December 29th, 2006

Transparent Ads Are Better Than Fake “Conversations”


The Cluetrain guys had their hearts in the right place when they said that markets are conversations, but, unfortunately, when corporations try to do the conversation thing, they typically end up making a mess and a mockery and looking utterly clue-less. You’ve got fake blogs, undisclosed paid blog posts, and bloggers who “lead conversations” receiving unsolicited free merchandise (courtesy of Edelman, AGAIN). It feels like we’ve reached the point where good old fashioned, in-your-face, BUY THIS advertising is starting to look a whole lot more authentic than all of the fake “authenticity” that the hyping of authenticity has engendered.

Sure, most ads are still annoying and still not well targeted, but at least they are honest in their own way. And, yes, many ads still try to manipulate people and present false images, but over the years most people have developed a pretty good BS detector, which allows them to filter commercial messages — but this BS detector only functions when you KNOW that you are seeing a commercial message. Thanks to the anti-advertising movement, we now have a whole new form of deceptive commercial messages to contend with. Rather than transforming the way corporations communicate in a positive way, the naively good intentions of the “conversationists” merely gave brands a new set of sheep’s clothing to don when sneaking into the consumer flock. Hardly an improvement.

If you want to sell me something, at least be honest about it. Don’t pretend that you want to “have a conversation” or be my “friend.” You’re the seller, I’m the buyer — when I understand the nature of the relationship, I can make my own judgment. But if you blog at me, slide up next to me with a drink in your hand and try to be my pal, when all you really want is for me to buy something, you’re being DECEPTIVE. Truth in advertising is important, but truth in INTENTIONS is critical.

Fake conversations have become a far greater pox on our media life than mass advertising ever was. When markets become conversations, transparency goes out the window. Ads are annoying. Fake conversations are deceptive. I’ll always opt for the former — and I think most people will, too.

So in 2007, remember, conversation is great with friends, family, and colleagues, but commercial messages are strictly business.

  • All the analysis above comes from the marketer (or at the marketer) point of view. This is about conversation, right? Two way? Putting aside deceptive marketing practices ('cuz there are plenty, no news there) what benefits might we as consumers get from talking to or with marketers? Especially in cases where we love a particular brand or product?

    As a consumer, I think it's exciting that the marketing world has changed (is changing) into something that wants my input, and may reward me for it. Four years ago my cousin and I started making video "ads" about our lives for PBR and for PUMA, projects which led to free beer (PBR) and paid market research in Europe (PUMA). All because we as consumers said "we dig your stuff and we're going to show the world how." Transparency? We marked everything we did with our name and posted what we were doing on our blog.

    As a result of our early success we've become students of CGM and WOM and social media and brand communities etc...I do think that as more and more consumers wake up to the reality that they can have an influence on product design and marketing (ideally not seperate fields) more and more we'll see that brand communities are where the action happens.

    Yes, ultimately the marketer aims to make sales. But as consumers does it have to be an us vs. them mentality? Or can we (should we) choose to buy from marketers that will work with us, supporting our ideas and creativity?

  • My yes-I-agree-but-no-I-don't reaction to Scott's posting is similar to David's, and I was also puzzled enough to spend some time untangling my impressions.

    I'm uncomfortable with the "when corporations try to do the conversation thing" preface. All the scams I've fallen for are, in their little hearts, first authored and perpetrated by sneaky people. They may connive with others, they may use the resources a company offers to distribute and promulgate, but there's a guiding intelligence behind each effort. The most painful times I've been pwned have all been because I trusted someone who was selling me something. It didn't help I knew I was being sold to, I still got rolled. From the "buy a professional freezer and we'll deliver great food to your doorstep" pitch to the "get buying club discounts on name brands" opportunity to our family's real dollars-and-sense use of a Costco membership, I've been disappointed many times, after I believed what I learned from people I trusted. The trust grew after multiple conversations, after double-checking with friends and references, and was all the more painful for the time it took to build. In each case, I've learned how to be smarter, learned what I missed, and got better at the game.

    Truth in intentions is good, but sometimes the intentions aren't bent. Enthusiasm and good listening skills combined with a flawed understanding of a product and a lack of imagination at seeing long-term or unintended consequences can make a salesperson dangerous to a customer unschooled in a particular product.

    I know my personal weaknesses as a "buyer." If I'm attracted to something someone is selling, because I need it or imagine I do, I'll take a peek, have a listen, possibly engage in a conversation. While unabashed mass media advertising is certainly easier to screen out than conversational personal-information-bubble-penetration gambits, I'll still poke at the interesting ones, and take my chances with the scams. I'm convinced, rightly or wrongly, that I get a lot more raw data from conversation than I do from ads. It's easier to break a code or a understand a protocol the more ciphertext you have, the more data you can capture.

    Maybe I've grown more cynical than some as I become an old fart, but I'm not at all surprised or outraged our deepening experience with the net as a medium for peddling has produced some geese that quack like ducks. Scott's writing stands in as a surrogate to help us imagine what he could be paid to do. David's does the same. That they're passive publications makes them all the more interesting, as their passivity helps reinforce their trustworthiness. Maybe they're just better peddlers?


  • Dave's made a great point--there are indeed a number of different kinds of market conversations. This year we've seen some seriously bad ones, but that comes from the marketers and corporations trying to spin or control the conversation in some manner. They're just not happy with knowing the types and kinds of water-cooler or diner-counter conversations that go on about their products.

    and yes, People have very good B.S. detectors, but media pros don't seem to. I'd like to point out the sad and embarassing hoo-ha that was made by some very high level media critics over LonelyGirl15, and the ad execs who are still talking about how wonderful the whole thing was? Wonderful? It was a group of self-promoting young adults manipulating middle-aged media critics by pretending to be a single vulnerable adolescent--and if a company did that sort of thing, it would be considered "stealth marketing" and thus Very Bad. The best thing to come out of that was the Foremskis putting the time in and sniffing out what many of us knew but just didn't have the time (not nec. the lack of means) to investigate, even if we knew it was b.s.

    The concern, however, shouldn't be over whether or not companies are going to engage in fake conversations, but whether or not we are educating a new generation sufficiently so that they can better spot the b.s.

  • Scott, on the one hand, I agree with just about everything you say. On the other, I don't. Which has me puzzled. I think it comes down to these two points:

    1. Metadata is crucial. If I know you're trying to sell me something, I can have an honest conversation with you, but I can't if I don't.

    2. But the metadata is rarely as simple as sticking on a badge announcing your affiliation. I think there's a cloud of possible types of market conversations, and companies now are exploring that cloud, sometimes well and sometimes clumsily. The cloud includes honest-to-goodness customer-to-customer conversations (on or off the Net), unconstrained employee blogging (which is, of course, always constrained by the person not wanting to get fired), straightforward sales chats with demo-ers at a trade show, frustrating "conversations" with customer support reps who refuse to vary from the script, fake conversations with paid representatives of despicable companies who lie about who they are, etc. Some of these are reprehensible, some are useful, some are fun, some are a mix.

    In short, I don't think it's as binary as I think your posting makes it seem, although I do agree that there are lots of examples of businesses corrupting conversations and eroding trust through opaqueness and outright lying.

  • Along with Nick Carr, shout-outs need to go to Shelley Powers, Dave Rogers and Seth Finkelstein who've been making related points to this for a while now, and in a few corners getting knocked for it.

    I look for disclaimers such as David Weinberger's more and more, to discern who to trust.

    The problem is, that there is no standard for such statements for readers and aggregators to locate and consume them. As it stands right now, there is no way to distinguish advertisements, from marketing campaigns, from real honest to goodness community of interest discussion.

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