Hooked on the Social Media Drug

I remember when social media sites were first set up. They invited us to join for free, to exchange messages, pictures and other snapshots of our lives with friends scattered far and wide over the planet. When I signed up for Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads, I thought this was an excellent way of keeping in touch with the people I had met in the many corners of the world where I had lived or travelled to. I even started contributing original content for free in order to keep the channel alive—we all did. And we saw the means of promoting ourselves and our occupations (especially for self-employed ones among us like artists, writers and musicians) without falling prey to big corporate costs for such promotion, costs that hitherto had shut us out of traditional media.

Then something started to happen. Venture capitalists and other funding sources started reeling in the endless supply of funds to these social media sites, saying “Grow up boys, and pay your rent, now.” So, the Social Media sites started to take on advertizing to supplement their income. Their promise to advertisers: a captive audience that could be segmented in a myriad of different ways with sophisticated algorithms, and fed advertisements based on taste, geography, budget etc., at the click of a button and at a relatively low cost. They left the traditional media in the dust when it came to reach, relevance and cost.

Then something else started to happen. Bad guys cottoned onto how effective social media could be if they could infiltrate it with their own messaging that could help influence the outcome of public opinion and policy, national elections, and human behaviour. Very soon we saw people meeting at parties and retreating to their handhelds, people talking across the table via Messenger, pornography becoming a staple with no age barrier and differentiated only by which brand one consumed, and wild card politicians being elected to office thanks to third party influencers in social media.

When the regulators started to grumble about how powerful the tech companies were becoming and began applying retail tax laws to them just as they did for bricks and mortar operators, and threatened further regulation, the tech companies decided to put on a good corporate citizen face and capitalize further on the situation. They came back promising the following to: (1) favour personal content over promotional content for users in order to “restore the platform to its original intent.” (2) restrict promotional content to paid advertizing only, thereby getting more revenue from those independent artists, writers and musicians who previously promoted to friends and followers without having to pay for advertizing; there was no mention of how frequently this revamped paid advertizing would be hoisted upon the user base—i.e. more often than before, or less often? (3) hint that advertizing rates would increase because viewership was expected to drop due to #1 above. The bottom line from these changes: prices are going up, effectiveness is going down; advertisers and users lose, social media platform wins!

My old guru used to say, “Beware when they come and offer sweets outside the school gates. The candy could be laced with drugs, and you will become an addict very quickly.” That analogy is true here too. We were sucked in with the promise of becoming famous for free. Now it’s payback time and the fledgling social media company start-ups, that we helped grow into large corporations, have got us by the short and curlies, and we are hooked without any means of disengaging. We haven’t learnt much have we? My old guru must be turning in his grave.

I must be the world’s worst target for advertizing

I must be the world’s worst target for advertizing. And yet I am in the prime demographic of those supposedly with high disposable income, in their mid fifties, who are empty nesters etc. And if I am the worst target, are others in my cohort becoming, like me, deaf and blind to advertizing?

Okay, here’s what I do: I skip through the daily newspaper, reading only the headlines (conditioned by Twitter, of course), pausing only at a few to read further if they interest me. I do not notice the adverts, especially the full page glossy ones that act like warning lights for me to skip to the next page. TV commercial breaks are for taking a personal break, and there are many breaks to be taken these days: checking on the cooking, laundry, e•mail, Facebook and Twitter, and that break that is increasing in frequency—the washroom. When I am online, I zero into my search results or e•mail and ignore all peripheral ads that vie for attention. These ads have become white noise to me, even the recent one that pops up dangerously close to the middle of my screen with pictures of young women who supposedly want to date me – hey, I’m married, update your profile on me through your hidden cookie! I’m dreading the day when every second line of text in my e•mail will be a subliminal ad tempting me to buy, buy, buy. At that point I will have to return to handwritten postal mail.

Why have I become like this? After years of spurious consumption and with a declining income that comes with age (due to the associated false perception of being less productive as we age), I only live for the work I have left to do. I downgraded from Cadillac to Cobalt. Guys – don’t you get it? I just need to buy what I need, not what I want anymore. No amount of advertizing can stimulate a want in me – that muscle is dead, kaput! And they haven’t yet invented a chemical to get it functioning again, although they have invented lots of other pills to get boomers’ non•functioning organs to stand and deliver. Advertizing has also failed to deliver; its sizzle is always bigger than its steak. And we have come to believe that, so why waste time on a lie?

I tried engaging the next generation on this subject—the ones who were brought up on ads and seem to need them as badly as they need TV, cell phones and the Internet. I was told that they liked ads for their entertainment value (yes, today’s ads can be quite funny, and if they are not, there is supposedly something wrong with them) and for the images of lifestyle that they create. But that does not alone create a “buy.” The buy decision is now shaped by not just advertizing, but by user experiences shared via social media, and by the skimpy money supply available to the younger generation living from one paycheque to the next. And as we globalize, that supply is becoming skimpier.

I think corporations need to recognize advertizing’s present overreach. They need to ramp back and become more integrated into the myriad of influences that lead to a purchase. The mere fact that multiple internet businesses have advertizing as their main revenue stream does not empower advertizing to intrude so overtly into our lives. Corporations could also do their bit to increase the buying power of consumers by opening their stockpiles of cash and investing again, getting people back into real work and off temporary, minimum wage jobs. Start creating wealthier suckers who are willing to succumb to their alluring messages in the future. As for me, I am a lost cause. Advertizers, take me off your mailing lists. Don’t call me, I’ll call you.

Can a government run like a corporation?

The global shift to the right has resulted in governments of countries trying to run themselves like corporations; Dubai and Singapore are examples that come to mind. Privatization, less government, less taxes, and less social benefits are in fashion. And yet some governments are on the verge of bankruptcy, if not broke already. Is this due to the cause of “more government” or the effect of “less government”? Let’s look at these two entities a bit closer…

A corporation is organized to run an economic activity that provides a return to its shareholders. Beyond this important but narrow focus, a corporation need not exist. And in the process of increasing shareholder value, the corporation provides a product or service to its customer base and pays wages to its employees. In today’s globalized environment, a corporation does not have to respect national borders and could source its capital, labour and supplies from almost anywhere. Corporations are also ruled by fear and could shut down operations or move them across borders at the first sign of national instability. Oh yes, there are new roles within its community being ascribed to the corporation today such as Corporate Social Responsibility and Shared Value, but these appear to be more like checkmarks on a corporate scorecard, or the latest hook in a lecture that a professor at B•school has come up with to bolster his flagging class attendance; they are not yet intrinsic components of corporate culture that flow into society at large to enrich the whole rather than just some of the privileged parts.

A country’s government, on the other hand, has a larger role: it is circumscribed by national borders and lays down the rules by which corporations operate within; it collects and deploys taxes towards important activities that do not always provide an economic return on investment (how can everything in life be valued in $$$?), it ensures the re•distribution of wealth that leads to social stability and fairness within its borders, and it upholds the national brand that embodies the collective aspirations and behaviours of the nation, some not always rational or pleasant.

In terms of perception, corporations are able to manipulate public opinion by resorting to spin and positioning (“smoke more cigarettes!”), something come to be expected of them by an advertizing•addicted society. Can governments resort to this strategy without coming across as insincere, and thus undeserving of the next vote? They have tried rather ineptly with the dreaded “attack ads” in recent times, but these have now paled, trailing the mid•day soaps. Hopefully, in time, voters will forgive their governments this transgression into an area “they know not of.”

Despite their differing missions however, governments need corporations, and vice versa, but at arm’s length. Corporations drive the economic engine of society while governments lay down track for that engine to run along. Governments also make sure that the tracks are clear, that the engine does not jump tracks and barrel over people and their rights. Therefore, when governments start to act like corporations they blur the lines and abdicate their larger role. Yes, they may end up balancing their budgets and streamlining their service offering by playing Big C (a.k.a. reduce their offering) but they will fall short of their extended purpose.

Perhaps, corporations and governments should respect their differences and not try to imitate each other. Perhaps a huge sign on Parliament Hill should read, “Dear Corporations, please keep out of the hallways of Government. We will try our best to keep out of yours.”

In Praise of Advertizing

When the TV went to commercial break, I used to walk away, sometimes never to return to the programme. When radio programmes were interrupted by ad spots, I switched stations. When the free community newspaper(s) landed on my door, I’d throw it into the recycling box – editorial content was non•existent but the paper weighed a ton with flyers and advertorial. Telemarketers had the phone slammed down on them, and door•to•door sales people, whether they were selling cookies for charity or religion, got my front door slammed in their faces. I had the toughest anti•spam and anti•unknown e•mail address filters that were on the market, and my phone number was unlisted. And I never subscribed to receiving marketing content from online sites.

I was an anti•advertizing freak. Probably the only demonstration you could have got me to participate in willingly, ten years ago, was the “Death to Advertizing” march, if there was such a thing.

But now I am a reluctant convert. Think of it – I get a lot of things for free because of the advertizing that I don’t pay for or respond to. I get free e•mail, free online dictionary, free encyclopaedia, free search engines, free music (well, almost) and free books (coming soon, thanks to Google). I get to blog for free (well, almost), free overseas phone calls, free access to my friends and book lovers all over the world via online communities – all of this fuelled by the largesse of advertizing. Advertizing is finally providing some social good, while it continues to stimulate us to buy the things that we do not need.

So I will not be joining any more anti•advertizing protestors, but will look forward to the day when advertizing will pay my taxes, my employment insurance and my prescription drugs. Then I will be crossing the line to join the pro•ad parades!