The other day a man asked me what I do for a living and when I told him I work in advertising he told me his brother “lies for a living” too. After more than a decade in the business, comments like that don’t even phase me. Until you’re on the inside of any system, you reduce it to flat stereotypes. That’s human nature.
Since the advent of advertising, three things have contributed to the continuation of that stereotype:
The flow of information between brands and consumers was blocked for decades, causing consumers to feel watched and manipulated even while brands felt frustrated that, despite their best attempts to learn and please their customers, they couldn’t quite get a read on what they really wanted.
Consumers have played the role of passive receivers of brand messaging, a position that, in any relationship, tends to make people suspicious and highly critical.
Consumers have been lied to by brands. It’s true. Some people in advertising compromise the institution. But if you’ve ever talked to a teacher who’s passed a failing student because they’re told they have to, you’ll quickly realize that even our most respected professions contain compromise.
Enter social media. In the beginning, consumers began using platforms to exercise the ability to finally publicly communicate to and about their strong feelings toward brands, whether it was love or hate. We started seeing #wins and #fails loudly proclaimed, and even more revolutionary, we saw brands listening and responding back.
Next, we began to see people empowering their voices collectively and moving into the role of watchdogs. The powerful Leroy Stick taking down BP is just one example of that. Campbell Ewald’s Group Director of Social Media, Dave Linabury, noted that "Orwell got one thing wrong. Sure we're being watched, but he never predicted we'd be watching back."
And though we’ve spent a lot of time as ad professionals talking about how these platforms have opened up communication between people and brands, we haven’t spent a lot of time talking about another coinciding phenomenon that I find most interesting. Yes, consumers have been given the power to watch back. But with that power comes the experience of having to make the choices you once felt comfortable openly criticizing.
As peoples’ use of social media becomes more sophisticated and ubiquitous, even your Aunt Edna who’s never heard of this thing called Personal Branding, is gaining an understanding of the choices that must be made in telling her story in media. Every time she moves the laundry basket out of the frame before she snaps a picture of her cat and posts it for her friends, she is quietly and cognitively transitioning from consumer to brand. Every time she adjusts what she does and doesn’t post according to what gets the most Likes, she becomes a marketer of her life. And now Aunt Edna has stood in the marketer's shoes, whether she’s conscious of it or not.
She has begun to understand the shades of gray that lie between total transparency and the fifty-year old man in his parents’ basement posing as a shirtless Mark Wahlberg. A selected facet of the truth no longer feels like a lie. One person's putting your best foot forward is another's misrepresentation.
Self-construction is certainly not new, nor is it unique to social media. Whether you’ve cleaned your house before company comes or exaggerated your experience in an interview, people have run the gamut of posturing since the beginning of time. Look at Eve’s fig leaf. But now that people are having to make more conscious decisions to show the world their ideal version of themselves, and more importantly, publishing them, they are no longer on the outside of the branding system looking in. One click at a time, they are internalizing the system and its myriad of nuances, and as a result, are beginning to understand what it means to craft a brand story.
I’d love to hear some of the choices you see people making when telling their stories online.