Written with Michaela Jackson
The videos were a new feature available to Facebook users developed to celebrate the social network’s 10th anniversary. The program uses photos and activity from your Facebook feed to create a one-minute movie, accompanied by music that gets you emotionally involved.
But this wasn’t just for fun. The movies are examples of a clever contemporary technique used by marketers to build loyalty for declining brands.
Marketing scholars call this particular promotional tool “co-creation”, and it is part of a bigger toolbox of significantly more subtle techniques used by marketers to get you to buy their products and support their brands.
But more importantly, this new tactic is designed to normalise the idea that consuming their products is just the way things are; a part of everyday life.
As the world of media has become increasingly fragmented, marketers have developed a number of tactics and channels that blur the lines between editorial content and advertising, information and entertainment.
People of all ages, education and socio-economic backgrounds, despite the belief that they are in control of their decision-making, are less likely to identify when they are exposed to marketing material, and therefore, less likely to be in a position to defend themselves against subtle, gentle marketing tactics. Most marketers would tell you that the best kind of marketing is the marketing that influences you without you knowing.
Co-creation is a useful technique where companies engage consumers in a variety of fun, engaging and creative opportunities, such as making a movie, designing a song, coming up with a name or logo or even the creation of new products.
Similarly, the use of multiple marketing channels or “touch points”, such as online media, product placement, in-game advertising, and sponsorship of “grass-roots” sporting events, all coordinated in an integrated way, have been widely adopted.
These subtle tactics all depend on forms of “cultural camouflage” for their success, by normalising what is essentially commercial activity. And the reality, despite your protestations, is that most of us don’t notice when we are being marketing to. Indeed, these subtle marketing tactics would defeat their own purpose if they exposed their intent or called overt attention to their presence.
Probably one of the best examples of a sector legitimising this technique are food and beverage companies. Through the use of psychological concepts such as priming and the mere exposure effect, food and beverage marketing across a variety of channels ‘ bombard’ children and adolescents on a daily basis, and can impact consumer attitudes and behaviour. For example, simply repeating the exposure of a particular brand or product, through multiple media outlets, can result in the formation of positive attitudes towards these products.
Don’t believe me? Some examples of this subtle, not in your face marketing include Coca-Cola’s multi-million dollar product placement on American Idol, Cadbury chocolates featured in the children’s film, Hop, the movie “The Green Hornet” with product placement for Coca-Cola, Red Bull, Jamba Juice, Monster Energy Drink, getting consumers to develop new flavours of potato crisps, promotion for Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain using television commercials, websites, product range expansion, sponsorship of the Nutri-Grain Iron Man Series, which results in extensive publicity and editorial exposure (the most authoritative form of promotion) as a result of these events.
However, this is not all harmless psychological fun. Subtle marketing tactics suggest a power imbalance where one party (the marketer) knows the motive of the promotional activity while the other (the consumer) may not.
The resources required by companies to research, develop and embed subtle marketing tactics – not only financial and informational resources, but understanding and accessing the processes of cultural production – further highlights this imbalance.
So, whether it’s Facebook, Coca-Cola, Nutri-Grain or even Freddo Frog, these techniques have just become part of the broader cultural landscape, or what Chris Preston from Queen Margaret University in the UK refers to as “cultural wallpaper”.
As a consequence, we voluntarily and unintentionally submit to this messaging, and accept the new landscape as normal, common sense, and ultimately unquestioned.
So, what can we do about it? Of course, people should be responsible for their decisions. But when the balance of power is ridiculously tilted towards industry – with significant resources at their disposal to influence behaviour without us really being aware of it – arguments around personal responsibility tend to be naïve and lacking any sense of the actuality of the modern world.
Indeed, when programs are developed to provide people with even a small degree of power in the equation, such as giving consumers access to comprehensible and easy to understand information, it seems that “industry impacts” take precedence over consumer benefits and protection.
A more sensible approach should simply deal with both the reality and the evidence. Recognition from all sectors – industry, government and advocates – that these techniques are used and effective is a first step. A second step would be to consider the consequences of these marketing techniques at a whole of society level.
These “under the radar” techniques, the nature of the products involved and the broader sociocultural conditions that support marketing and its role in society present unique implications for our well-being.
A better understanding of the antecedents and processes that surround the implementation of these marketing tactics will help advocates in the consumer (and public health) space and policy-makers more effectively address marketing’s role in our culture.
This article is based on an article published in Critical Public Health writing by Michaela Jackson, Paul Harrison, Boyd Swinburn and Mark Lawrence of Deakin University.