Dr. Mariann Hardey

Digitally on.

Speaker, Writer, Academic.

Durham University Lecturer.

I do stuff for the BBC.

Feminist & lovely.

Slanguage of social media

Want to avoid other people's 'brand' campaigns? The tedium that has to be acknowledged

November 2015

The latest lecture to my hundred-so postgraduate students at Durham University Business School concentrated on the suspect accompaniment of endorsed and branded content in so-called 'casual' users posts. I like to use the phrase "contentless content" - a deliberate parading of what appear to be informal recommendations, but really are aimed to promote a product/service/brand for its own sake.  

The social involvement of the individual is 'evidence' of their commitment and support. The method is completely filled with motive.  The person is not giving you something for 'free'. The person is taking the attention - and likely payment in some form. 

It would be too much to suggest this to be an abuse of a user profile, or social media presence - though it is designed to have effect and to take effect. The solution suggested by some of the MBA students was that user profiles tag their media as 'sponsored' or 'endorsed by'.  Pitched in this way we can be sure of the marketing accompaniments around us. Yet, this rather defeats the not-so-cleverly concealed advertisement.  

Recently Forbes published on 'sizeable followings' as necessary and 'paid for' ambassadors of any brand - acknowledging this as a potential threat to consumer loyalty. Today, it is more common to target individuals to exaggerate brands reach and to influence our perception. As an academic, there are some theoretical challenges to this informal promotional chain. However, and of equal interest, are the categorical arguments for promoted content; "trust" and "truth" carry weight, but mask fundamentally commercial choices about the careful control of content over individual choice.  Each debate, though crouched in different rhetoric, characterise an individual's social media as a commodity as this is traded and bought, for a price, as an exercise in digital-leverage.

Too much quieting of the overture of influence misses the conditions necessary for individuals to co-develop with brands and exercise their own autonomy. Theirs and yours autonomy requires degrees of freedom to monitor, scrutinise and familiarise ourselves with the new methods of informal advertisements.  You can read the much-published Georgetown Law Professor Julie Cohen's astute take on these debates. 

To point my students in the right direction, we can think about ”knowledge” arguments against such promotion techniques, as much as we can admire their commercial understanding of consumer behaviour and desires. The consequence is neither loss nor gain in the freedom of choice, but appreciation of data-processing that shape and predict consumer behaviour according to trajectories of opportunity, desire and new sources of revenue. 

This is why we will be seeing more brand insertions into every social media feed; a tedium that has to be acknowledged.