Why social advertising may not be good for your social life

One of my best friends at the age of about ten was a guy called Tom Hodgkinson. We lost touch sometime in our teens, but I kept track of his career from afar. Not only did Hodgkinson follow in his parents’ footsteps and become a top-notch journalist, but he also launched a magazine called The Idler, which celebrates laziness in all its forms. Its founder and editor took the downsizing philosophy to heart and headed out to the sticks, where he now raises a family in some rustic idyll, surrounded by chickens and foxes and other things that country folk tend to enjoy. Hodgkinson also eschews modern technology such as email. Or at least that’s what he claims in articles for The Guardian, which I’m guessing he must deliver by hand on occasional forays into town.

So, the connection between these whimsical reflections and a blog on advertising creativity? Well, a couple of days ago, Hodgkinson wrote a feature¹ on the subject of Facebook – the ubiquitous social networking site. I read the piece as I travelled home from a workshop I’d been running for the Chartered Institute of Marketing and some of his themes had a particular resonance. He was strongly critical, for instance, of Facebook’s “social advertising” strategy that was trumpeted by youthful networking entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg at a meeting in New York City last November.

In a nutshell, social advertising is a way of getting people to recommend products and services to their friends in the networking space. Johnny buys a camcorder from me at Woodford Enterprises. He then ticks a box that sends his ‘recommendation’ to his circle of friends, along with a helpful bit of promotional puff from the Woodford marketing machine. Initially, the thinking was that Johnny’s friends would have no say over whether they received his product endorsement or not. There’s been such a hullabaloo, however, that this platform (known as Beacon) has been the subject of quite a bit of backtracking and revision.

In Hodgkinson’s view, Facebook’s social advertising represents the “commodification of human relationships” and “the extraction of capitalistic value from friendships”. I fear that this may not be the first time in history that human relationships have commodified, but let’s set that to one side for a moment. There’s no question that people are concerned about the latest developments. The delegates at my workshop – all marketing practitioners and managers – were pretty universal in their condemnation of the social advertising concept too. This might surprise Hodgkinson, who clearly has a pretty dim view of our profession. Although marketers and advertising professionals recognise that personal recommendation can be very powerful, we understand that there’s a big difference between the spontaneous endorsement of a brand and a phoney endorsement that’s been generated by computer and sent to people who aren’t interested in hearing it.

The whole discussion ties in with a broader debate in the advertising and marketing community about the extent to which we intrude on the consumer’s personal space. All-singing, all-dancing banner ads that jump around web pages are now technologically possible, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who really wants to encounter them. I’ve seen students in focus groups react very badly to the idea of marketing via text message, which they see as an unwarranted invasion of their private world. At the same time, however, we’re in a quandary, because we know that many of our target audiences live their lives on their PCs and mobiles and we need to reach them somehow or other. Tom Himpe, a strategic planner at the Belgian communications agency Mortierbrigade, argues convincingly that brands either have to travel to where their audience congregates or, alternatively, entice consumers into their own world through so-called ‘experiential’ marketing². The old days where we used to meet in the middle – perhaps during a TV commercial break viewed by the majority of the adult population – are fast disappearing.

All these issues are brought into sharp focus by social networking sites, which potentially provide an opportunity for marketers and brands to get closer to their consumer audiences than ever before. There’s no doubt that corporate interests will play a big part in the development of these social networks, but the precise way in which they interact with the users is still up for grabs. If the global corporations push their luck, they find that they get a bloody nose.

At the moment, we’re in the early stages of the social networking phenomenon and I’m going to continue poking folk and writing on people’s walls and seeing how the whole thing develops over time. This is anathema to Hodgkinson who worries about the politics of the network’s founders and sees the project as one great big social experiment by neo-conservative libertarians. If it is indeed an experiment, then I think it’s been a rather successful one. And I can say that without too much fear of offending my old school chum, as he tells us he prefers to read a book than surf the net.

© Phil Woodford, 2008. All rights reserved.

Phil Woodford is a member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s Faculty of Course Directors and lectures in marketing and advertising at Birkbeck College, University of London. His workshop, The Changing Face of Marketing Communication, runs in Dublin on 28th March 2008 and in London on 9th May 2008.

¹With friends like these… by Tom Hodgkinson, The Guardian, 14th Jan 08

² Himpe T, Advertising is dead! Long live advertising!, 2006, Thames & Hudson