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The Fallacy of Social Media
Posted on November 14th 2012
Over the last few years I've written a number of pieces that cover fallacies. You can view the archive by following this link: http://thejonathanmacdonald.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Business%20Fallacies
A fallacy is a mistaken belief, especially one based on unsound argument, or a failure in reasoning that renders an argument invalid.
I've been tempted for a long time to write The Fallacy of Social Media but resisted for two reasons:
1. The fallacy I suspected to be in place was arguably just an observed bad idea, poorly executed, rather than a totally unsound and mistaken belief
2. As an advisor and speaker I spend a lot of time talking about the new media landscape and it is slightly disingenuous to claim that the most fashionable modern term is actually a fallacy
I've been waiting for a sign to argue against these reasons, or to uphold them and therefore remain silent. Yesterday, the 16th October 2012, the sign came manifesting as the Bodyform video response to a supposed Facebook comment. This made me realise The Fallacy of Social Media was not only alive and well but has infected masses of people.
I apologise in advance for any offence caused and I'd like to caveat that these views are mine and mine alone. If you have a different opinion please feel free to comment on this post, I will answer any respectfully stated points of view. Here goes.
On the 8th October 2012, a guy called Richard Neill wrote a comment on Facebook, complaining that Bodyform (through their advertising) had created a myth about women's periods. This is his comment in full, spellings and punctuation intact:
"Hi , as a man I must ask why you have lied to us for all these years . As a child I watched your advertisements with interest as to how at this wonderful time of the month that the female gets to enjoy so many things ,I felt a little jealous. I mean bike riding , rollercoasters, dancing, parachuting, why couldn't I get to enjoy this time of joy and 'blue water' and wings !! Dam my penis!! Then I got a girlfriend, was so happy and couldn't wait for this joyous adventurous time of the month to happen .....you lied !! There was no joy , no extreme sports , no blue water spilling over wings and no rocking soundtrack oh no no no. Instead I had to fight against every male urge I had to resist screaming wooaaahhhhh bodddyyyyyyfooorrrmmm bodyformed for youuuuuuu as my lady changed from the loving , gentle, normal skin coloured lady to the little girl from the exorcist with added venom and extra 360 degree head spin. Thanks for setting me up for a fall bodyform , you crafty bugger"
Then, 8 days later, the below video was published as a response from the brand on a YouTube channel (called 'BodyformChannel'). There was a disclaimer in the supporting text that read: "Bodyform doesn't have a CEO. But if it did she'd be called Caroline Williams. And she'd say this" However many people didn't read that bit. Here's the video:
"Periods are pretty funny" they say.
Along with this, industry experts were almost unanimous in lauding this as an excellent social media exercise. Here are just two out of many salacious samples to salivate on:
"Unbelievable PR masterclass" they say.
To be honest, it was the Electricpig headline that did it for me. That was the moment that I realised the industry has been grossly infected by The Fallacy of Social Media.
Let me explain.
The paradigm shift we are experiencing in the media landscape is not simply the addition of a new form of media, it is an enormous disruption to the way that business operates. As written about here, brands are democratised, citizens are armed with weapons of mass communication and the public expectation of human decency from once-faceless brands, is standard.
This means several things but let's pick two:
1. Consistency, authenticity, transparency and honesty are the factors of growing a loyal fan base, or even simply raising the profile of a brand. Any damage or diversion to these factors results, always, in disloyalty and lack of trust
2. Whilst the first point stands, the funky creative opportunities that are possible are far more attractive than looking inward for what a company really believes in, therefore a kick-ass video campaign mostly trumps a reflective purpose-driven business approach, agnostic of campaign
This paradox is what generates The Fallacy of Social Media.
Social interactions aren't actually a media in the same way as TV breaks are a media. Nonetheless, those charged with creating brand stories have quickly decided that the 'Social Media' requires a few different tricks, but essentially the benefit is that if you create something funny enough, or poignant enough, people will share it. I have spent a great deal of time showing the agencies and brands that the syntax of social interactions is social capital, exchanged as social currencies, and such sharing is native to our modern context. However this point is not intended to divert our strategies from the principle fact contained in the first point above. The video is called 'The Truth' for Christ's sake. But it's not. So what happens next when Bodyform want to tell the truth? "Oh last time we lied, but this time we're being honest". Maybe they'll call the next video 'The Real Truth'? *cough*
There are many arguments against my opinion unfortunately, and thereby much fuel for this pervasive fallacy. One primary rebuttal is that "no damage is done really", and to that I ask you to read this piece called Refuelling at Peace Time which presents the case of why "no damage" is actually a transient status report rather than a vital holistic assessment.
Another argument is that "at least it got people talking", or "it shows how social media can be used effectively by a brand".
No, no, no, no, no.
"Act like you're a company made of real, actual people, and good things will surely follow" they say.
Act like you're real? That's good?
It is the very last example a brand should consider in my opinion...and the effectiveness people claim is almost always 'proved' by the amount of eyeballs it reached. Remind you of the old media world by any chance?
By creating a false and sarcastic video clip, the message for those who don't work in the advertising industry is potentially a combination of:
1. So what do Bodyform really think?
2. Whatever that is, why don't they say it themselves?
3. Is being sarcastic ever really a productive approach?
4. Isn't this yet another artificial statement that just propels the view that advertisers are liars?
What good would look like is if Bodyform were already involved in the conversation around the topic and stood for something meaningful that they brought to the table. Not needing an agency partner to act as a proxy. Social conversation is not a campaign.
It's a way.
It needs to be business-as-usual.
Yes you can do campaigns, but the best way for your brand would be to have these support your actual mission. Not to dress up a mission in a campaign to go viral. No my friends, no.
And if you really wanted to 'go there', one could argue (yet I couldn't possibly comment) that if the company that owns Bodyform really cared about representing females, how about having more than one female member of senior management?
But I digress. Even if this Richard Neill character is real, the flow ran as follows:
1. Light-hearted attack on Bodyform by Facebook member
2. Eight days of silence from Bodyform
3. Video response from a fictional character, supposedly representing Bodyform, sarcastically answering the Facebook member
4. Shared liberally around the web
5. Advertising industry pats itself on the back, other brands want to copy the approach, the agencies win awards
Is that really what we think the potentially of this new media age is? Seriously?
How much authenticity do you think this generates for Bodyform? Really, how much? A lot? Not a lot? Let me know.
There's now dozens of articles claiming this is 'best practice' and a killer 'social media case study', but I'm afraid to say that it's nothing more than one giant diagnosis that The Fallacy of Social Media is alive, kicking and will (for sure) be in Cannes to pick up the respective awards.
It is a self-serving, cancerous circle-jerk where the winners are nowhere near the members of the public.
It is everything I stand against and I'd like you to know that I'll continue to call this out when I see it. My small voice won't spoil your party, don't worry, you just need to bear in mind that if the public share any of my above thoughts, the battle you will face will eclipse the hangover of any awards ceremony my friends.
Mark. My. Words.