In the frenzy to exploit a medium few marketers seem to understand, some advertising agencies seem to think it's okay to lie to customers and the media, if that helps to make their message "go viral".
The practice, known to some as "astroturfing", involves engineering an event that you hope will prove interesting or popular enough to forward, so that your response to it can be carefully calibrated and managed.
In Cell C's case, it involved a videotaped rant on YouTube by a popular stand-up comedian, to which the company's CEO ostensibly responded with disarming candour in a full-page advert. The media's first reaction was to question whether this was a master-stroke, or whether it is stupid to agree in public that, frankly, your company sucks.
Then they discovered they'd been trolled. The comedian in question had been paid to make the fake complaint video, and was now on staff as a "customer experience officer". An entire marketing campaign was ready to roll to rebrand the mobile operator.
Not many moons later, Nokia pulled the same stunt. In an apparently leaked e-mail from the company's CEO, Stephen Elop, to all the company's employees, he described in vivid terms that the company is in deep trouble. He described the situation as "standing on a burning [oil] platform", and having to jump into "the dark, cold, foreboding Atlantic waters". The e-mail purported to describe the company's specific challenges in great detail, including the failure of its handset operating platforms MeeGo and Symbian, against the alarming rise of Apple's iPhone, Google Android devices, and Far East handset manufacturers.
The next day, the company announced that "the dark, cold, foreboding Atlantic waters" means an alliance with Microsoft.
Once again, the media and the public had been trolled. While a few shrewd journalists expressed suspicion about the candid nature of the e-mail and the unusual fact that it was sent to all Nokia's many employees when a leak could clearly be very damaging, the news went viral across social networks.
During the Cell C astroturfing campaign last year, Lars Reichelt, the company chief executive officer (now we can't even use abbreviations any more), was quoted as saying: "Cell C intends to gain the trust of customers by being very open about the changes that are needed."
Nice one. You intend to gain our trust by lying to us and making us feel stupid? Good luck with that. Having been fooled once, who will ever believe anything Cell C or Nokia say in public again?
You intend to gain our trust by lying to us and making us feel stupid?Ivo Vegter, ITWeb contributor
These companies will have to go to great lengths to prove that they're worthy of being forgiven by their customers, employees and partners. There is some evidence that Cell C, with its new Red Bull Mobile partnership and data network ambitions, is trying to do so. However, it will take a lot to wash the sour taste of betrayal out of the mouth.
The same goes for that supposedly candid analysis in Elop's e-mail about Nokia's strategic problems. At first, it appeared to show a startling degree of clarity about the state of the company, where it went wrong, and how to fix it. But now that we know it was all a carefully scripted publicity stunt, does anyone trust that the company believes its own spin and really does have a plan?
Nokia's decision to ally with Microsoft, which isn't in the rudest of health itself, could be a master-stroke. It could turn two also-rans into one credible (albeit less fashionable) competitor to Apple and Google. However, nobody seems to believe the company anymore. While ex-employees attempt to stage a "Plan B" board coup, investors took the hatchet to Nokia's shares, lopping almost 25% off the price in the days following the announcement.
Those marketers who are not involved with these companies or their advertising agencies aren't going to come off scot-free either, because consumers are less likely to trust corporate marketing messages in future. The willingness of some advertising agencies to swindle the public in a vain attempt to create "viral buzz" around their embattled clients damages the credibility of every marketer everywhere.
And never mind that making a customer feel daft isn't exactly the best way to keep them. Have these oh-so-clever marketroids thought about the political implications of using dishonesty as a marketing tool?
If you want a public that agrees with popular sentiments about greedy corporate liars and cheats, by all means, act like one. But then expect them to vote accordingly.
If I were a corporate executive, concerned about the way political opinion is swinging against free market capitalism and in favour of higher taxes, punitive damages and expensive bureaucracy, I'd arrange a public lynching for all the clever fools who think lying to their customers is okay. I'd instruct my advertising agency to prepare a campaign to denounce the snivelling liars who'll do anything for cheap publicity, and swear never to make my own customers feel stupid or cheated.
Don't lie to your customers. Even if you mean to make a clever joke. Even if you want a campaign to go viral. Lying in marketing is not okay. It is never okay. Not to mention that it is suicidally stupid.