an uberhip conference, say SXSW Interactive in Texas, and broadcast their Chevy adventures along the way. And they’ll use a “hashtag,” something like #chevysxsw, that appears at the end of every tweet. A handful of cars, a dozen people times their few thousand followers, and suddenly you have an organic loudspeaker spraying Chevy messages to hundreds of thousands of people inside Twitter every day … for almost no marketing budget.
Is this a good idea? Does it help the Chevy brand? Do the thousands of people exposed to non sequitur messaging and strange #chevyreadthis symbols like the promotions creeping into their communication stream, and then think, heck, it’s high time to test drive a Chevy? And what about the broader ecosystem issues of what happens if such campaigns take off, and one day every other tweet from your own personal online community has a #brandmention attached because someone is getting a little free gift from a car or stereo or condom company? What happens to the value of the network then?
Is anyone thinking about the adverse impact of the people annoyed by messaging vs. the people who respond?
We’ve seen this before in the 1990s with telemarketing. For you young readers out there, telesales actually used to be a part of most business operations and worked well … until the aggregate calls got to be too much. Do Not Call lists were created, most Americans signed up, the government imposed heavy fines for any marketer who didn’t avoid calling DNC homes, and suddenly shilling via phone did not work anymore. You’ll still get calls from politicians or nonprofits who are exempt from DNC (love that, don’t you?), but even they have challenges making telemarketing work, because the only people who respond tend to be the less educated, less wealthy, less desirable consumers who haven’t figured out how to sign up for DNC.
The Scobleizer’s take on ethics
About a year ago we had the fortune to interview Robert Scoble for a BusinessWeek column, and he said something very smart. We paraphrase: Rules in business about conflicts of interest or partitioning advertising, he said, were not invented because businesses are run by altruists. The rules evolved because businesses screwed up, overstepped their bounds, lost customers, and realized they needed rules to keep operations in order. Advertising works best when it is kept in its box and labeled as such, because people know where it is coming from. Letting it creep into the stream makes the source hazy, adds a layer of confusion, and diminishes the value of the network.
So, dear #chevytweeters on Twitter and the ad agencies who promote such hoopla. We hope your campaign is a rousing success. We’re sure your social-media sentiment score will click up this week, and the metrics will look great in PowerPoint. But are you really thinking about the direction your car is headed?
Chevy campaign details here.