Did you really mean to associate your brand with racism?
Back in 1990, when I was a junior columnist at the university newspaper, a fierce debate arose: The local tanning salon wanted to advertise in the paper, and their ad included a picture of a model-thin woman in a bikini. Today, the debate might be about whether it was ethical to promote a potentially cancer-causing product to young people; twenty years ago, it was all about whether it was ethical to contribute to the objectification of women by accepting ads featuring scantily-clad bikini babes.
(Are kids these days still this idealistic about this kind of thing? I wonder.)
Ultimately, of course, the argument turns on freedom of speech: There's a fine line between refusing to publish content or advertising that is generally accepted to be offensive or inflammatory and stifling freedom of speech by quashing all dissenting or differing opinions. If you refuse an ad for a tanning salon because you think that photos of women in bikinis send the wrong message to young women, must you also refuse ads from bathing suit manufacturers which feature women modeling the bathing suits? What, exactly, does a women have to wear in an ad in order to make it acceptable for your publication? Will you apply the same standards to men? Who gets to decide?
You see the problems here.
User-generated content is hard to control
I got thinking about this a couple of days ago when I fell down one of those YouTube rabbit holes and found myself watching a video by a guy called Ramzpaul (NSFW), who calls himself a 'nationalist' or sometimes 'white nationalist'.
Ramzpaul is smarter than most of the other white pride types on YouTube: He positions himself as a 'satirist', doesn't spew hate speech indiscriminately, and has closed down the comments on most of his 481 videos - so it takes a few minutes to figure out that he is in fact a racist who's quite popular on Stormfront discussion boards (not gonna link to that one - I'll let you look it up yourself), where they like the fact that his pro-white message is subtle enough to reach his fellow nationalists without us non-racists getting upset. The core message of the video entitled "Support Marriage Equality", for example, is that people who think it's okay for people to marry same-sex partners must also think that it's okay to marry (and have sex with) animals - but because he's given the video a 'liberal-friendly' title and gone with a 'satirical' theme, he comes across as 'just a guy with some opinions'.
In fact, he's done it so well that YouTube has made him a partner and is running ads on his videos:
(I'm not going to link to any of Ramzpaul's videos here, for obvious reasons. Screenshots will have to do.)
In the past 24 hours, I've seen ads for Katy Perry, Jugnoo, Canada Works 2025 and, as in the screenshot above, for the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation either on Ramzpaul's page or running before his videos. I don't know Katy Perry personally, of course, but I'm pretty sure neither she nor any of the other brands I've seen associated with Ramzpaul's channel would be all that happy about it.
Though I will say there is some sweet irony in the fact that there's an ad promoting Toronto's Gay Pride week preceding the "Support Marriage Equality" video:
Ramzpaul may be more subtle and less vitriolic than some of really hardcore racist garbage on YouTube, but he's still promoting a fairly offensive worldview, and I tend to think that it's the more subtle stuff that does the most damage, because it seems so reasonable at first: "Oh, I'm just being satirical! Oh, it's just my opinion - it's not hate speech!"
Where do you draw the line?
YouTube does a fairly good job of removing - or at least sidelining - users who are obviously racist, violent, copyrighted, etc. But with 48 hours' worth of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, it can be hard for them to keep up. And anyway, where do they draw the line? I think most people would find Ramzpaul's worldview offensive, but if he's hiding behind humour, not actively promoting violence, and staying carefully away from incendiary language - we're back to the bikini question: Where do you draw the line between 'hate speech' and 'freedom of speech', and how do you make that decision?
Having a blog is one of those things which really forces you to face your limitations. There are people in my life who would say that I am definitely 'creative', but I can't escape the fact that if I was, in fact, really a 'creative thinker', I would manage to post something interesting more than once a week.
While I try to dream up something interesting for you to read, here are the things I've been thinking about this week:
1. Why are people using these goofy smiley faces in their Twitter names?
I don't know if I've fallen down a rabbit hole or what, but suddenly a whole bunch of people I'm following on Twitter are using
in their Twitter names. Why? What does it mean? Is it a special club? The fruit of some guru's workshop on Effective Personal Branding in Social Media? I don't like it. I don't know how to replicate it, either.
2. How do boring people get so popular on Twitter?
The person referenced above often tweets gems like "When you feel down, go be a blessing to somebody else...it always makes you feel better!". And yet she has 75k followers. And is supposedly a Forbes Top 50 Social Media Power Influencer. I do not understand this.
3. The weird story of Lama Christie and her husband's death
A few years ago, Slate ran a story about Michael Roach and Christie McNally, two 'Buddhist Monks' who'd gone on a retreat during which they'd vowed to stay within 15 feet of each other - for 3 years. In April, 'Lama Christie' was found delirious beside her new husband's dead body in a cave near their 'monastery', from which they'd been expelled. The whole story seems strange, and for some reason I've become a little obsessed with it.
4. Miranda Hart, comedienne
The other day I got engrossed in what Max calls "another of my British Period Dramas" and was taken with one of the supporting actresses, Miranda Hart. I'd never heard of her - though I probably should have - and discovered she has her own comedy show in the UK. She is very, very funny, and I offer this (long, but worth it) clip as evidence:
4(a) The above-referenced "British period drama" was Call the Midwife.
It's about a young woman who goes to work as a midwife and district nurse in the East End of London in the 1950s, and what she finds there. It got great reviews and some BAFTA TV award nominations, but I'm almost positive its core demographic is women aged 49+, so I won't go on too much about it.
5. Fiona Apple is a fantastic lyricist. Or maybe poet.
Look, I'll admit that I couldn't really get behind Extraordinary Machine, even though I'd loved Fiona Apple's previous two albums. But she's got a new album out, and it's hard not to love a title like "The Idler Wheel is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve you More than Ropes Will Ever Do." No, I don't know exactly what it means, but who cares? There's a rhythm to those words that you just can't beat. (See what I did there?)
There's a very nice video, too:
It's possible that Fiona Apple is a totally insufferable artiste in real life, of course, as some have claimed - but I feel almost certain that a girl who's willing to wear an octopus on her head must have a sense of humour in there somewhere.
Christmas of 2009 was when I first got a little obsessed with Zynga games. My cousin had been killed in Afghanistan on December 23, and the holiday season wasn't exactly filled with joy. I found myself spending the week between Christmas and New Years sitting at my computer, numbing my brain with Farmville.
To me it was a lot like the Lego I loved as a kid: I leveled up to a huge farm and really liked arranging the various 'items' in optical-illusion mountains and rivers and estates. I admit I spent money - probably $100 over the course of that Christmas holiday.
What I didn't like was Farmville's incessant demands to push the game to my Facebook friends. You couldn't so much as sell a virtual sheep without a pop-up asking you to 'share' the big event with everyone in Facebook, and even spending money didn't keep the game from demanding you 'invite' friends to do stuff in order to progress to other levels.
I'm quite sure that I lost Facebook friends over this, because many people found it easier simply to 'unfriend' me than to 'turn off all Farmville notifications' on their timelines.
Eventually I was sucked into CityVille and CastleVille, too, until, like an addict, I finally got so disgusted with myself that I deleted them all.
However, I'm still getting notifications from CastleVille, because apparently deleting the application from your Facebook apps isn't enough - Zynga continues to store your information on their servers and despite 15 minutes of searching, I still can't figure out how to delete my information from those servers.
Zynga has always been a bit evil
If you've been following Zynga for the past few years, you know that they've always had a sketchy track record. Founder Mark Pincus, accused of unethical spamming in 2009, famously admitted that they'd do "anything" to drive users and revenue.
And for a while, this approach seemed to work: With tens of millions of users and a December 2011 IPO that reached almost $10 billion, Zynga looked like the first Facebook-based games company to achieve big success.
CityVille, CastleVille and FarmVille have all lost half their users in the past 6 months, and they've taken half of Zynga's share price with them, now at $5 from a high of $10.
Industry analysts are suggesting that the decline of Zynga is a signal that the golden age of Facebook-based games is over, and point to recent DAU (daily average users) statistics as proof:
I've seen plenty of commentary saying that the reason for this widespread decline is because users are increasingly moving to mobile games that they can play on their iPhone or Android. But I'm not so sure: Zynga's sweetspot for the -Ville games was always women in the 40+ category, and they're not the ones migrating to iPads en masse.
No, I think the problem is embarrassment. It's simply become too embarrassing to play Zynga games on Facebook, because you know that everyone hates getting notifications about it in their newsfeed, and it's almost impossible to completely 'hide' your playing patterns from all your friends. It's hard to really enjoy playing a game when you can't feel good - or private - doing it.
What's more, Zynga relied on continual Facebook feed-spamming to attract new users; now that active users are reluctant to let anything hit their timeline, and non-users have blocked as many notifications from the games as they can, there's no top-of-mind awareness to drive new users.
So what have we learned?
I think Zynga's rise and fall has some good lessons for marketers in the age of social media:
Spam only works for so long. You can achieve initial success by relentlessly pushing your message to uncomfortable levels, especially if you're delivering a decent product (and the Zynga games are well-designed, for the most part). But eventually both your users and your non-users get fed up
When your brand starts being embarrassing, you have a problem. In the absence of spam, you have to rely on word-of-mouth. If people are embarrassed to say they're using your product, you can't generate the word-of-mouth you need to keep growing
Long-term credibility is better than short-term hype. I'm quite certain that Mark Pincus et al thought, in December 2011, that they were business geniuses. After all, their "we'll do anything for traffic" approach had driven them to a multi-billion-dollar valuation. But now they've got a big problem, because it's going to be harder for them to attract new users to new games, whether they're Facebook- or mobile-based
One bad apple can ruin the whole category. It's my opinion that Zynga is almost single-handedly responsible for the decline in usage of other Facebook games: Zynga's spamming tactics have made everyone wary of allowing any games to access their timelines - so it's harder than it used to be for new games to get traction.
I guess this is what happens when there are so few taboos left to break.
Last time I wrote a blog post tagged #badvertising, it was about a strangely discombobulated spot for Depends undergarments in which figure skaters (who took pains to indicate they did not need the product) leapt around in adult diapers 'for charity'. I had a little sympathy for the advertisers, though: It's hard to make incontinence appealing.
Today, however, I have no sympathy for our #badvertising culprits. Readers, I give you Harvey Nichols' latest ads:
Just in case you can't believe what you're seeing here, those dark spots in the crotches (sorry) of the models' pants are in fact supposed to be pee stains. The point of the ads, you see, is that you'll be so excited by the Harvey Nichols sale that you will literally wet yourself.
And it continues:
Now, in case you are unfamiliar with Harvey Nichols - or Harvey Nicks, as Edwina and Patsy would say - let me just explain that it is a London-based department store where you'd go to find, say, an $800 pair of shoes. In other words, this isn't an Urban Outfitters sort of a place that is trying to appeal to the ironic hipster crowd. And while I could no doubt make some cheap jokes about the likelihood of the Tara Palmer-Tomkinson socialite set both (a) dressing badly but expensively and (b) wetting their pants after some particularly salubrious nights out, I just don't think associating your brand with urine stains is really the way to go.
(What's more, I have a suspicion that the biggest-spending clientele of Harvey Nichols - as with many of the higher-end stores - is in fact the 50-but-dying-to-look-like-their-teenage-daughter crowd, and the last thing about which they'll care to be reminded is their impending incontinence. But that's just my opinion.)
Harvey Nichols' spokesperson said something about how the ads were supposed to be 'tongue-in-cheek', irreverent, blah blah blah. The usual. But wouldn't it have been so much more tongue-in-cheek if the 'excitement' was represented by, say, visible engorgement of erectile tissue? Or possibly headlights?
Okay, I can't write any more. I'm cringing as much as you are.
These days, I'm doing a lot of ghost-blogging and speechwriting for clients. Which is good, because I do love writing, and when I'm doing the speeches I pretend I'm Aaron Sorkin writing for West Wing. What's less good is that I'm often writing well outside my core competencies - it's surprising how few of my clients need a piece on diet Coke or 80s new wave bands - so it's not unusual for me to be staring at my screen wondering if I should have taken a job in accounting.
But I have discovered a secret weapon: Podcasts.
In the past few weeks, information I've gleaned from podcasts has not only provided excellent fodder for speeches and blogs on subjects I would otherwise have known little about, it's also made me look incredibly polymathic. A client says "I wish we could find a good case study about the effects of kale chips on workplace productivity..." and there I am with "Well, Dr Tooloolamay of Higgledy University just conducted a study on that, with some interesting results - let me find the data for you." I look like a genius.
And it's all from podcasts.
I first started listening to podcasts at night because I suffer from insomnia and tinnitus and found that a quiet voice in my ears helped me focus and sleep. Now I listen to podcasts all the time: When I'm walking the dog, cleaning the house, taking the subway. I'm listening to a podcast right now, in fact. It's sort of like listening to the radio, except you can choose what you listen to, and there aren't any commercials.
So what should you be listening to?
My preference is for BBC podcasts, because I think their news coverage is more global and their comedians are funnier. And you often find out about interesting music and tv shows before they make it over here. But there are lots of great podcasts. Here are my current favourites:
BBC World Update This is an excellent news roundup that covers everything from Syria to Greece in 30 minutes a day. Will definitely make you look like you're au courant about current events.
Dr Karl's podcasts Dr Karl Kruszelnicki is a hard-core science geek who discusses everything from whether microwaves can interfere with your cellphone reception to the technology behind commercial space shuttles - and he does it in language normal people can understand. He has lots of podcasts, and all of them will teach you new things.
The Economist Why buy the Economist when you can listen to almost all the articles read to you in nice voices? I don't always agree with their perspectives on economic events, but at least they make me think.
Freakonomics These podcasts always give me something interesting to think about, and they have fantastic in-depth discussions about studies you might never otherwise have heard of. Excellent blog fodder here.
More or Less: Behind the Stats I almost failed stats in university, so I like the fact that this podcast walks you through the way the media (and others) manipulates statistics - and helps you understand the real truth behind them.
Stephen Fry podcasts Unfortunately, Stephen Fry isn't doing his podcasts regularly any more, but his pieces on language and fame are still well worth listening to.
Tech Weekly I admit I'm not one of those people who's reading Mashable every day, so I like to save up the Tech Weekly podcasts and listen to them all in a row to feel up-to-date on technology trends. There may be better tech-related podcasts out there, but this one at least has good production values.
(I've given you links to the relevant pages here, but if you use iTunes, you can find all of these there.)
All things considered, I think the rise of branded philanthropy has been one of the best things to happen in marketing in the past 10-15 years. Between corporate giving back programs and the internet, kids are more aware of (and are doing more for) charitable causes than they used to, overpaid celebrities are under more pressure to give money away, and it's becoming an integral part of companies' business plans: These days, almost every big RFP I come across has a 'community involvement' component; ten years ago, almost none of them did.
If you live in Canada, you've probably seen some tv ads for this initiative in the past couple of weeks, though apparently this is the third or fourth year they've done it. Essentially the goal is to 'build' 5000 bikes which Cadbury will then send to kids in Ghana, for whom a bicycle is an important tool in all kinds of ways.
All very laudable, except that you can't help to 'build' a bicycle without giving Cadbury all kinds of your personal information and 'engaging' with Cadbury products online.
More difficult for me to swallow was the fact that if each 'specially designed' bicycle costs $250, the total spend for Cadbury is only $1.25 million. This is less than they typically spend on advertising a single brand of chocolate bar in Canada in a single year. Worldwide, Kraft/Cadbury revenue is about $48 billion - which makes $1.25 million a drop in the proverbial bucket. And Jodi Lastman over at Hypenotic offers some interesting insights into the negative effects of turning a complex sociological issue into a simplified 'contest'.
I became even more cynical about the whole thing when I read this piece in Strategy Magazine, in which Cadbury cheerfully announces that the program has driven sales increases of 42%. Even if that is typical agency hyperbole, I do know that if the program hadn't driven double-digit sales increases in its first year or two, they wouldn't have continued it.
They're not the only ones
Tonight, the Cadbury spot was followed by a 30-second edit of this commercial for Coca-Cola's support of a Participaction program to help disadvantaged teens become 'more active':
At the end of the spot, there's a super announcing that Coca-Cola is giving $10 million - but it's over 10 years. In other words, a company which makes $10.5 billion annually is trying to make you think that its $1 million/year spend is a big deal. But given the production value of the video, and the frequency with which I've seen the commercial, I'm positive they're spending more money promoting this initiative than they're spending on the kids. Heck, Wikipedia says Coca-Cola spends upwards of $3 million lobbying the US government every year (no doubt to convince Congress that 17 teaspoons of sugar per can isn't a problem).
Look, I know that neither of these programs are the only branded philanthropy efforts these companies are undertaking. I'm not suggesting that companies should be giving away all of their profits, and I think it's okay when companies use their philanthropic efforts to generate some positive media attention for themselves. That's how the system works, and a company which doesn't continue to grow revenue soon can't do any good for anyone.
So what am I saying? Well, I think I'm encouraging you to think twice, and maybe do some research, when a company tells you to buy their products first because they're committed to 'giving back'. And I think I'm also hoping that if enough of us make it clear that we're noticing the details, it'll encourage companies to do just a little bit more, next time.