18 April 2006

Credibility gap

Convinced the signal-to-noise ratio in society isn't low enough, the advertising industry has finally decided to exploit that most intimate of media: the personal conversation. If you live in a major American metropolitan center, there is now a 1 in 2,000 chance that your so-called friends and even family have been assimilated by marketing equivalent of the Borg.

I came up with those odds after listening to this morning's item on "BzzAgent" on NPR's Morning Edition. According to reporter BzzPoints" you can redeem for cool "BzzRewards!" It's the sales incentive equivalent of airline frequent-flier points -- only the more you push a product, the more product you get.

Officially, all BzzAgents are supposed to be up front and honest about their participation in this propaganda campaign, which has the goal of creating "credibility" for new products among young Americans. But the unavoidable fact is that the targets of the buzz are much more likely to be receptive to the sale pitches if the agents are less than sincere about their role. After all, if the goal is to create "credibility" among a cynical slice of the demographic pie, then the last thing an agent is going to want to do is admit they're on the take.

In music radio, you may recall, it's called payola.

Aside from the insulting invasion of personal space that this new tact represents, the real damage is even more insidious. It all has to do with the laws of thermodynamics and quantum theory, metaphorically speaking.

To begin, take this weird notion of creating credibility. I suggest that you can no more create credibility than you can create matter or energy. Each community only has so much on hand at any point in time. BzzAgents may be able to generate credibility within a community for a specific product -- we're talking new camera phones, MP3 players and so forth -- but only at the expense of the total level of trust or credibility in the community as a whole.

As soon as the truth is revealed -- and it will be revealed -- the unearned credibility, like a virtual subatomic particle, will evaporate back into the vacuum from which it came, leaving the universe that much more cynical and bleaker.

This might seem odd coming from someone who champions doubt and skepticism, and I still believe strongly in the power of doubt when it comes to science and reason. But I'm the first to admit that communities, and society as a whole, need a shared sense of trust and credibility. Without people to whom you can turn with some degree of confidence for advice that's in your best interest, and not that of a large corporate, life gets pretty dark.

A couple of years ago, I read a great little editorial from Stanley Schmidt, editor of Analog, on the general decline of trust in America. In this post 9/11 era when governments have little trust in their own citizens, he wrote in the July/August 2003 issue:
... the more we can depend on the high probability of most people simply behaving decently, the better off we'll be. That requires widespread trust, and that works as a survival characteristic only if we have widespread trustworthiness. I'm not sure how to cultivate and maintain that in a large, diverse, complex society, but learning how is one of the most worthwhile things we could learn to do.
I'm not sure how to do that, either. (It probably has something to do with discouraging tribalism.) But I do know that turning everyone into a BzzAgent will take us farther, not closer, to such a society.

As it stands, if you live or work in a big city (i.e., lucrative market) where those 140,000 BzzAgents are concentrated, there's a good chance that one of every 2,000 people you bump into will try to convince you of the merits of something you never knew you thought you needed. And that's without compensating for your market appeal. For young, wealthy consumers, the odds are probably closer to 1 in 500.

Image if the relatively new BzzAgent army doubles or quadruples in size. Soon the chances of running into one of these Borg -- the phrase "Join the Hive" actually appears on the main recruitment page -- on any given day approaches a sure thing.

I'm relatively safe for the moment, living as I do in a community of just 600 people in rural western North Carolina. I think the IPod penetration rate here is close to zero. But I worry about the threat to credibility among those in the centers of power. It's not like we need more reason to distrust the government, our bosses, our heroes. We need to let anyone who is still decent enough to admit they are part of the hive that they can either be a friend, or they can Bzz off. And remind them that credibility cannot be bought and sold. It has to be earned.

I'll let Schmidt have the last word:
That kind of understanding, and the behavior that follows logically from it, are not easy to instill into a whole population. But any civilization that can't learn to do it had better be prepared to be replaced by one that can.


Anonymous neal said...

i suspect that chances of getting hit with bzz "guerilla marketing" are much higher. i remember studying this tactic in a college communications class before it had an official name. unless the bzz agent is completely forthright (not often, as intuition and studies suggest), it's very hard to detect if you've been hit with subliminal street advertising. we conducted experiments on campus and found that ordinary passerbys rarely questioned the anonymous test marketers. it has taken advertising to a wholly terrifying level.

4:17 PM  

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