Social Media Club – 4.12.07 – Ethics and The Social Media Generation Gap

I love a rainy night.

So this is Boston, right? I mean we are used to crappy weather and all but last night’s rain kept all but a few hardy souls from making the trek to Dedham.

The event focused on the ethical issues raised by the Aqua Teen Hunger Force guerrilla marketing hullabaloo here in Boston back in February. The evening’s panelists were John Blossom of Shore Communications, Judith Perrolle of Northeastern University and Douglas Quintal of Emerson College. Todd Van Hoosier of Topaz was the very capable master of ceremonies.

One thing that came up even before the panel started was the question of why this topic was even being discussed by the SMC. It wasn’t a social media program or even an online one; and yet here we were preparing to talk about the reaction of Boston to the discovery of these mysterious devices mounted on key elements of the city’s infrastructure. A valid point and one that was discussed during the course of the night.

Bloom kicked things off by talking about the discussions he has with clients regarding boundaries in social media and how this relates to efforts to monetize the media in general; and the risk, either online of off, of attempting to monetize or commercialize space without consent. The ATHF was one example, as was the recent dust-up between PhotoBucket and MySpace.

He went on to say that one of the problems in the ATHF case was that the marketers behind the campaign weren’t part of the community and didn’t think about who to approach for advice or permissions. This is an overall problem that occurs – again, online of off – when marketers become involved with a community they are not a part of or familiar with.

Perrolle followed and described the event as an example of “solid state spam” – unwanted and unwelcome communication appearing in public space. It represents, in her eyes, an example of advertising out of control. As a program, it failed to consider or respect the community’s views of space.

Quintal came into the discussion from a practical marketing perspective. He felt that the most important lesson to come out of this event was that the old rules still apply. Regardless of whatever buzzwords are being used, you still need to know and understand your target audience and work appropriately.

This was, in his opinion, a case where the creative overshadowed the message. It misused the space and failed to reach its target audience. The people behind the program had not adequately studied the audience or how they would react. That would have required an understanding of the landscape (both physical and cultural) and an application of the same set of ethics that would be used in any media.

For all of these reason, Quintal felt that the program had been a failure and that Boston had not over reacted. He suggested that there needed to be some sort of “opt in” from the landscape for these types of programs.

Perrolle felt that the city had over reacted – but in the way the security people do all of the time now. She feels that this level of over reaction is not financially sustainable and that marketers ought to think about the security implications or response to their planned activities. Her own rule of thumb is “would I do this while getting on board a plane.”

Bloom brought up the fact that the media has become desensitized to the idea of public space, believing that any and all space is open for media or advertising. He thought that social media was resensitizing the public to the fact that they can control the media they consume and that this sense of control might begin to reach out into physical space as well.

All three panelists described situations where public-space advertising run amok was undone by public outcry. Advertising that covered the windows of the T was just one example.

Bloom went on to say that people were beginning to assume that public space is, in fact, commercial space. He thought that this might be less so here in the Northeast because of the historical context of much of our space.

Perrolle thought that the idea of public space as something of value in and of itself has been forgotten. Quintal came in and pointed out that more and more of our public space was being used for commercial purposes with the consent of its owners. He cited names on public park scoreboards, benches, etc. Perrolle countered that in those cases there was a benefit being provided that simple advertising does not offer.

After this, the event moved into a more general discussion that included the audience. How things had gone so wrong came up and the consensus was that they people behind the campaign had failed to judge how Boston would respond. It was also pointed out that here – unlike in other cities where the campaign took place – the devices were attached to key infrastructural elements. Not a good idea.

Quintal went on to describe the campaign as a failure, saying that the ratings impact had been only a fraction of a percent – certainly not enough to justify the effort and issues. Some in the audience questioned whether it had been a failure, suggesting that the campaign might be viewed as a success if thought of as a “public secret” to reinforce those already familiar with the program and to possibly attract like-minded people.

There was also discussion of the fact that the campaign – and the aura around it – while meant to project a sense of the alternative or counterculture, was, in fact, produced by a major media company. This led to conversations about the changing nature of youth, the erosions of privacy and its consequences and the role and nature of online communication and social media as people think about content, choice and consumption.

As always, the after-party was also excellent, with much of the group retiring to the Vinny T’s bar for drinks and continued conversation.

While this summary captures well I think the key points made by the panelists during the formal portion of the evening, it gives short shrift to the follow-on discussions. John Cass writes about the evening’s program here.

[tags]Social Media, Boston, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, social media club, SMCBoston, John Bloom, Judith Perrolle, Douglas Quintal, guerrilla marketing[/tags]

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