Why Outré is En Vogue

Last week, I talked about the planeload of social media influencers that managed to ruffle the half-frozen feathers of we normally phlegmatic Canadians. But that example got me thinking. Outrage – or, as the French say, “outre” – sells. The more outrageous it is, the better it seems to work. James William Awad  – the man behind the Plane of Shame – knew this. And we all just obligingly fell into his trap.

This all depends on how understanding how social networks work. Let’s begin by admitting that humans love to gossip. Information gives us status. The more interesting the information, the higher it’s value and, accordingly, the higher our social status. The currency of social networks is curiosity, having something that people will pay attention to.

But there is also the element of tribal identification. We signal who we are by the information we share. To use Canadian sociologist Ervin Goffman’s analogy, we are all actors and what we share is part of the role we have built for ourselves.

But these roles are not permanent. They shift depending on what stage we’re on and who the audience is. In today’s world social media has given us a massive stage.  And I suspect this might overload our normal social mechanisms. On this stage, we know that things that spread on social media tend to be in outlier territory, far from the boring middle ground of the everyday; they could be things we love or things that shock and outrage. Whether we love or hate the things we share depends on which tribe we identify with at the time.

Think of us humans as having a sharing thermostat where the trigger point is set depending on how strongly our emotions are triggered. If a post with new information doesn’t hit the threshold, it doesn’t get shared. Once that threshold is passed, the likelihood to share increases with the intensity of our emotions. It’s true for us, and because we’re human, it’s also true for everyone else that sees our post. The benefits of sharing juicy information is immediately reinforced through the dopamine releasing mechanism of getting likes and shares. The higher the number, the bigger the natural high.

But even when they lie well out in outlier territory, good news and bad news are not created equal. In evolutionary terms, we are hardwired to pay more attention to bad news. Good news might make us temporarily feel better, but bad news might kill us. If we want to survive long enough to pass on our genes, we better pay attention to the things that threaten us. That’s why traditional broadcasters know, “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Harvard Business School professor Amit Goldenberg found the same is true for social networks. “Although people produce much more positive content on social media in general, negative content is much more likely to spread,” says Goldenberg.

This creates an interesting – and potentially dangerous – arena for social and influencer marketing to play out in. The example I used in my last post is a perfect example. If you can outrage people, you win. It will spread virally through social networks, creating so much noise that eventually, traditional media will pick it up. This then connects the story to a broader social media audience. You get an amplification feedback loop that keeps reaching more and more people. Yes, the majority of the people will be outraged, but your target market will be delighted. Again, it all depends on which tribe you identify with.

It’s this appeal to the basest of human instincts that is troubling about this new spin on “earned” media. Savvy marketers have learned to game the system by pushing our hot buttons, leaving us in a perpetual state of pissed-off-edness.

The most frustrating thing is – it works.

Social Media Snakes on a Plane

Did you hear the one about the plane full of social media influencers that left Montréal headed for a party in Cancun? No? Then you obviously haven’t been in Canada, because we have been hanging our heads in shame about it ever since the videos started to go viral.

This Plane of Shame left La Belle Province on December 30. It was a Sunwings chartered flight, packed with partiers hand-picked by entrepreneur and social influencer James William Awad, who chartered the flight as part of his 111 Private Club. It was always intended to be a select event for just the “right type” of people, meaning those who showed well on social media. In that, this excursion brought back troubling memories of the infamous Fyre Festival.

The antics of this group and the inability to “read the room” amongst skyrocketing COVID numbers has left many slack-jawed in stunned disbelief. The breathtaking entitlement of these partiers relied solely on how attractive, young and digitally well-connected they were. For most of them, their number of followers seemed to give them carte blanche to be complete assholes.

And behind it all was Awad, who was pulling the strings like a social engineer from hell. According to him, these jerks were the type of people we should all aspire to be. It’s exactly this type of person he wants for his “exclusive” club. In fact, in an interview with the so appropriately named Narcity blog, they are screened for “the personality, the energy, the vibe , make sure they understand the rules, know their age, their background, and their general status in society”.

I suspect Awad is more concerned with their “vibe” and “status” then their “understanding of the rules.”

The sad thing is that this social media stunt seems to be working. In fact, James Awad is currently laughing all the way to his cryptocurrency bank.  After showing the barest sliver of remorse when the media piled on, he quickly backtracked and doubled down on his support of abominable behavior, saying in a tweet on January 9, “Reality of the story, sheeps (sic) are mad because people partied on a private chartered plane where partying was allowed. Wake up!!“

And the stunt has brought a flood of interest to his 111 Private Club. In an interview, Awad said he had hundreds of people on his waiting list, desperate to join his club. It shows that when it comes to social media influence marketing, at least when it comes to boorish behavior, there truly is no such thing as bad press.

I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’m not a fan of influencer marketing. And I realize that I am light years removed from being in the target market for this particular campaign. So, is this just a question of targeting, or does it go deeper than that? If marketers are using social media to spread messages through influencers, is there a social and ethical responsibility for those messages to not be harmful or conducive to anti-social behaviors? After all, by their very name, these people influence the behavior of others. Should the behavior they’re encouraging be scraped from the lowest dregs of our culture? Jerks will be jerks, but when exactly the thing makes them jerks has the hell amplified out of it thanks to the knock-on effects of social media, should we start putting our foot down?

Like almost everything to do with marketing and media now a days, this falls into a grey area roughly the size of the Atlantic Ocean. Even the old rules of engagement that used to govern advertising – as flimsy as they were – no longer apply. Essentially, social influencers seem to be able to do whatever they want, flaunting the guidelines of common decency that govern the rest of us. Not only are there no consequences for this, but they’re rewarded handsomely for behaving badly.

Influencer marketing is governed (in the United States) by the First Amendment ensuring Freedom of Speech. But there is an exception for messaging that is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action.” This example wouldn’t quite meet the requirements for that exception, but perhaps this is a case of our industry establishing its own boundaries. When it comes to social media influencers, we should aspire to be a little less shitty.

The thing I like the least about influencer marketing is that it reduces social complexity to a level most of us haven’t seen since high school. The sum of your self-worth is determined by the parties you did (or didn’t) get invited to and the brand of jeans you wear. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad I left this all behind when I turned 18. In my experience, those that hit the peak of their popularity in high school have had a long, downwards slide ever since. We can only hope the same will be true of the social influencers that were on board that plane from Montréal to Cancun.

When it comes to these social media influencers, even our own Prime Minister Trudeau (who I suspect might have been invited to all the right parties and wore the right jeans in high school) had had enough:

“I think like all Canadians who have seen those videos, I’m extremely frustrated. We know how hard people have worked to keep themselves safe, to limit their family gatherings at Christmas time, to wear masks, to get vaccinated, to do all the right things, and it’s slap in the face to see people putting themselves, putting their fellow citizens, putting airline workers at risk by being completely irresponsible.”

And just to show them how disappointed we Canadians are, Sunwing pulled the plug on the return flight, stranding the group at their resort in Cancun. Two other airlines followed suit. As Jimmy Fallon joked, there’s no better way to discipline a bunch of Canadians in the middle of winter than to strand them at a luxury resort in Mexico.

That’ll show ‘em!

What Media Insiders Were Thinking (And Writing) In 2021

Note: This is a year back look at the posts in the Media Insider Column on Mediapost, for which I write every Tuesday. All the writers for the column have been part of the Marketing and Media business for decades, so there’s a lot of wisdom there to draw on. This is the second time I’ve done this look back at what we’ve written about in the previous year.

As part of the group of Media Insiders, I’ve always considered myself in sterling company. I suspect if you added up all the years of experience in this stable of industry experts, we’d be well into the triple digits. Most of the Insiders are still active in the world of marketing. For myself, although I’m no longer active in the business, I’m still fascinated by how it impacts our lives and our culture.

For all those reasons, I think the opinions of this group are worth listening to — and, thankfully,  MediaPost gives you those opinions every day.

Three years ago, I thought it would be interesting to do a “meta-analysis” of those opinions over the span of the year, to see what has collectively been on the minds of the Media Insiders. I meant to do it again last year, but just never got around to it — as you know, global pandemics and uprisings against democracy were a bit of a distraction.

This year, I decided to give it another shot. And it was illuminating. Here’s a summary of what has been on our collective minds:

I don’t think it’s stretching things to say that your Insiders have been unusually existential in their thoughts in the past 12 months. Now, granted, this is one column on MediaPost that leads to existential musings. That’s why I ended up here. I love the fact that I can write about pretty much anything and it generally fits under the “Media Insider” masthead. I suspect the same is true for the other Insiders.

But even with that in mind, this year was different. I think we’ve all spent a lot of the last year thinking about what the moral and ethical boundaries for marketers are — for everyone, really — in the world of 2021. Those ponderings broke down into a few recurring themes.

Trying to Navigate a Substantially Different World

Most of this was naturally tied to the ongoing COVID pandemic.  

Surprisingly, given that three years ago it was one of the most popular topics, Insiders said little about politics. Of course, we were then squarely in the middle of “Trump time.” There were definitely a few posts after the Jan. 6 insurrection, but most of it was just trying to figure out how the world might permanently change after 2021. Almost 20% of our columns touched on this topic.

A notable subset of this was how our workplaces might change. With many of us being forced to work from home, 4% of the year’s posts talked about how “going to work” may never look the same again.

Ad-Tech Advice

The next most popular topic from Insiders (especially those still in the biz, like Corey, Dave, Ted and Maarten) was ongoing insight on how to manage the nuts and bolts of your marketing. A lot of this focused on using ad tech effectively. That made up 15% of last year’s posts.

And Now, The Bad News

I will say your Media Insiders (myself included) are a somewhat pessimistic bunch. Even when we weren’t talking about wrenching change brought about by a global pandemic, we were worrying about the tech world going to hell in a handbasket. About 13.5% of our posts talked about social media, and it was almost all negative, with most of it aimed squarely at Facebook — sorry, Meta.

Another 12% of our posts talked about other troubling aspects of technology. Privacy concerns over data usage and targeting took the lead here. But we were also worried about other issues, like the breakdown of person-to-person relationships, disappearing attention spans, and tears in our social fabric. When we talked about the future of tech, we tended to do it through a dystopian lens.

Added to this was a sincere concern about the future of journalism. This accounted for another 5% of all our posts. This makes almost a full third of all posts with a decidedly gloomy outlook when it comes to tech and digital media’s impact on society.

The Runners-Up

If there was one branch of media that seemed the most popular among the Insiders (especially Dave Morgan), it was TV and streaming video. I also squeezed a few posts about online gaming into this category. Together, this topic made up 10.5% of all posts.

Next in line, social marketing and ethical branding. We all took our own spins on this, and together we devoted almost 9.5% of all posts in 2021 to it. I’ve talked before about the irony of a world that has little trust in advertising but growing trust in brands. Your Insiders have tried to thread the needle between the two sides of this seeming paradox.

Finally, we did cover a smattering of other topics, but one in particular rose about the others as something increasingly on our radar. We touched on the Metaverse and its implications in almost 3% of our posts.

Summing Up

To try to wrap up 2021 in one post is difficult, but if there was a single takeaway, I think it’s that both marketing and media are faced with some very existential questions. Ad-supported revenue models have now been pushed to the point where we must ask what the longer-term ethical implications might be.

If anything, I would say the past year has marked the beginning of our industry realizing that a lot of unintended consequences have now come home to roost.

When Social Media Becomes the Message

On Nov. 23, U.K. cosmetics firm Lush said it was deactivating its Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and Snapchat accounts until the social media environment “is a little safer.” And by a “safer” environment, the company didn’t mean for advertisers, but for consumers. Jack Constantine, chief digital officer and product inventor at Lush, explains in an interview with the BBC:

“[Social media channels] do need to start listening to the reality of how they’re impacting people’s mental health and the damage that they’re causing through their craving for the algorithm to be able to constantly generate content regardless of whether it’s good for the users or not.”

This was not an easy decision for Lush. It came with the possibility of a substantial cost to its business, “We already know that there is potential damage of £10m in sales and we need to be able to gain that back,” said Constantine. “We’ve got a year to try to get that back, and let’s hope we can do that.”

In effect, Lush is rolling the dice on a bet based on the unpredictable network effects of social media. Would the potential loss to its bottom line be offset by the brand uptick it would receive by being true to its core values? In talking about Lush’s move on the Wharton Business Daily podcast, marketing lecturer Annie Wilson pointed out the issues in play here:

“There could be positive effects on short-term loyalty and brand engagement, but it will be interesting to see the long-term effect on acquiring new consumers in the future.”

I’m not trying to minimize Lush’s decision here by categorizing it as a marketing ploy. The company has been very transparent about how hard it’s been to drop — even temporarily — Facebook and its other properties from the Lush marketing mix. The brand had previously closed several of its UK social media accounts, but eventually found itself “back on the channels, despite the best intentions.”

You can’t overstate how fundamental a decision this is for a profit-driven business. But I’m afraid Lush is probably an outlier. The brand is built on making healthy choices. Lush eventually decided it had to stay true to that mission even if it hurts the bottom line.

Other businesses are far from wearing their hearts on their sleeves to the same extent as Lush. For every Lush that’s out there, there are thousands that continue to feed their budgets to Facebook and its properties, even though they fundamentally disagree with the tactics of the channel.

There has been pushback against these tactics before. In July of 2020, 1000 advertisers joined the #StopHateForProfit Boycott against Facebook. That sounds impressive – until you realize that Facebook has 9 million clients. The boycotters represented just over .01% of all advertisers. Even with the support of other advertisers who didn’t join the boycott but still scaled back their ad spend, it only had a fleeting effect on Facebook’s bottom line. Almost all the advertisers eventually returned after the boycott.

As The New York Times reported at the time, the damage wasn’t so much to Facebook’s pocketbook as to its reputation. Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, the executive vice president of the public opinion analysis company RepTrak, wrote in a follow-up post,

“What could really hurt Facebook is the long-term effect of its perceived reputation and the association with being viewed as a publisher of ‘hate speech’ and other inappropriate content.”

Of course, that was all before the emergence of a certain Facebook data engineer by the name of Frances Haugen. The whistleblower released thousands of internal documents to the Wall Street Journal this past fall. It went public in September of this year in a series called “The Facebook Files.” If we had any doubt about the culpability of Zuckerberg et al, this pretty much laid that to rest.

Predictably, after the story broke, Facebook made some halfhearted attempts to clean up its act by introducing new parental controls on Instagram and Facebook. This follows the typical Facebook handbook for dealing with emerging shit storms: do the least amount possible, while talking about it as much as possible. It’s a tactic known as “purpose-washing.”

The question is, if this is all you do after a mountain of evidence points to you being truly awful, how sincere are you about doing the right thing? This puts Facebook in the same category as Big Tobacco, and that’s pretty crappy company to be in.

Lush’s decision to quit Facebook also pinpoints an interesting dilemma for advertisers: What happens when an advertising platform that has been effective in attracting new customers becomes so toxic that it damages your brand just by being on it? What happens when, as Marshall McLuhan famously said, the medium becomes the message?

Facebook is not alone with this issue. With the systematic dismantling of objective journalism, almost every news medium now carries its own message. This is certainly true for channels like Fox News. By supporting these platforms with advertising, advertisers are putting a stamp of approval on those respective editorial biases and — in Fox’s case — the deliberate spreading of misinformation that has been shown to have a negative social cost.

All this points to a toxic cycle becoming more commonplace in ad-supported media: The drive to attract and effectively target an audience leads a medium to embrace questionable ethical practices. These practices then taint the platform itself, leading to it potentially becoming brand-toxic. The advertisers then must choose between reaching an available audience that can expand its business, or avoiding the toxicity of the platform. The challenge for the brand then becomes a contest to see how long it can hold its nose while it continues to maximize sales and profits.

For Lush, the scent of Facebook’s bullshit finally grew too much to bear — at least for now.

The Tech Giant Trust Exercise

If we look at those that rule in the Valley of Silicon — the companies that determine our technological future — it seems, as I previously wrote,  that Apple alone is serious about protecting our privacy. 

MediaPost editor in chief Joe Mandese shared a post late last month about how Apple’s new privacy features are increasingly taking aim at the various ways in which advertising can be targeted to specific consumers. The latest victim in those sights is geotargeting.

Then Steve Rosenbaum mentioned last week that as Apple and Facebook gird their loins and prepare to do battle over the next virtual dominion — the metaverse — they are taking two very different approaches. Facebook sees this next dimension as an extension of its hacker mentality, a “raw, nasty networker of spammers.” Apple is, as always, determined to exert a top-down restriction on who plays in its sandbox, only welcoming those who are willing to play by its rules. In that approach, the company is also signaling that it will take privacy in the metaverse seriously. Apple CEO Tim Cook said he believes “users should have the choice over the data that is being collected about them and how it’s used.”

Apple can take this stand because its revenue model doesn’t depend on advertising. To find a corporation’s moral fiber, you always, always, always have to follow the money. Facebook depends on advertising for revenue. And it has repeatedly shown it doesn’t really give a damn about protecting the privacy of users. Apple, on the other hand, takes every opportunity to unfurl the privacy banner as its battle standard because its revenue stream isn’t really impacted by privacy.

If you’re looking for the rot at the roots of technology, a good place to start is at anything that relies on advertising. In my 40 years in marketing, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that it is impossible for business models that rely on advertising as their primary source of revenue to stay on the right side of privacy concerns. There is an inherent conflict that cannot be resolved. In a recent earnings call,  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it in about the clearest way it could be said, “As expected, we did experience revenue headwinds this quarter, including from Apple’s [privacy rule] changes that are not only negatively affecting our business, but millions of small businesses in what is already a difficult time for them in the economy.”

Facebook has proven time and time again that when the need for advertising revenue runs up against a question of ethical treatment of users, it will always be the ethics that give way.

It’s also interesting that Europe is light years ahead of North America in introducing legislation that protects privacy. According to one Internet Privacy Ranking study, four of the five top countries for protecting privacy are in Northern Europe. Australia is the fifth. My country, Canada, shares these characteristics. We rank seventh. The US ranks 18th.

There is an interesting corollary here I’ve touched on before. All these top-ranked countries are social democracies. All have strong public broadcasting systems. All have a very different relationship with advertising than the U.S. We that live in these countries are not immune from the dangers of advertising (this is certainly true for Canada), but our media structure is not wholly dependent on it. The U.S., right from the earliest days of electronic media, took a different path — one that relied almost exclusively on advertising to pay the bills.

As we start thinking about things like the metaverse or other forms of reality that are increasingly intertwined with technology, this reliance on advertising-funded platforms is something we must consider long and hard. It won’t be the companies that initiate the change. An advertising-based business model follows the path of least resistance, making it the shortest route to that mythical unicorn success story. The only way this will change will be if we — as users — demand that it changes.

And we should  — we must — demand it. Ad-based tech giants that have no regard for our personal privacy are one of the greatest threats we face. The more we rely on them, they more they will ask from us.

The Privacy War Has Begun

It started innocently enough….

My iPhone just upgraded itself to iOS 14.6, and the privacy protection purge began.

In late April,  Apple added App Tracking Transparency (ATT) to iOS (actually in 14.5 but for reasons mentioned in this Forbes article, I hadn’t noticed the change until the most recent update). Now, whenever I launch an app that is part of the online ad ecosystem, I’m asked whether I want to share data to enable tracking. I always opt out.

These alerts have been generally benign. They reference benefits like “more relevant ads,” a “customized experience” and “helping to support us.” Some assume you’re opting in and opting out is a much more circuitous and time-consuming process. Most also avoid the words “tracking” and “privacy.” One referred to it in these terms: “Would you allow us to refer to your activity?”

My answer is always no. Why would I want to customize an annoyance and make it more relevant?

All in all, it’s a deceptively innocent wrapper to put on what will prove to be a cataclysmic event in the world of online advertising. No wonder Facebook is fighting it tooth and nail, as I noted in a recent post.

This shot across the bow of online advertising marks an important turning point for privacy. It’s the first time that someone has put users ahead of advertisers. Everything up to now has been lip service from the likes of Facebook, telling us we have complete control over our privacy while knowing that actually protecting that privacy would be so time-consuming and convoluted that the vast majority of us would do nothing, thus keeping its profitability flowing through the pipeline.

The simple fact of the matter is that without its ability to micro-target, online advertising just isn’t that effective. Take away the personal data, and online ads are pretty non-engaging. Also, given our continually improving ability to filter out anything that’s not directly relevant to whatever we’re doing at the time, these ads are very easy to ignore.

Advertisers need that personal data to stand any chance of piercing our non-attentiveness long enough to get a conversion. It’s always been a crapshoot, but Apple’s ATT just stacked the odds very much against the advertiser.

It’s about time. Facebook and online ad platforms have had little to no real pushback against the creeping invasion of our privacy for years now. We have no idea how extensive and invasive this tracking has been. The only inkling we get is when the targeting nails the ad delivery so well that we swear our phone is listening to our conversations. And, in a way, it is. We are constantly under surveillance.

In addition to Facebook’s histrionic bitching about Apple’s ATT, others have started to find workarounds, as reported on 9 to 5 Mac. ATT specifically targets the IDFA (Identified for Advertisers), which offers cross app tracking by a unique identifier. Chinese ad networks backed by the state-endorsed Chinese Advertising Association were encouraging the adoption of CAID identifiers as an alternative to IDFA. Apple has gone on record as saying ATT will be globally implemented and enforced. While CAID can’t be policed at the OS level, Apple has said that apps that track users without their consent by any means, including CAID, could be removed from the App Store.

We’ll see. Apple doesn’t have a very consistent track record with it comes to holding the line against Chinese app providers. WeChat, for one, has been granted exceptions to Apple’s developer restrictions that have not been extended to anyone else.

For its part, Google has taken a tentative step toward following Apple’s lead with its new privacy initiative on Android devices, as reported in Slash Gear. Google Play has asked developers to share what data they collect and how they use that data. At this point, they won’t be requiring opt-in prompts as Apple does.

All of this marks a beginning. If it continues, it will throw a Kong-sized monkey wrench into the works of online advertising. The entire ecosystem is built on ad-supported models that depend on collecting and storing user data. Apple has begun nibbling away at that foundation.

The toppling has begun.

The Deconstruction of Trust

Just over a week ago, fellow Insider Steven Rosenbaum wrote a post entitled “Trust Is In Decline Worldwide.” He quotes from the Edelman Trust Barometer Report for 2021. There, graph after graph shows this decline. And that feels exactly right. The Barometer “reveals an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world.”

Here in the ad biz, the decline of trust is nothing new. We’ve been seeing it slip for at least the last decade.

But that is not a universal truth. Yes, trust in advertising is in decline. But trust in brands — at least, some brands — has never been higher. And that is indicative of the decoupling we’re seeing between the concept of brand and the practice of advertising. One used to support the other. Now, even when an ad works, it may be stripping the trust from a brand.

This decline in advertising trust also varies from generation to generation. An Ofcom study in the UK of young adults 16 to 34 found that 91.6% of all respondents had little or no trust in ads. The same study found that if you were looking for trustworthy sources, 73.5% would go to online reviews or recommendations of friends.

One reason for this erosion in trust is that advertising has been slumming. Social media advertising is the least trustworthy channel that exists. The vast majority of us don’t trust what we see on it. Yet the advertising dollars continue to pour into social media.

Yet more than ever, we want to trust a brand. The Edelman Report shows that business is the most trusted institution, ahead of NGOs, government and media. And the brands that are rising to the challenge are taking a more holistic approach to brand management.

More than ever, brands are not built on advertising. They are built on consumer experience, on ideals and on meeting promises.  In short, they are built on instilling trust. Consumers, in turn are making trust a bigger deal. Those aged 18 to 34, that very same demo that has no trust in advertising, is the first to say brand trust matters more than ever. They’re just looking for proof of that trust in different places.

But why is trust important? That seems like a dumb question, but it’s not. There are deeper levels of understanding that are required here. And we might just find the answer in southern Italy.

Trust to the north and south of Naples

Italy has an economic problem. It’s always been there, but it definitely got worse after World War Two. It’s called the Mezzogiorno Problem.

Mezzogiorno means “noon” in Italian. But it’s also a label for the south of Italy. Like many things in Italian culture, it can make even problems sound charming and romantic. It has something to do with being sunny.

Italy has two economies. The North’s economy has always been more robust than the South’s. Per capita income in the Mezzogiorno is 60% of the national average. Unemployment is twice as high. Despite repeated attempts by the government to kickstart the economy of the South, the money and talent in Italy typically flow north of Naples.

The roots of the Mezzogiorno problem go to a not totally surprising place: a lack of trust. Trust is also called social capital. And southern Italy has less social capital than the North. Part of this has to do with geography. Villages in southern Italy are more isolated and there is less interaction between them. Part of it has to do with systemic corruption and crime. Part of it has to do with something called Campanilismo — where Italian loyalties belong first to their family, second to their village or city, third to their immediate region and, lastly, to any notion of belonging to a nation. People from the South have trouble trusting anyone not from their inner circle.

For all these reasons, the co-ops that transformed the agricultural industry in the north of Italy never gained a foothold in the South. If you were to look for an example of how low trust can lead to negative outcomes for all, it would be hard to find a better one than southern Italy.

But what does this have to do with advertising? That begins to become clear when we look at the impact trust has on our brains.

Our Brains On Trust

Neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak has found that trust plays a key role in the functioning of our brains. When trust is present, our brain produces oxytocin, which Zak calls the trust molecule. It literally rewards our brain when we work together with others. It pushes us to cooperate rather than be focused exclusively on our own self-interest. This is exactly what was missing in southern Italy.

But there’s another side to this: the dark side of oxytocin. It can also cause us emotional pain in stressful social situations. And these episodes tend to get embedded in us as bad memories, leading to a triggering of fear or anxiety in the future.

We have to think more carefully about this question of trust. The whole goal of advertising is simply to get an impression to the right person. I suspect most marketers might define an unsuccessful ad as one that gets ignored. But the reality might be far worse. An ad that is shown in an untrusted channel might cause an emotional deficit, leading to the creation of future anxiety about or animosity towards a brand.

Once this happens, the game is over. You now have a Mezzogiorno of marketing.

‘Twas the Night Before the Internet

Today, just one day before Christmas, my mind swings to the serendipitous side. I don’t know about you, but for me, 2019 has been a trying year. While you would never know it by the collection of columns I’ve produced over the past 12 months, I have tried to find the glimpses of light in the glowering darkness.

Serendipity Sidetrack #1: “Glowering” is a word we don’t use much anymore. It refers to someone who has a dark, angry expression on their faces. As such, it’s pretty timely and relevant. You’d think we would use it more.

One of my personal traditions during the holidays is to catch one of the fourteen billion airings of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Yes, it’s quintessentially Capraesque. Yes, it’s corny as hell. But give me a big seasonal heaping helping of Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed and that “crummy little town” known as Bedford Falls.

Serendipity Sidetrack #2: The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is based on a 1939 short story by Philip Van Doren Stern. He tried to get it published for several years with no success. He finally self-published it and sent it to 200 friends as a 24-page Christmas card. One of these cards ended up on the desk of an executive at RKO pictures, who convinced the studio to buy the rights in 1943 as a vehicle for its star Cary Grant.

That movie never got made and the project was shelved for the rest of World War II. After the war, director Frank Capra read the script and chose it as his first Hollywood movie after making war documentaries and training films.

The movie was panned by critics and ignored by audiences. It was a financial disaster, eventually leading to the collapse of Capra’s new production company, Liberty Films. One other stray tidbit: during the scene at the high school dance where the gym floor opens over the pool (which was shot at Beverly Hills High School), Mary’s obnoxious date Freddie is played by an adult Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, from the “Our Gang” series.

But I digress. This seasonal ritual got me thinking along “what if” lines. We learn what Bedford Falls would be like if George Bailey was never born. But maybe the same narrative machinery could be applied to another example: What would Christmas (or your seasonal celebration of choice) be like if the Internet had never happened?

As I pondered this, I realized that there’s really only one aspect of the internet that materially impacts what the holidays have become. These celebrations revolve around families, so if we were going to look for changes wrought by technology, we have to look at the structure and dynamics of the family unit.

Serendipity Sidetrack #3: Christmas was originally not a family-based celebration. It became so in Victorian England thanks to Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Charles Dickens. After the marriage of the royal couple, Albert brought the German tradition of the Christmas tree to Windsor Castle. Pictures of the royals celebrating with family around the tree firmly shifted the holiday towards its present warm-hearted family center.

In 1843, Dickens added social consciousness to the party with the publication of “A Christmas Carol.” The holiday didn’t take its detour towards overt consumerism until the prosperity of the 1950s.

But back to my rapidly unraveling narrative thread: What would Christmas be like without the Internet?

I have celebrated Christmas in two different contexts: The first, in my childhood and the second with my own wife and family.

I grew up with just my immediate family in rural Alberta, geographically distant from aunts, uncles and cousins. For dinner there would be six of us around the table. We might try to call an aunt or uncle who lived some 2,000 miles away, but usually the phone lines were so busy we couldn’t get through.

The day was spent with each other and usually involved a few card games, a brief but brisk walk and getting ready for Christmas dinner. It was low-key, but I still have many fond memories of my childhood Christmases.

Then I got married. My wife, who is Italian, has dozens and dozens and dozens of relatives within a stone’s throw in any direction. For us, Christmas is now a progressive exercise to see just how many people can be crammed into the same home. It begins at our house for Christmas morning with the “immediate” family (remember, I use the term in its Italian context). The head count varies between 18 and 22 people.

Then, we move to Christmas dinner with the “extended” family. The challenge here is finding a house big enough, because we are now talking 50 to 75 people. It’s loud, it’s chaotic — and I couldn’t imagine Christmas any other way.

The point here is how the Internet has shifted the nature of the celebration. In my lifespan, I have seen two big shifts, both to do with the nature of our personal connections. And like most things with technology, one has been wonderful while the other has been troubling.

First of all, thanks to the Internet, we can extend our family celebrations beyond the limits of geography. I can now connect with family members who don’t live in the same town.

But, ironically, the same technology has been eroding the bonds we have with the family we are physically present with. We may be in the same room, but our minds are elsewhere, preoccupied with the ever-present screens in our pockets or purses. In my pre-Internet memories of Christmas, we were fully there with our families. Now, this is rarely the case.

And one last thought. I find — sadly — that Christmas is just one more occasion to be shared through social media. For some of us, it’s not so much who we’re with or what we’re doing, but about how it will look in our Instagram post.

Is There Still Room In Today’s Marketing World For Rick Steves?

U.S. travel writer and TV personality Rick Steves is — well, there’s no really kind way to put this — a weenie.

His on-air persona (on “Rick Steves’ Europe”) is a mix of high school social studies teacher, khaki-clad accountant cracking Dad jokes — and the guy you get stuck next to at a museum lecture on 16th century Venetian architecture that your wife made you go to.

According to a recent profile in The New York Times, he’s “one of the legendary PBS superdorks — right there in the pantheon with Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Big Bird.”

Rick Steves is undoubtedly a nice guy — Ned Flanders (of “The Simpsons” fame) nice. He’s not the guy you’re going to invite to your stag party in Las Vegas — not unless you were planning a prank involving prostitutes, illicit drugs and an involuntary neck tattoo. But Ed Helms already had that role.

Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — Steves is one of the most trusted travel brands in the U.S. and Canada. His name appears prominently on countless guide books, podcasts, seminars, a weekly syndicated column and the perennially running PBS series.

It was the last of these that brought him top of mind for me recently. He was hosting a fund-raising marathon this past weekend on my nearest PBS affiliate, KCTS in Seattle. And as Steves good-naturedly bumbled his way through Tuscany, I asked myself this question: “Could Rick Steves be a start-up brand today?”

Yes, he is a successful brand, but could he become a successful brand from a standing start? In other words, can a weenie still win in today’s world?

Today, everything needs to be instantly shareable. Branding is all about virality. Things that live at the extremes are the ones that spread through social networks. We are more Kanye West and Kim Kardashian than we are Danny Kaye and Doris Day. That was then. This is now.

You can’t ignore the fact that Steves’ target market is well north of their 50thbirthday. They are the ones who still remember who Danny Kaye and Doris Day were. So I ask again: Is being passionate and earnest (two things Rick Steves undoubtedly is) enough to break our collective ennui in today’s hyperbolic world?

I ask this question somewhat selfishly, for I, too, am a weenie. I have long lived on the dorkish end of the spectrum. I like me a good dad joke (e.g., People in Athens hate getting up early. Because Dawn is tough on Greece). And I have to wonder. Can nice, decidedly un-cool people still finish first? Or  at least not last?

It’s an important question. Because if there is no longer room in our jaded awareness for a Rick Steves, we’re missing out on something very important.

Steves has won his trust the hard way. He has steadfastly remained objective and unsponsored. He provides advice targeted at the everyday traveler. He is practical and pragmatic.

And he is consistently idealistic, believing that travel pries open our perspective and makes us better, more tolerant people. This mission is proudly stated on his corporate website: “We value travel as a powerful way to better understand and contribute to the world in which we live. We strive to keep our own travel style, our world outlook, and our business practices consistent with these values.”

This is no “flash-in-the pan” brand bite crafted for a social share. This is a mission statement backed by over 40 years of consistent delivery to its ideals. It’s like Steves himself: earnest, sincere, thoughtful and just a little bit dorky.

If you ask me, the world could use a little less Kanye West and a little more Rick Steves.

The Rank and File: Life and Work in a Quantified World

No one likes to be a number – unless, of course – that number is one. Then it’s okay.

Rankings started to be crucial to me back in 1996 when I jumped into the world of search engine optimization. Suddenly, the ten blue links on a search results page took on critical importance. The most important, naturally, was the first result. It turned on the tap for a flow of business many local organizations could only dream of. My company once got a California Mustang part retailer that number one ranking for “Ford Mustang Parts.” The official site of For – Ford.com – was number two. The California business did very well for a few years. We probably made them rich. Then Google came along and the party was over. We soon found that as quickly as that tap could be turned on, it could also be turned off. We and our clients rode the stormy waters of multiple Google updates. We called it the Google dance.

Now that I’m in my second life (third? fourth?) as a tourism operator I’m playing that ranking game again. This time it’s with TripAdvisor. You would not believe how important a top ranking in your category is here. Again, your flow of business can be totally at the mercy of how well you rank.

The problem with TripAdvisor is not so much with the algorithm in the background or the criteria used for ranking. The problem is with the Delta between riches and rags. If you drop below the proverbial fold in TripAdvisor, your tourism business can shrivel up and die. One bad review could be the difference. I feel like I’m dancing the Google dance all over again.

But at least TripAdvisor is what I would call a proximate ranking site. The source of the rankings is closely connected to the core nature of the industry. Tourism is all about experiences. And TripAdvisor is a platform for experience reviews. There is some wiggle room there for gaming the system, but the unintended consequences are kept to a minimum. If you’re in the business of providing good experiences, you should do well in TripAdvisor. And if you pay attention to the feedback on TripAdvisor, your business should improve. This is a circle that is mostly virtuous.

Such is not always the case. Take teaching, for example. Ratemyprofessors.com is a ranking site for teachers and professors, based on feedback from students. If you read through the reviews, it soon becomes obvious that funny, relatable, good-looking profs fare better than those who are less socially gifted. It has become a popularity contest for academics. Certainly, some of those things may factor into the effectiveness of a good educator, but there is a universe of other criteria that are given short-shrift on the site. Teaching is a subtle and complex profession. Is a popular prof necessarily a good prof? If too much reliance is placed on ratings like those found on ratemyprofessors.com, will the need to be popular push some of those other less-rankable attributes to the background?

But let’s step back even a bit further. Along with the need to quantify everything there is also a demand for transparency. Let’s step into another classroom, this time in your local elementary school. The current push is to document what’s happening in the classroom and share it on a special portal that parents have access to. In theory, this sounds great. Increasing collaboration and streamlining the communication triangle between teachers, students and parents should be a major step forward. But it’s here where unintended consequences can run the education process off the rails. Helicopter parents are the most frequent visitors to the portal. They also dominate these new communication channels that are now open to their children’s teachers. And – if you know a helicopter parent – you know these are people who have no problem picking up the phone and calling the school administrator or even the local school board to complain about a teacher. Suddenly, teachers feel they’re constantly under the microscope. They alter their teaching style and course content to appeal to the types of parents that are constantly monitoring them.

Even worse, the teacher finds themselves constantly interrupting their own lesson in order to document what’s going on to keep these parents satisfied. What appears to be happening in the classroom through social media becomes more important than what’s actually happening in the classroom. If you’ve ever tried to actively present to a group and also document what’s happening at the same time, you know how impossible this can be. Pity then the poor teacher of your children.

There is a quote that is often (incorrectly) attributed to management guru Peter Drucker, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The reality is a lot more nuanced. As we’re finding out, what you’re actually measuring matters a lot. It may be leading you in completely the wrong direction.