April 13, 2010
 

Follow the [Floggers] Money!

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By Chris Kieff, Director of Marketing, Ripple6, Inc.

In the film, All The Presidents Men, the Deep Throat character played by Hal Holbrook recites what would become the world-famous line that the film became known for: "Follow the Money." Years later when Deep Throat's identity was finally exposed, the truth came out that he never ever spoke those words. These types of little white lies are bursting out in the social media space faster than Nixon's presidential campaign (CREEP) could dole out hush-money in paper bags.

Deep Throat: No, I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I'll confirm. I'll keep you in the right direction if I can, but that's all. Just... follow the money.

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Cut to 2009. "Jennifer" is an attractive, bright 24 year old college graduate working for a smallish advertising firm. She came out of college with a good education and when coupled with her 24 years of experience of life in the USA she feels she has a good grounding in Advertising and Marketing.

Deep Throat: Forget the myths the media's created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.

When Jennifer sees an ad on TV, with a housewife endorsing a cleaning product she knows the "housewife" is an actress playing a role. When Jennifer hears her favorite DJ on the radio talk about how much he loves the new dance club in town, she knows it's a paid advertisement and the DJ probably doesn't really love the club. And when Jennifer is watching All the Presidents men on TV late at night she knows that Redford and Hoffman are not the real Woodward and Bernstein. And when she sees the infomercial for the latest kitchen jelly maker, she knows the studio audience is actually paid actors. Partly because no group of more than 4 people who aren't on drugs could ever get excited about a kitchen jelly maker, and partly because everyone knows they are actors.

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Washington Post Reporter: I was at a party once, and, uh, Liddy put his hand over a candle, and he kept it there. He kept it right in the flame until his flesh was burned. Somebody said, "What's the trick?" And Liddy said, "The trick is not minding."

Jennifer comes from a culture where most people honestly believe that, as Seth Godin says, ALL MARKETERS ARE LIARS. We know that we can't trust the words of any advertisement. Where "Best" is relative, and "Deal, Sale, Discount," and "Going Out Of Business" don't really mean anything. Many of us believe that big corporations will cheat, lie and steal our money to make their shareholders happy.

Deep Throat: It leads everywhere. Get out your notebook. There's more.

But now, in 2009 Jennifer also comes from the culture that lives in Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and MySpace. Where she will Google you before she meets with you. Where your Facebook picture could be of George Clooney, or a Victoria's Secret model, or your good looking cousin. A culture where the online dating profile will lie about age, weight, waistline and income. A world where orphaned Nigerian millionaire children need your help to get their millions out of the country. Where almost everyone lies about almost everything online.

Bob Woodward: He's got a lawyer with $25,000 in a brown paper bag.

So Jennifer's new boss gives her an assignment; create a "persona" for an online promotion of a product. Jennifer is told to create an online identity on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and to write a few comments on blogs as this fictional character. We'll call her "Lulu." And then to make some friends for Lulu on Facebook and MySpace, to make the character more realistic. Well, it's easier to make friends when you already have some, so Jennifer makes some more "persona's" to be friends of Lulu. Then Lulu starts to get some real friends.

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Carl Bernstein: At one point I - I suddenly wondered how high up this thing goes, and her paranoia finally got to me, and I thought what we had was so hot that any minute CBS or NBC were going to come in through the windows and take the story away.

And people start to "interact" with Lulu. This is the holy grail of online marketing- INTERACTION! Lulu, carefully sculpted by Jennifer to have the ideal life for this demographic target has everything they could ask for in a friend. Lulu has the right job, family, car, apartment, friends, and she does the kind of things they like to do (or wish they could.) Lulu's friends start to tell her all about themselves, their wants, and needs. Lulu can ask them almost anything and get real honest answers. And it doesn't cost anything! And none of Lulu's friends realize that she's fictional. None of them realize she's an advertisement for several products.

White House: If you print that, our relationship will be terminated....

When I asked a friend this question (she's not in this business) she said yes it is advertising. I was shocked. But it's lying, deception. It's wrong! And my wife looked at me and said, "so is all advertising." To her unschooled eye, this is just a variation on a theme. All marketers are liars, anything could be advertising, and therefore anything could be lying.

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White House: Well, if you're conducting that kind of investigation, certainly it comes as no surprise to you that Howard was with the CIA.

Where do we draw the line? Is it OK if Lulu is a 20ish girl but not OK if she's 50 with breast cancer? What if Lulu is a vegetarian, a veteran, a virgin, or a drug user, depressed, or disabled, pregnant, Presbyterian, or a prostitute? Each of these have been used in broadcast commercials without an outcry.

Bob Woodward: All non-denial denials.

Those of us in Social Media today proclaim that honesty, openness, and realism are required. We viciously attack those whom we see as perverting the purity of our grand Social Media experiment. And I've been right there with them.

Bob Woodward: I don't mind what you did; I mind how you did it.

I attacked a headhunter for posting an ad that was for a non-existent job just to gather resumes in this post. But it's a practice that is done constantly online today. So the question is where does advertising stop and the requirement for authenticity begin?

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Ben Bradley (in conversation) Well, it's not that we're using nameless sources that bothers me. Or that everything we print, the White House denies. Or that no other papers are reprinting our stuff. I don't believe this story. It doesn't make sense.

I know that the very first rule everyone learns about dealing with other people is Caveat Emptor. Let the buyer beware. And so I have no doubt that in 3 to 5 years we'll look back at today and lament the passing of the early golden years of social media. The time when everything and everyone online was clean and pure and honest. Except they aren't, spammers, scammers, phishers and viruses flourish. So what are we to do? We are going to have to figure out the unwritten rules that signal to the viewers out there that this isn't real- it's an ad. And we'll all learn to spot these cues and we'll keep on moving.

Ben Bradley: I can't do the reporting for my reporters, which means I have to trust them. And I hate trusting anybody. Run that baby.

I feel that it is deceitful and dishonest for companies to do what "Jennifer" does in the example above. I find it morally repugnant, so please don't call me to do that for you, but try me again in 12 months. There is no doubt in my mind that in 3 to 5 years, everyone will be doing it. And just as we are not fooled by the "housewife" in the TV commercial, or the "audience" on the infomercial we won't be fooled by the "friend" on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook. It will take a while, it will be painful. We will be fooled, ashamed, misled and tricked, it's just human nature. We will grow up a little more and lose a little bit of our naiveté, our innocence. But it is inevitable.

Bradley to Woodward & Bernstein: You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a ^%$#@. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up... 15 minutes. Then get your [butts] back in gear. We're under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing's riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys [screw]-up again, I'm going to get mad.

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