Social Media and the Failure of Conspicuous Compassion

December 6, 2010 at 5:56 pm Leave a comment

With disconcerting frequency “friends” in the social media space pepper me with suggestions that I post a pre-fabricated phrase in my Facebook status update or change my profile picture to a certain image in order to show my support for some cause. Here’s the question I ask before I do so: Does this action benefit me or does it benefit the cause?

In other words is the result that my other “friends” see me as caring and compassionate or does something actually happen to ameliorate a problem or injustice somewhere in the world? I suggest that almost invariably it is the former.

Patrick West, author of Conspicuous Compassion, would agree. He argues quite persuasively that most of us in liberal western democracies have reached the point where appearing to care about the ills of the world has become more important than actually making a difference. The rise of social media has exacerbated this by making it possible to show that you’re on the right side of an issue by doing nothing more than moving a single finger. This is creating a generation of people who believe it is possible to change the world without effort or commitment–not an altogether salutary development. Courage and conviction are being replaced by clicking the “like” button.

A prime example is underway as I write–the Digital Death campaign. Everyone wants to help prolong the lives of children with AIDS, of course. There can be no argument on the point. To help make it happen, Kim Kardashian and a host of other celebrities have made “commitment”  to stop tweeting. Judging by the speed at which donations are coming in, no one much cares. That is to be expected. They are asking their fans to make a financial commitment in return for their doing something that is akin to giving up sugar cookies. Sorry, I’m all for fighting AIDS, but it seems to me that such a terrible disease merits a bit more elbow grease than the celebrities are offering up.

So let’s bring this back around to advertising so I don’t have to change the title of the blog. Confusing commitment with a click of the “like” button afflicts brands as well. CMOs gush that two million people “like” their product on Facebook. The question that isn’t asked nearly often enough is so what? It costs people nothing to like you; they have made no commitment. You may recall that I wrote back on January 28th about the social media storm that blew up Conan O’Brien/Jay Leno imbroglio (“Team Coco–Your Outrage Cannot Be Monetized”). The point was ultimately a mathematical one. It was easy to support O’Brien on Twitter or Facebook because it took a few seconds. It was a good deal harder to commit to watching his show because it took an hour five nights a week, yet it’s precisely that kind of commitment that a successful talk show host must coax out of viewers not for weeks or months but years. O’Brien got fired because he couldn’t get real commitment from viewers, which would have resulted in a commitment from advertisers at a satisfactory price. In the face of that, clicks and tweets don’t matter.

To succeed in the social media space, agencies must realize they are in the commitment business. Get all the clicks you want, but they’re not worth much until you can get the consumer to put some skin in the game.

Entry filed under: Advertising and Marketing.

The Committee to Eradicate Banner Ads from the Face of the Earth Stop saying “laundry list” in meetings if you want to avoid being strangled with a sweatshirt, towel, pillowcase or undergarment.

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December 2010

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