The Playbook of Marketing Was Turned on Its Ear by Social Media

[22 May 2014]

By Scott Elingburg

Above: Ian Somerhalde in Frontline: Generation Like

You Are What You Like

In my former life as a college adjunct teacher, Douglas Rushkoff’s The Merchants of Cool (PBS, Frontline, 2001), was a staple text in my Freshmen Composition class. Most students did not buy into the argument that they were being force-fed their notions of “cool”. In fact, many outright denied it, claiming that their free will trumped any type of powerful persuasion tactics that companies such as PepsiCo and Sony ViaCom used to implicitly suggest what brands were culturally acceptable (“cool”) and which were not (“uncool”).

Despite Rushkoff’s well-researched thesis, most of my students found it funny—indeed, hilarious—that outdated examples of “cool” were being used to illustrate the vast hand of marketing over their lives (e.g., Britney Spears, Limp Bizkit, MTV). But Rushkoff’s examination of the unseen hands of persuasion in marketing was lacking in one enormous factor: social media. Rushkoff was not at fault; at the time (2001 and later in 2004 when The Persuaders, his follow-up investigation, aired) social media was still a nascent outlier, yet to fully evolve into the juggernaut that it stands as today.

The playbook of marketing was turned on its ear by social media; it flipped the second that the consumer sought out the marketer, instead of vice versa. Now, as Rushkoff’s film points out, marketers no longer have to search for their consumer, their consumer will come to them. As much as we like to romanticize the notion of advertising, we no longer need the Don Draper’s of the world; instead, advertisers need more Tyler Oakley’s (a YouTube personality whose profile is essentially a textbook in how to snare consumers).

Oakley and dozens of other “personalities” and “YouTubers” like him make it easy for marketers to do their job—as long as they are willing to listen. After all, the entire crux of the film is how a new generation of teens is defined by what they “like” and, in turn, what they share. And they couldn’t be happier to share what they like with their audiences. Teens, it seems, are happy to work for free, essentially doing the work of the advertisers.

What Rushkoff brushes on, and should be more in focus during Generation Like, is how brand centers capitalize on, and ultimately exploit, free information teens provide. And the methods in which they turn “likes” into cash is a study in modern alchemy. The most jarring incident in Generation Like, is a scene where a brand expert from social media/brand center The Audience, is able to pull up, in real time, all of the particular brands and products that followers of a television star (Ian Somerhalder, Vampire Diaries) have liked and support on social media.

Onscreen, it’s the definition of being linked in; information is offered up voluntarily and instantly from a direct target audience—all for free. Not only are teen consumers a target, but they’re the ones loading the proverbial gun and aiming it for advertisers.

Teens do this for a number of reasons, according to Rushkoff. They feel empowered when they show off what they like, they feel a connection, however fleeting, coupled with a sense of belonging, and there’s always the chance that companies or stars may “like” you back. You could get retweeted by a movie star or gain internet approval from dozens of followers for a new selfie. Either way, everyone wins. Teens gain validation and companies gain a foothold in their quest to compile every bit of data possible about their audiences. It’s easy to grasp who the real winners are in this scenario.

As with Rushkoff’s previous Frontline films, Generation Like leaves off with hundreds more questions than answers. The film ends on an odd, seemingly poignant note that suggests that online currency will never make us happy in the long term. But it’s a point that occurs needlessly and isn’t truly broached prior to the final minutes of the film. If the existential crisis of teenage identity is worth mentioning, surely it’s worth exploring a bit more than say, YouTuber Tyler Oakley’s presence at a One Direction concert.

Also, there’s a belabored metaphor that Generation Like sticks to like a bird in a briar patch: social media is akin to The Hunger Games. Teens fight for likability and, once embroiled in the games, must become well-liked and gain sponsors to aid in their survival. All the while, game makers sit in a comfortable ivory tower, twisting the knobs, changing the rules of the game.

As a metaphor, it’s smart enough and ripe for the recognizing. But the most ironic moment of all comes halfway through Generation Like when a Twitter hashtag appears onscreen advocating, #GenLike. It’s a perfect example of the giant “feedback loop” that Rushkoff mentions in both The Merchants of Cool and Generation Like. Even PBS and Frontline aren’t immune to the gravitational pull of social media, a testament to its ubiquity, and a self-referential moment of pure illustration where the snake eats its own tail and the journalists become the subjects.

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