Marketing in the age of the troll

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The rise of social media has transformed the nature of attention, a shift that is driving brand confusion and presenting marketers with substantial challenges.

2016 was the year of the troll. In the flurry of analysis of how advertising failed Hillary Clinton’s US presidential campaign, it would be all too easy to cast the industry as the modern-day equivalent of the doomed musicians on the RMS Titanic; playing their music as the ship went down. Yet the 2016 US election will become similarly embedded in our collective consciousness as a reflection of the prevailing social structures of the time.

Some critics believe the ascent of Trump is the ultimate product of the social-media-driven attention economy. When attention is undoubtedly the hard currency of the future, understanding how Trump successfully diverted and attracted it is perhaps more important than the "listicles" generated as a result of any cultural milestone – and of lasting significance to the industry.

James Williams, an Oxford academic and expert in design ethics, has argued that in every age, the dominant techniques of attention management find themselves embodied in our political candidates. Therefore, in the eras of film and then television, politicians had to become actors; but it also meant that some actors would become politicians. Today, with the era of that kind of traditional, mass-audience broadcast TV behind us, social media has come to steer consumers’ attention. According to a report from Pew Research Center, 44 percent of US adults now get their news from Facebook; for young adults, it is the number-one source. Six in ten web-using millennials (61 percent) reported getting political news on the social network. That’s 17 percent higher than their next-most-consumed source – CNN, at 44 percent.

The mindset of the future

  • High IQ
  • Efficient information processing
  • Short attention span
  • Icons, not ideas
  • Sensation at a premium
  • Risk-taker
  • Low empathy
  • Need for constant feedback
  • Weak sense of identity
  • Low-grade aggression

Source: Susan Greenfield

Outrage and attention

In his book How Brands Grow, Byron Sharp simplifies the real challenge of growing a brand to just one thing: availability, mental and physical. In this way, brand consideration is not so much "considered" as it is emotional. When this understanding is placed within the context of what critics have dubbed the "perpetual outrage" of social media, it is easy to understand the appeal of polarising consumer opinion as a marketing tactic.

As J Walker Smith, executive chairman at Kantar Futures, explains: "It is easier to express an emotion than an idea in 140 characters."

He adds: "Forget micro-targeting, forget TV advertising – [Trump’s victory] is all about exploiting the lack of trust. A lot of people in the developed world feel the elites have left them behind. They are willing to vote for change, wherever that leads us."

According to Smith, marketers have embarked on endless segmentations to attempt to tap into this emotion, but many were poorly conceived and failed. "Technology is designed to get past existing social norms," he explains. However, as impulses have replaced considered thought, Smith argues that there are consumers who wish to restore the status quo.

Backlash branding

Some believe this era of unchecked impulses is driving a wave of polarisation in marketing. Tracey Follows, chief strategy and innovation officer at The Future Laboratory, says that "backlash brands" are disassociating themselves from certain consumers to connect with others on a deeper level.

She points to the assertion of Roy Price, head of Amazon Studios, that a TV series liked by 80 percent of people is of less value than one loved by 30 percent.

"The internet, social media and our increasingly review-driven society have opened up the floodgates and people are expressing their opinions left, right and centre," says Follows. "As a result, forming connections with your audience is no longer just about being authentic."

"Trolls perform a valuable job. They draw out people’s true feelings – they lob polarising ideas into the culture and watch people react."
– Zach Gallagher, Possible

This approach demands a considerable shift in how brands approach marketing. In essence, being hated is no longer something to be afraid of – particularly within the realms of an internet culture in which almost anything can prove offensive to someone.

Zach Gallagher, chief strategy officer, Americas, at creative agency Possible, says that "haters" are now a status symbol. "Trolls perform a valuable job in our society – they draw out people’s true feelings," he says. "They lob polarising ideas into culture and watch people react. Originally trolls did it just for ‘lolz’, but you can see the value of doing it to identify who is in your corner and who isn’t."

Gallagher believes that a growing school of brands are realising they can no longer appeal to everyone. They are therefore using troll tactics themselves, to forge a deeper connection with a smaller number of people rather than a wider, but shallow, connection. Finding the balance between depth of connection and scale is the tricky part.

Brutal simplicity

When attention is fleeting and social-media-driven response mechanisms can be reactionary, the argument for a return to simplicity and a reappraisal of the fundamentals of marketing is gaining traction. Ironically, in some ways advances in technology are reinforcing the importance of the foundations of traditional marketing communications. As Smith says: "In the Twitter age having the pithiest phrase and the best tag is crucial. It is about simplicity and salience."

However, this drive for simplicity is also having an impact on consumers, who are increasingly aware of the corrosive impact of hate speech, as well as the addictive qualities of some technologies and their effect on mental wellbeing. The backlash to this trend has been led by organizations such as Time Well Spent, a "digital detoxing" advocacy group. It proposes that software designers take a kind of "Hippocratic oath" pledging not to develop apps that encourage addictive behaviour or exploit people’s psychological vulnerabilities.

Media fatigue

People are tired of expending their emotional energy on content that causes them anxiety. According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, ad-blocker use ranges from 12 percent in South Korea to 38 percent in Poland and 36 percent in Greece.

The New York Times provided grief counsellors on Facebook Live for those traumatized after a recent terrorist attack.

"Most of us have empathy, but we can't spend all our emotional energy on terrorism." (Hilda Burke, psychotherapist, in a BBC interview.)

Source: The Future Laboratory

"In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending six to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves."

Source: Wilson et al, Science, 4 July 2014


Bursting the filter bubble

In the wake of the US elections and the proliferation of fake news on social-media sites, the "filter bubble" created and promoted by these platforms has been firmly in the spotlight. Tom Goodwin, head of innovation at Zenith Media USA, says that one of the most problematic things about life in 2016 is that we no longer pay for news with money, but with our attention.

He describes it as "having a relationship with social media, not publications". This, he adds, "means people now want snackable hits of sugar and fat. Long reads, balanced views, don’t perform well. We’re getting ADHD and ignorant, and we’ve fired the person we trusted to look after us."

The growing backlash to this filter bubble is an important trend for brands and underlines the fact that while the attention economy enables them to gain traction through appealing to consumers’ cognitive impulses, they are increasingly aware of these distraction techniques .

Even Barack Obama has spoken out against fake news on social-media platforms, and the issue shows no sign of abating. Speaking at a press conference in Germany in November, the outgoing President said: "If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems." In the context of what Obama dubbed "active misinformation" the scrutiny brands are facing has been intensifying for months.

Fake or misleading news spreads like wildfire on Facebook because of confirmation bias. Consumers are always more willing to accept information that confirms their existing view of the world. In this environment, arguing that brands should simply adopt the techniques of "backlash branding" has numerous shortcomings, not least the growing pressure on Facebook to burst the filter bubble of its own creation.

The new normal

Trolling, actively seeking to polarize opinions or ditching the industry’s long quest for authenticity in favor of the surface distractions and reactions of backlash branding raises new challenges for brands. What constitutes attention in the era of multiscreening is fundamentally changing, presenting an ever-evolving landscape in which to operate.

Havas Media Group chief executive Paul Frampton says that brave brands engage and acknowledge the conversation even when it is difficult; that is the "new normal" for marketing.

As he explains: "The Trump generation, the Farage generation gives an immediate opinion and all the negativity that comes with it. Technology enables this behavior."

According to Frampton, this means that brands need to accept that the ability to control and command their communications is over, and marketers must "refocus on their values". The attention economy may have fundamentally changed the process of distraction and attraction between consumer and brand; yet the foundations of long-term brand-building remain. In an environment of almost perpetual outrage, the emotional pull of brand purpose may be more important than ever.

3 tips for success in the age of the troll

Gerard Crichlow, head of cultural strategy, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO


1. The internet is participatory – plan accordingly

While there will always be the noisy few who pollute our streams, the vast majority of us are just trying to fit in, connect with others and obtain information. However, there is a downside to this: the fear of being attacked can deter us from sharing how we really feel. This puts us at risk of us all sounding the same.

At last year’s SXSW event, David Chang, the founder of restaurant group Momofuku, blamed the frictionless way the internet enables chefs to get information from around the world for creating a "gastronomical monoculture". It’s through trial and error that really interesting things begin to happen. Whether it’s consumers, chefs or brands, the fear of getting things wrong makes the world a less interesting place for all of us. People don’t think about the impact their comments have on their future selves. Context is everything. Stories like this only add to brands’ fear to act.

We have only to look to one of the world’s most recognisable brands, the British royal family, to see how easily the line can be crossed. Paparazzi and members of the public got nasty with Prince Harry’s girlfriend, Meghan Markle, attacking her on social media and intruding on the couple’s private lives. One would think if anything could protect someone, an institution like the monarchy could; yet the prince was forced to appeal for their privacy to be respected.

That’s why, now more than ever, it’s so important for brands to have a clear sense of their place in the world. Knowing who you are, what you stand for, and what you will and will not react to can save hours of headaches with your teams and agency partners. But the most important consideration is understanding the cultural context of what you are saying, so that you can plan accordingly.

2. Plan for spontaneity

I was part of the team that created the Honey Maid campaign in the US, which featured an ad with a same-sex couple and their family. In the context of American discourse at the time, same-sex marriage was a controversial topic, given that states were voting on whether it should be legalized or not. Using this politically charged message with the line "This is wholesome", from a 100-year-old brand, was sure to spark a debate.

Because we carved out a unique purpose and point of view on the world, the campaign was launched specifically to recognize the changing face of US families with a simple message: no matter how things change, what makes us wholesome never will. So no matter what people might say, we were clear on our position and were able to predict the possible backlash to the ad.

As a result, we prepared responses (hundreds of tweets, visual assets, and deflection posts) for those who had less-than-nice things to say about the brand. The [brand’s] response was viewed just as much as the original ad, which was the most-viewed ad in the world in 2014.

3. Brands have a greater role to play

The world is shifting under our feet. A new wave of attitudes is surfacing that we may not yet completely understand. If we are to build the future and leave it in a better place, we’ll need to better connect and understand what’s going on in other people’s lives.

Social media and brands will play a powerful role here. As marketers, we need to encourage brands to speak up and take a stand. Brands have an important role to play in shaping public discourse, drowning out the negative and remaking social pillars.

This means we’ll have to be better at helping brands understand the context of conversations and create better content that benefits the world.