This post is part of a series exploring new issues of social media and word of mouth marketing ethics driven by WOMMA's Living Ethics Project stewarded by Paul Rand. The goal is to end up with the best, most up-to-date ethics guidelines for word of mouth marketers - the next iteration of WOMMA's Ethics Code.
Fake product reviews? Not so good. This past week, the computer products company, Belkin, was revealed to have solicited positive reviews for $.65 a pop via Amazon's Mechanical Turk marketplace ("access to an on-demand, scalable workforce!"). Apparently this was the work of an overzealous and poorly-trained individual. As social media and word of mouth practices gain momentum within cmpanies, there will be new ethics transgressions that can really hurt the brand and their customers.
Things have changed in the world of "fakeness" in social media. At one time creating a brand page in Myspace or a character blog was consdiered heinously "fake" and impliictly against the unwritten code of soical media. Now everybody and his brother has brand pages all over MySpace, Facebook or thinks twice about having David Ogilvy Twitter care of the creatives behind the TV show "MadMen."
Why is "Fake" even relevant?
There are two big reasons in my book why we even use the word "fake": disclosure and authenticity. I suspect one is an ethical issue and the other is more about best practices.
There are very few marketers (I am hoping) who would consciously create a blog where the author was not who they say they are unless it was done as a crystal clear parody or character blog. Although there are surprises every day like TV Asahi out of Japan. On a recent quiz show:
"The anchorperson introduced six blog websites as examples of information collected via the Internet, which were presented as possible clues to the questions in the show.TV-Asahi acknowledged the suspicion that the blog sites introduced in the program were fake, and it apologized for the fraud."
Most of the doozies in this category like the All I Want For Xmas fake blog, are from 2006 or before. It would take a particularly clueless or poorly advised brand a lot to make that mistake in 2009.
So when marketers pose as average citizens or are a little muddy about their connection to a brand when they comment on blogs or YouTube videos or in message boards - that, my friends, does not live up to the promise of "discloure" in WOMMA's Honesty ROI. I continue to see marketers do this. I have seen ad agencies (in 2008!) follow an ill-advised attempt at creating a viral video - itself disclosed as from the brand or an obvious marketing effort - with comments applauding the video that obviously came from the creators themselves eager to slap themsleves secretly on the back. They are attempting to make outsiders think that other people like them think the video is "cool." That is not proper disclosure and is unethical. These are the easy calls.
So what if a brand wants to make a video whose source is mysterious? Their strategy is to create some mystery around who created the video. They plan on coming clean somewhere down the road. Maybe when they declare themselves the source in phase 2 of their master plan to apply advertising to the social media "channel" (not the most effective use of social media) or when the crowd of millions of forensice scientists "out them." For those days or weeks when people will think that the video is authentically from someone like them, there is deception. The marketer would say its all in good fun and that people enjoy the mystery and entertainment of the deception. Like a rollercoaster, people will not really be hurled into space and will always return to the coaster shed to wobble off, satisfied with their ride.
What about the brand that leaves the mystery and deception hanging like Australian menswear company, The Witchery, did with this Naked Communications-created video? Paul Rand posted about this last week on the WOMMA ethics blog. They mimicked a consumer generated video (too slickly yet plenty will be duped). they added fake response videos, and God knows how many of the 1000+ responses came form the marketers.
They even have the character, Heidi, commenting in the initial string of comments - about the product! No discloure to this day although there is some speculation online that the brand has walked away from the campaign due to the anger it incited (browse through the comments). Is this ethical? It seems to not come close to the disclosure mark. And they have left it hanging far too long for the "it was all in good fun" excuse.
In the case of the fake videos intended to be revealed in the course of the campaign, they may not be clear cases of ethics lapses so much as ignoring one of the great attributes of social media - athenticity. Are customers served best via social media by the brands they enjoy through branded entertainment or open discussion, utility, or some other more interaction where everyone knows who everyone is and we are building real relationships?
When marketers do not embrace the benefits of authenticity - which can be interpreted in so many productive ways - they are leaving tremendous opportunity and value on the table.I am not sure this is a question of ethics as much as it is best-practices. My strong suggestion to brands is to train for both within your organization.
What do you think about these issues? Join in here or at the WOMMA Ethics blog. By the end of January, WOMMA plans to review all conversations about the issues and update the WOMMA ethics policies for today's marketing challenges. This will give brands a firm foundation for their own ethics guidelines in 2009.