The evils of word-of-mouth advertising

by Rob Horning

4 December 2007


I found a copy of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift in the free pile at work—a quite appropriate place to find it in some ways (somebody’s giving it away), totally inappropriate in others (the copy of the book was distributed in a commercial setting solely for marketing purposes, which Hyde argues destroys the gift’s essential nature). Hyde’s fundamental point is that gifts necessarily form relationships between giver and recipient, while commercial exchanges pointedly do not—they are arranged to be reciprocal and neutral, to balance out and eradicate any need for gratitude or graciousness or indebtedness. Hyde writes, “In commodity exchange it’s as if the buyer and seller were both in plastic bags; there’s none of the contact of gift exchange. There is neither motion or emotion because the whole point is to keep the balance, to make sure the exchange itself doesn’t consume anything or involve one person with another.” For some, that lack of intimate contact or interpersonal obligation is the whole point; it’s much more convenient to accumulate things without accumulating relationships, even though relationships are likely much more fulfilling and are often the point of having things in the first place. We want to have certain things all to ourselves to project a certain kind of identity, but we also want to share things with who we choose and erect the boundaries we seek to make concrete around our family or our circles of friends. Consumerist ideology works to persuade us that the convenience and the identity display of collecting goods and market exchange are more satisfying than the sharing and the network formation of gift exchange; that isolation from ties and evasion of responsibility is the whole of freedom. But in reality, most people don’t want to be free on those terms. We like to feel obliged; it gives us a reson for being, a sense that we matter. Consumer society is set up that you can live your entire adult life without having anything but frictionless, emotion-free commercial interactions with other people—an arrangement preferred by commercial interests, since it may then take a cut of the action that occurs every time people interact. Every bit of human interaction in such cases requires market mediation, which allows the intermediaries to extract profits. Ordinary human relations, decommercialized and inconvenient with all those feelings and junk, are not so reliably lucrative. The fair, impartial exchange idealized in the market in which you get what you pay for (caveat emptor and all) is a way of stifling relationships that occur outside of commercialization. Making a fair deal as a cornerstone of morality may foster isolation.

It occurred to me that my contempt for word-of-mouth advertising has something to do with opinions as gifts—when one offers a word-of-mouth recommendation, it functions as a gift; it fosters a relationship that in some way supersedes the specific thing recommended. The opinion is only an occasion to enrich a relationship. But word-of-mouth advertising, obviously, corrupts that process and invalidates the gift, turning it into a tactic or a product. Few people are soulless enough to spread bogus word of mouth intentionally, but the goal of Facebook and other social networks seems to be to commercialize sincere word of mouth recommendations or to automate the opinion giving process, so that every time you do something online, your actions generate an automatic recommendation to those who are on a feed, receiving updates of your every move. This deprives you of the chance of making a gift of your opinion, making it into a sales tool preemptively, poisoning the very ground of friendship. Instead of promoting the sharing of ideas and opinions among friends, social networking sites promote posturing and marketing, friendship as spectatorship, surveillance, and imitation. The reciprocity it provokes seems thin, encourage discourse that is typically taken for granted in friendship—you don’t need special notification that someone is paying attention to you or validating your choices; you don’t need testimonials from friends to the effect that they actually really do like you. Social networks offer a way to conduct a friendship without putting forth any specific personalized effort—it removes the gift of friendship from the relationship and leaves the marketing possibilities.

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