Friday, 16 March 2012

SXSW #3: Tactivism

So it's day 4 and I feel exhausted. Not because the SXSW talks are too much or the sun is sapping my energy. But because I feel under an immense pressure to be energetic about a cause or an issue every waking minute of the day.

Yesterday I attended an interesting panel on 'brands as patterns'. There were some insightful points made around the analogous areas of music and architecture - around the idea of choreographing experiences so that people feel they are both familiar and surprised by the brand. For this reason they posit that in the future interaction designers rather than marketing managers will be the brand guardians (but that's another blogpost!).

Anyway the talk then went off into the need for every brand to have 'a values based mission that empowers people'.

If felt very much that if you are going to say it's not about brand narrative anymore, (only about user experience) then you can support your case by hiding behind some lofty cause-related position that renders your argument acceptable.

Time and again I could hear the drum beat of activism underneath nearly every presentation.

Social activism came out loud and clear in Biz Stone's presentation. In a very compelling, evangelical talk he took us through the principles on which he built Twitter. Passionate about baking-in good causes to the business he creates he stated that 'the future of marketing is philanthropy'. Our businesses always have to be doing something to help people. He suggested that instead of Coke spending money on advertising they should just supply red cups to the World Food Programme, claiming 'what great marketing is that!'

No-one here seems to understand that the only reason Coke could do this is because of the equity it has built up over years, the meaning it has created and the brand story it has told.

And anyway I can't imagine that awareness of such an association would go beyond the recipients, the digerati and the left-wing press. Coca Cola, a brand built on its strength of distribution surviving by only doing this? I don't think so.

The day before, I attended a conference panel on celebrities and causes. The main thrust of the argument being that celebs should only get involved in the issues they really care about. Lady Gaga was held up as the shining model of getting this right. Her support of "don't ask, don't tell', LBGT rights and anti-bullying. Strangely these sorts of issues have helped to recruit so many little monsters that she now has something like 4m followers. Which came first though, the activism or the marketing?

Sean Parker and Al Gore preached to a packed crowd about the evils of the TV medium, about how TV has gatekeepers, how anti-democratic it is as a medium for politics and how the Internet has returned to us a form of political town-square debate that will out-popularise TV in the long run.

Sean Parker who now runs a company called 'causes' (where he matches issue based groups with politicians) and Gore talked about how TV monopolises media with the messages of only those that can afford it and what people now have with digital is a set of tools, through which they can take action. In fact it is their duty to take action.

They failed to see that only the richest too get best access to the Internet as an advertising medium; that social platforms aren't object but value-laden too; that progress lies not within a group of people who all feel compelled to say they 'like' the same thing but in conflict, dissent and debate; and that not everyone's opinion is as valid as another just because 'we all have a voice now'.

The idea that traditional media is corrupted but new media isn't just seems extremely naive to me.

The author of "You are not a gadget" was much more informed and expert around this subject in another talk on the good and bad of technology, and he said:

"Facebook has two versions of you. One you can see (your page) and one you can't (your algorithm) which determines which ads you see, when, and what happens and doesn't happen in your news feed".

He quite rightly called for democracy and empowerment in new media saying: "People have to own their own information in order to be empowered by it". Exactly.

In all this talk of collaborative consumption and shared ownership and loveliness and community - we seem to have forgotten the political power brokers who sit behind these new media platforms pulling the information-access strings!

And so overall there is an unspoken political doctrine of SXSW which says your brand must have a cause; your brand must behave like an activist; and your users must be activists too in order to be properly engaged. Activism is 'politics made popular'. And it will make your brand popular.

And then there's a smaller group encouraging us to be activists in the area of data privacy - to fight against the very platforms that enable us to be activists in social and political issues worldwide.

So whilst much of the cause-based initiatives i saw over these days are laudable I am left feeling that the constant call for very public 'activism' is often a justification for some more private marketing 'tactics'. These involve using and abusing personal data of people on a mass scale. A distraction at best; a manipulation at worst.

One thing is for sure: 'Tactivism' is the new mode of marketing; whether people see it as such or not.

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