Pursuing a Plastic Perfection

“Within every dystopia, there’s a little utopia”

— novelist Margaret Atwood

We’re a little obsessed with perfection. For myself, this has taken the form of a lifelong crush on Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews from the 1964 movie), who is “practically perfect in every way.”

We’ve been seeking perfection for some time now. The idea of creating Utopia, a place where everything is perfect, has been with us since the Garden of Eden. As humans have trodden down our timeline, we have been desperately seeking mythical Utopias, then religious ones, which then led to ideological ones.

Some time at the beginning of the last century, we started turning to technology and science for perfection. Then, in the middle of the 20th century, we abruptly swung the other way, veering towards Dystopia while fearing that technology would take us to the dark side, a la George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

Lately, other than futurist Ray Kurzweil and the starry-eyed engineers of Silicon Valley, I think it’s fair to say that most of us have accepted that technology is probably a mixed bag at best: some good and some bad. Hopefully, when the intended consequences are tallied with the unintended ones, we net out a little to the positive. But we can all agree that it’s a long way from perfection.

This quest for perfection is taking some bizarre twists. Ultimately, it comes down to what we feel we can control, focusing our lives on the thinnest of experiences: that handful of seconds that someone pays attention to our social media posts.

It’s a common psychological reaction: the more we feel that our fate is beyond our control, the more we obsess about those things we feel we can control. And on social media, if we can’t control our world, our country, our town or even our own lives, perhaps our locus of control becomes narrowed to the point where the only thing left is our own appearance.

This effect is exacerbated by our cultural obsession with physical attractiveness. Beauty may only be skin deep, but in our world, it seems to count for everything that matters. Especially on Snapchat and Instagram.

And where there’s a need, there is a technological way. Snapchat filters that offer digitally altered perfection have proliferated. One is Facetune 2,  a retouching app that takes your selfie and adjusts lighting, removes blemishes, whitens teeth and nudges you closer and closer to perfection.

In one blog post, the Facetune team, inspired by Paris Hilton, encourages you to start “sliving.” Not sure what the hell “sliving” is? Apparently, it’s a combination of “slaying it” and “living your best life.” It’s an updated version of “that’s hot” for a new audience.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt if you happen to look like Ms. Hilton or Kim Kardashian. The post assures us that it’s not all about appearance. Apparently, “owning it” and “being kind to yourself” are also among the steps to better “sliving.” But as you read down the post, it does ultimately come back to how you look, reinforced with this pearl of wisdom: “a true sliv’ is also going to look their absolute best when it counts”

And if that sounds about as deep as Saran Wrap, what do you expect when you turn to Paris Hilton for your philosophy of life? Plato she’s not.

Other social filter apps go even farther, essentially altering your picture until it’s no longer recognizable. Bulges are gone, to be replaced by chiseled torsos and optimally rounded butts. Cheeks are digitally sucked in and noses are planed to perfection. Eyes sparkle and teeth gleam. The end product? Sure, it looks amazing. It’s just not you anymore.

With all this pressure put on having a perfect appearance, it’s little wonder that it’s royally messing with our heads (what’s inside the head, not the outside). Hence the new disease of Snapchat Dysmorphia. I wish it were harder to believe in this syndrome — but it’s when people, many of them young girls, book a consultation with a plastic surgeon, wanting to look exactly like the result of their filtered Snapchat selfies.

According to one academic article, one in 50 Americans suffers from body dysmorphic disorder, where sufferers

“are preoccupied with at least one nonexistent or slight defect in physical appearance. This can lead them to think about the defect for at least one hour a day, therefore impacting their social, occupational, and other levels of functioning. The individual also should have repetitive and compulsive behaviors due to concerns arising from their appearances. This includes mirror checking and reassurance seeking among others.”

There’s nothing wrong with wanting perfection. As the old saying goes, it might be the enemy of good, but it can be a catalyst for better. We just have to go on knowing that perfection is never going to be attainable.

But social media is selling us a bogus bill of goods: The idea that perfect is possible and that everyone but us has figured it out.  

Same War, Different World?

I suspect if you checked Putin’s playbook for the Ukraine invasion, it would be stale-dated by at least six decades — and possibly more.

Putin wants territory. This invasion is a land grab. And his justification, outlined in a speech he gave on February 21, is that Ukraine was never really a country, it was just an orphaned part of Russia that should be brought back home, by force if necessary:

“Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” he said, per the Kremlin’s official translation. “Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians.”

Those words sound eerily familiar. In fact, here’s another passage that follows exactly the same logic

“German-Austria must return to the great German motherland, and not because of economic considerations of any sort. No, no: even if from the economic point of view this union were unimportant, indeed, if it were harmful, it ought nevertheless to be brought about. Common blood belongs in a common Reich.”

That was written in 1925 by Adolf Hitler, while in prison. It’s an excerpt from “Mein Kampf.” Thirteen years later, Hitler brought Austria back to Germany with the Anschluss, under threat of invasion.

Both strategies — which are essentially the same strategy — come from the nationalism handbook. Despite knee-jerk spasms of alt-right nationalism that have appeared around the globe, including here in North America, I must believe that our world is not the same as it was a century ago.

Then, nationalism was still very much THE play in the political play book. Power was derived from holding territory. The more you held, the greater your power. The world was anchored by the physical, which provided both resources and constraints.

You protected what you held by fortified borders. You restricted what went back and forth across those borders. The interests of those inside the borders superseded whatever lay outside them.

Trade was a different animal then. It occurred within the boundaries of an empire. Colonies provided the raw resources to the Mother Country. But two world wars decisively marked the end of that era.

The McDonald’s Theory of War

After that, the globe was redefined. Nations coalesced into trading blocs. Success came from the ease of exchange across borders. Nationalism was no longer the only game in town. In fact, it seemed to be a relic of a bygone era. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Thomas Friedman wrote an essay in 1996 that put forward a new theory: “So I’ve had this thesis for a long time and came here to Hamburger University at McDonald’s headquarters to finally test it out. The thesis is this: No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.”

It was a nice theory, but the Russia-Ukraine conflict seems to have put the final nail in its coffin. Both countries have hundreds of McDonald’s. Even Thomas Friedman has had to note that his theory may no longer be valid.

Or is it? Perhaps this will be the exception that proves Friedman right.

In essence, the global economy is a network that relies on trust. If Friedman was right about his theory, repeated in his 2005 book “The World is Flat,” the world is not only flat, it’s also surprisingly small. To trade with another country, you don’t have to be best friends, you just have to make sure you don’t get stabbed in the back. And to be sure of that, you have to know who you’re dealing with.

China is an example. Politically, we don’t see eye-to-eye on many things, but there is a modicum of trust that allows us to swap several billion dollars’ worth of stuff every year. The trick of trade is to know where that line is where you piss off your partner to the point where they pack up their toys and go home.

Putin just rolled his tanks right over that line. He has doubled down on the bet that nationalism is still a play that can win. But if it does, it will reverse a historic trend that has been centuries in the making — a trend toward cooperation and trust, and away from protectionism and parochial thinking.

This is a war that — initially, anyway —  seems to be playing out unlike any war in the past.

It’s being covered differently. As Maarten Albarda, poignantly shared, we are getting reports directly from real people living through a unreal situation.

It is being fought differently. Nations and corporations are economically shunning Russia and its people. Russian athletes have been banned from international sporting events. We have packed up our toys and gone home.

We are showing our support for Ukraine differently. As one example, thousands of people are booking Airbnbs in Ukraine with no intention of ever going there. It’s just one way to leverage a tool to funnel funds directly to people who need it.

And winning this war will also be defined differently. Even if Putin is successful in annexing Ukraine, he will have isolated himself on the world stage. He will have also done the impossible: unified the West against him. He has essentially swapped whatever trust Russia did have on the world stage for territory. By following an out-of-date playbook, he may end up with a win that will cost Russia more that it could ever imagine.

Frustrated? Blame Canada.

Canada is looking a little strange these days. Our border crossings are clogged with trucks going nowhere. Main Street Canada is lined with people waving their fists and yelling things. You see a lot of Canadian flags and placards with various interpretations of what freedom means. Parliament Hill in Ottawa is surrounded by pissed-off people and honking horns. And, most un-Canadian of all, we’re making the nightly news around the globe. We’ve traded in polite for protest.

Now, I have nothing against protests. They’re an essential part of democracy. I completely agree with William Faulkner when he said,

“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.”

But it all depends on what you’re protesting against. In this case, that’s a difficult one to nail down. I can understand frustration with health mandates. In my opinion, protesting against that would be somewhat misguided, but at least I could sympathize. I’m tired of this whole COVID thing, too.

But this protest likes to talk a lot about Canada and a perceived loss of freedom. In fact, organizers named their nationwide protest the Freedom Rally. As someone who believes I live in a country that offers more freedom than almost anywhere on the planet, that confuses me.

I’m not the only one. Chris Pengilly, a retired physician from Vancouver Island, is also at a loss to understand what is happening to his country, as he noted on the site Writer’s Bloc.  He writes:

“I think the zenith of my despondency came in a recent news broadcast with a Canadian woman vocalizing, and with a placard, saying that she was going to ‘free Canada.’

Free Canada? Free Canada from what?

Any Canadian can start life by being supervised by a midwife or a doctor from conception to delivery – and this is all for free. Nobody needs fear of starting a family because of lack of money.

The children of such a union are educated for free from kindergarten to Grade 12. Canadians are at liberty to choose a private education or home schooling. Excellent public health and immunization is provided at no cost to the parents.

University or college does carry a fee, but is still partially subsidized by the governments.”

Pengilly goes on to list the many other benefits of being Canadian. Yet, apparently, all that is not enough. According to the protestors, there is something deeply flawed and “unfree” about our country.

The ironic thing about these protestors is that they all love to fly the Canadian flag. But the very things they’re protesting against are exactly what makes Canada, Canada.

Canada is a social democracy. The very foundation of a social democracy is, according to Wikipedia, “advocating economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal-democratic polity and a capitalist-oriented mixed economy. “

By being a social democracy, we benefit from all those things that Pengilly listed — including a government benefit for those impacted by COVID that I’m sure many of those protestors took advantage of.

But with those benefits comes a responsibility to look after each other. That is what makes Canada Canada, at least for three-quarters of us. It’s not about individual rights and freedoms, it’s about collective rights and freedoms. It’s about building a country that strives for the greater good of all.

And you know what? It works.

It’s made Canada one of the best countries in the world to call home. That’s not just me saying that. That’s pretty much every objective analysis that has determined such things, including the most recent one done by the US News and Wharton University, where Canada came out number one. Empirically, according to this analysis, there is no better place on the planet. The rest of the top five are also social democracies.

That’s the nuance that the protestors are missing. Not only are they missing it, they’re tearing apart the very thing that makes Canada the best place in the world in which to live.

Another ranking of the success of a country is the United Nations Human Development Reports. In this ranking, Canada didn’t do quite as well. We came in 16th, just ahead of the U.S. at 17th. Number one was Norway. So where did we lose points?

We lost points due to what the UN calls “New Threats to Human Security in the Anthropocene”: a focus on independency at the expense of interdependency, or, more simply, putting “me above we.”  The report warns, “Development approaches with a strong focus on economic growth over equitable human development have led to stark and growing inequalities and destabilized processes at the planetary scale.” 

We’re also losing social trust by pitting left against right. The cracks through the center of our culture are destroying the stability required to be a world-class country.

Part of the problem is that our benefits are also our downfall. We have a culture and societal framework that allows itself to be taken advantage of. We have an economy and advantages that tend to lead to a sense of entitlement. We have democratic freedoms that allow a small percentage of an entitled population to protest with a voice that can be disproportionately loud. We have a media ecosystem — both social and traditional — that loves to act as the fan for the proverbial shit to hit. And we have political operatives (grifters?) who have learned both how to amplify this exaggerated discontent and how to use it to their own advantage.

Take the truckers’ protest, for example.

In this new reality of tangled supply chains and climactic disruptors, truckers have emerged as folk heroes by putting their lives on the line to keep our shelves stocked. And to that, you’ll find no argument from me. But as James Menzies, editor of Today’s Trucking and a journalist who has covered the Canadian trucking industry for 18 years, pointed out, “The so-called Freedom convoy was never about truckers”:

“I feel bad for the truckers who thought this was about them. It never was. There was never any discussion around the real issues you face every day. Lack of safe parking. Poor road conditions. Access to clean restrooms. Unpaid detention time at shippers and receivers. You were taken advantage of, because you were frustrated and you have big, loud machines that can be quite disruptive. You became the rallying cry of an anti-government group whose ambitions went well beyond the reversal of the vaccine mandate.”

This is a protest with many layers. At the centre are organizers who not saving Canada, but are trying to build a Canada that never really was. It would be a place that looks a lot like the fictional Montana where John Dutton of the TV show Yellowstone lives; rock-hard, hard-right ideals thinly wrapped in a Canadian flag (perhaps it’s not a coincidence that a major protest is at the Coutts border crossing between Alberta and Montana).

It would be a place where you could say (and mean it), “This is America (or Canada). We don’t share land here.”

It’s just not a place where I want to live.

The Joe Rogan Experiment in Ethical Consumerism

We are watching an experiment in ethical consumerism take place in real time. I’m speaking of the Joe Rogan/Neil Young controversy that’s happening on Spotify. I’m sure you’ve heard of it, but if not, Canadian musical legend Neil Young had finally had enough of Joe Rogan’s spreading of COVID misinformation on his podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience.” He gave Spotify an ultimatum: “You can have Rogan or Young. Not both.”

Spotify chose Rogan. Young pulled his library. Since then, a handful of other artists have followed Young, including former band mates David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, along with fellow Canuck Hall of Famer Joni Mitchell.

But it has hardly been a stampede. One of the reasons is that — if you’re an artist — leaving Spotify is easier said than done. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Rosanne Cash said most artists don’t have the luxury of jilting Spotify: 

It’s not viable for most artists. The public doesn’t understand the complexities. I’m not the sole rights holder to my work… It’s not only that a lot of people who aren’t rights holders can’t remove their work. A lot of people don’t want to. These are the digital platforms where they make a living, as paltry as it is. That’s the game. These platforms own, what, 40 percent of the market share?”

Cash also brings up a fundamental issue with capitalism: it follows profit, and it’s consumers who determine what’s profitable. Consumers make decisions based on self-interest: what’s in it for them. Corporations use that predictable behavior to make the biggest profit possible. That behavior has been perfectly predictable for hundreds of years. It’s the driving force behind Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. It was also succinctly laid out by economist Milton Friedman in 1970:

“There is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”

We all want corporations to be warm and fuzzy — but it’s like wishing a shark were a teddy bear. It just ain’t gonna happen.

One who indulged in this wishful thinking was a little less well-known Canadian artist who also pulled his music  from Spotify, Ontario singer/songwriter Danny Michel. He told the CBC:

“But for me, what it was was seeing how Spotify chose to react to Neil Young’s request, which was, you know: You can have my music or Joe. And it seems like they just, you know, got out a calculator, did some math, and chose to let Neil Young go. And they said, clear and loud: We don’t need you. We don’t need your music.”

Well, yes, Danny, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what Spotify did. It made a decision based on profit. For one thing, Joe Rogan is exclusive to Spotify. Neil Young isn’t. And Rogan produces a podcast, which can have sponsors. Neil Young’s catalog of songs can’t be brought to you by anyone.

That makes Rogan a much better bet for revenue generation. That’s why Spotify paid Rogan $100 million. Music journalist Ted Gioia made the business case for the Rogan deal pretty clear in a tweet

“A musician would need to generate 23 billion streams on Spotify to earn what they’re paying Joe Rogan for his podcast rights (assuming a typical $.00437 payout per stream). In other words, Spotify values Rogan more than any musician in the history of the world.”

I hate to admit that Milton Friedman is right, but he is. I’ve said it time and time before, to expect corporations to put ethics ahead of profits is to ignore the DNA of a corporation. Spotify is doing what corporations will always do, strive to be profitable. The decision between Rogan and Young was done with a calculator. And for Danny Michel to expect anything else from Spotify is simply naïve. If we’re going to play this ethical capitalism game, we must realize what the rules of engagement are.

But what about us? Are we any better that the corporations we keep putting our faith in?

We have talked about how we consumers want to trust the brands we deal with, but when a corporation drops the ethics ball, do we really care? We have been gnashing our teeth about Facebook’s many, many indiscretions for years now, but how many of us have quite Facebook? I know I haven’t.

I’ve seen some social media buzz about migrating from Spotify to another service. I personally have started down this road. Part of it is because I agree with Young’s stand. But I’ll be brutally honest here. The bigger reason is that I’m old and I want to be able to continue to listen to the Young, Mitchell and CSNY catalogs. As one of my contemporaries said in a recent post, “Neil Young and Joni Mitchell? Wish it were artists who are _younger_ than me.”

A lot of pressure is put on companies to be ethical, with no real monetary reasons why they should be. If we want ethics from our corporations, we have to make it important enough to us to impact our own buying decisions. And we aren’t doing that — not in any meaningful way.

I’ve used this example before, but it bears repeating. We all know how truly awful and unethical caged egg production is. The birds are kept in what is known as a battery cage holding 5 to 10 birds and each is confined to a space of about 67 square inches. To help you visualize that, it’s just a bit bigger than a standard piece of paper folded in half. This is the hell we inflict on other animals solely for our own gain. No one can be for this. Yet 97% of us buy these eggs, just because they’re cheaper.

If we’re looking for ethics, we have to look in other places than brands. And — much as I wish it were different — we have to look beyond consumers as well. We have proven time and again that our convenience and our own self-interest will always come ahead of ethics. We might wish that were different, but our spending patterns say otherwise.

Don’t Be Too Quick To Dismiss The Metaverse

According to my fellow Media Insider Maarten Albarda, the metaverse is just another in a long line of bright shiny objects that — while promising to change the world of marketing — will probably end up on the giant waste heap of overhyped technologies.

And if we restrict Maarten’s caution to specifically the metaverse and its impact on marketing, perhaps he’s right. But I think this might be a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.

Maarten lists a number of other things that were supposed to revolutionize our lives: Clubhouse, AI, virtual reality, Second Life. All seemed to amount to much ado about nothing.

But as I said almost 10 years ago, when I first started talking about one of those overhyped examples, Google Glass — and what would eventually become the “metaverse” (in rereading this, perhaps I’m better at predictions than I thought)  — the overall direction of these technologies do mark a fundamental shift:

“Along the way, we build a “meta” profile of ourselves, which acts as both a filter and a key to the accumulated potential of the ‘cloud.’ It retrieves relevant information based on our current context and a deep understanding of our needs, it unlocks required functionality, and it archives our extended network of connections.”

As Wired founder and former executive editor Kevin Kelly has told us, technology knows what it wants. Eventually, it gets it. Sooner or later, all these things are bumping up against a threshold that will mark a fundamental shift in how we live.

You may call this the long awaited “singularity” or not. Regardless, it does represent a shift from technology being a tool we use consciously to enhance our experiences, to technology being so seamlessly entwined with our reality that it alters our experiences without us even being aware of it. We’re well down this path now, but the next decade will move us substantially further, beyond the point of no return.

And that will impact everything, including marketing.

What is interesting is the layer technology is building over the real world, hence the term “meta.” It’s a layer of data and artificial intelligence that will fundamentally alter our interactions with that world. It’s technology that we may not use intentionally — or, beyond the thin layer of whatever interface we use, may not even be aware of.

This is what makes it so different from what has come before. I can think of no technical advance in the past that is so consequential to us personally yet functions beyond the range of our conscious awareness or deliberate usage. The eventual game-changer might not be the metaverse. But a change is coming, and the metaverse is a signal of that.

Technology advancing is like the tide coming in. If you watch the individual waves coming in, they don’t seem to amount to much. One stretches a little higher than the last, followed by another that fizzles out at the shoreline. But cumulatively, they change the landscape — forever. This tide is shifting humankind’s relationship with technology. And there will be no going back.

Maybe Maarten is right. Maybe the metaverse will turn out to be a big nothingburger. But perhaps, just perhaps, the metaverse might be the Antonio Meucci  of our time: an example where the technology was inevitable, but the timing wasn’t quite right.

Meucci was an Italian immigrant who started working on the design of a workable telephone in 1849, a full two decades before Alexander Graham Bell even started experimenting with the concept.  Meucci filed a patent caveat in 1871, five years before Bell’s patent application was filed, but was destitute and didn’t have the money to renew it.  His wave of technological disruption may have hit the shore a little too early, but that didn’t diminish the significance of the telephone, which today is generally considered one of the most important inventions  of all time in terms of its impact on humanity.

Whatever is coming, and whether or not the metaverse represents the sea change catalyst that alters everything, I fully expect at some point in the very near future to pinpoint this time as the dawn of the technological shift that made the introduction of the telephone seem trivial in comparison.

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!

I Was So Wrong in 1996…

It’s that time of year – the time when we sprain our neck trying to look backwards and forwards at the same time. Your email inbox, like mine, is probably crammed with 2021 recaps and 2022 predictions.

I’ve given up on predictions. I have a horrible track record. In just a few seconds, I’ll tell you how horrible. But here, at the beginning of 2022, I will look back. And I will substantially overshoot “a year in review” by going back all the way til 1996, 26 years ago. Let me tell you why I’m in the mood for some reminiscing.

In amongst the afore-mentioned “look back” and “look forward” items I saw recently there was something else that hit my radar; a number of companies looking for SEO directors. After being out of the industry for almost 10 years, I was mildly surprised that SEO still seemed to be a rock solid career choice. And that brings me both to my story about 1996 and what was probably my worst prediction about the future of digital marketing.

It was in late 1996 that I first started thinking about optimizing sites for the search engines and directories of the time: Infoseek, Yahoo, Excite, Lycos, Altavista, Looksmart and Hotbot. Early in 1997 I discovered Danny Sullivan’s Webmaster’s Guide to Search Engines. It was revelatory. After much trial and error, I was reasonably certain I could get sites ranking for pretty much any term. We had our handful of local clients ranking on Page One of those sites for terms like “boats,” “hotels”, “motels”, “men’s shirts” and “Ford Mustang”. It was the Wild West. Small and nimble web starts ups were routinely kicking Fortune 500 ass in the digital frontier.   

As a local agency that had played around with web design while doing traditional marketing, I was intrigued by this opportunity. Somewhere near the end of 1997 I did an internal manifesto where I speculated on the future of this “Internet” thing and what it might mean for our tiny agency (I had just brought on board my eventual partner, Bill Barnes, and we had one other full-time employee). I wish I could find that original document, but I remember saying something to the effect of, “This search engine opportunity will probably only last a year or two until the engines crack down and close the loopholes.” Given that, we decided to go for broke and seize that opportunity.

In 1998 we registered the domain www.searchengineposition.com. This was a big step. If you could get your main keywords in your domain name, it virtually guaranteed you link juice. At that time, “Search engine optimization” hadn’t emerged as the industry label. Search engine positioning was the more common term. We couldn’t get www.searchenginepositioning.com because domain names were limited by the number of characters you could use.

We had our domain and soon we had a site. We needed all the help we could get, because according to my prediction, we only had until 2000 or so to make as much as we could from this whole “search thing.” The rest, as they say, was history. It just wasn’t the history I had predicted.

To be fair, I wasn’t the only one making shitty predictions at the time. In 1995, 3Com co-founder Robert Metcalfe (also the co-inventor of Ethernet) said in a column in Infoworld:

“Almost all of the many predictions now being made about 1996 hinge on the Internet’s continuing exponential growth. But I predict the Internet, which only just recently got this section here in InfoWorld, will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”

And in 1998, Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman said,

“The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in ‘Metcalfe’s law’ becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s”

Both of those people were way smarter than I was, so if I was clueless about the future, at least I was in good company.

As we now know, SEO would be fine, thank you very much. In 2004, some 6 years later, in my very first post for MediaPost, I wrote:

“I believe years from now that…2004 … will be a milestone in the (Search) industry. I think it will mark the beginning of a year that will dramatically alter the nature of search marketing.”

That prediction, as it turned out, was a little more accurate. In 2004, Google’s AdWords program really hit its stride, doubling revenue from 1.5 billion the previous year to $3 billion and starting its hockey stick climb up to its current level, just south of $150 billion (in 2020).

The reason search – and organic search optimization – never fizzled out was that it was a fundamental connection between user intent and the ever-expanding ocean of available content. Search Engine Optimization turned out to be a much better label for the industry than Search Engine Positioning, despite my unfortunate choice of domain names. The later was really an attempt to game the algorithms. The former was making sure content was findable and indexable. Hindsight has shown that it was a much more sustainable approach.

I ended that first post talking about the search industry of 2004 by saying,

“And to think, one day I’ll be able to say I was there.”

I guess today is that day.

It’s the Buzz That Will Kill You

If you choose to play in the social arena, you have to accept that the typical peaks and valleys of business success can suddenly become impossibly steep.

In social media networks, your brand message is whatever meme happens to emerge from the collective activity of this connected market. Marketers have little control — and sometimes, they have no control. At best, all they can do is react by throwing another carefully crafted meme into the social-sphere and hope it picks up some juice and is amplified through the network.

That’s exactly what happened to Peloton in the past week and a half.

On Dec. 9, the HBO Max sequel to “Sex and the City” killed off a major character — Chris Noth’s Mr. Big — by giving him a heart attack after his one thousandth Peloton ride. Apparently, HBO Max gave Peloton no advance warning of this branding back hand.

On Dec. 10, according to Axios,  there was a dramatic spike in social interactions talking about Mr. Big’s last ride, peaking near 80 thousand. As you can imagine, the buzz was not good for Peloton’s business.

On Dec. 12, Peloton struck back with its own ad, apparently produced in just 24 hours by Ryan Reynold’s Maximum Effort agency. This turned the tide of the social buzz. Again, according to data from Newswhip and Axios, social media mentions peaked. This time, they were much more positive toward the Peloton brand.

It should be all good — right? Not so fast. On Dec 16, two sexual assault allegations were made against Chris Noth, chronicled in The Hollywood Reporter. Peloton rapidly scrubbed its ad campaign. Again, the social sphere lit up and Peloton was forced back into defensive mode.

Now, you might call all this marketing froth, but that’s  the way it is in our hyper-connected world. You just have to dance the dance — be nimble and respond.

But my point is not about the marketing side of this of this brouhaha – which has been covered to death, at least at MediaPost (sorry, pardon the pun.) I’m more interested  in what happens to the people who have some real skin in this particular game, whose lives depend on the fortunes of the Peloton brand. Because all this froth does have some very IRL consequences.

Take Peloton’s share price, for one.

The day before the HBO show aired, Peloton’s shares were trading at $45.91. The next day, they tumbled 16%. to $38.51.

And that’s just one chapter in the ongoing story of Peloton’s stock performance, which has been a hyper-compressed roller coaster ride, with the pandemic and a huge amount of social media buzz keeping the foot firmly on the accelerator of stock performance through 2020, but then subsequently dropping like a rock for most of 2021. After peaking as high as $162 a share exactly a year ago, the share price is back down to spitting distance of its pre-pandemic levels.

Obviously, Peloton’s share price is not just dependent on the latest social media meme. There are business fundamentals to consider as well.

Still, you have to accept that a more connected meme-market is going to naturally accelerate the speed of business upticks and declines. Peloton signed up for this dance — and  when you do that, you have to accept all that comes with it.

In terms of the real-world consequences of betting on the buzz, there are three “insider” groups (not including customers) that will be affected: the management, the shareholders and the employees. The first of these supposedly went into this with their eyes open. The second of these also made a choice. If they did their due diligence before buying the stock, they should have known what to expect. But it’s the last of these — the employees — that I really feel for.

With ultra-compressed business cycles like Peloton has experienced, it’s tough for employees to keep up. On the way up the peak, the company is running ragged trying to scale for hyper-growth. If you check employee review sites like Glassdoor.com, there are tales of creaky recruitment processes not being able to keep up. But at least the ride up is exciting. The ride down is something quite different.

In psychological terms, there is something called the locus of control. These are the things you feel you have at least some degree of control over. And there is an ever-increasing body of evidence that shows that locus of control and employee job satisfaction are strongly correlated. No one likes to be the one constantly waiting for someone else to drop the other shoe. It just ramps up your job stress. Granted, job stress that comes with big promotions and generous options on a rocket ship stock can perhaps be justified. But stress that’s packaged with panicked downsizing and imminent layoffs is not a fun employment package for anyone.

That’s the current case at Peloton. On Nov. 5 it announced an immediate hiring freeze. And while there’s been no official announcement of layoffs that I could find, there have been rumors of such posted to the site thelayoff.com.  This is not a fun environment for anyone to function in. Here’s what one post said: “I left Peloton a year ago when I realized it was morphing into the type of company I had no intention of working for.”

We have built a business environment that is highly vulnerable to buzz. And as Peloton has learned, what the buzz giveth, the buzz can also taketh away.

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.