Collect valuable points by manipulating friends and family!

January 23, 2006

Just when you thought you’d heard everything, along comes spouseware. That’s a new variety of downloadable programs, which link you to websites that’ll pay you to persuade your mate to buy things from participating companies. It’s a new twist on the traditional, “make money at home in your spare time.”

Consumer response is strong, and politicos are eyeing the business model, since they have no problem with influence-for-hire. A website, movethem.org, is under development. It’s non-partisan, a wholly commercial undertaking that pays for political conversions. Get your husband, a Republican since Reagan, to go Democratic, or your Kerry-loving wife to vote for a GOP congressional candidate, and cash in.

If the preceding sounds farfetched, it should. I made it all up. But with most every mode of communication being weighed as a potential channel for manipulation, with columnists secretly paid and conflict-of-interest rules ignored or corrupted, why shouldn’t pillow talk be next?

That brings us to so-called buzz marketing. What follows isn’t make-believe. Consider a Boston company called BzzAgent, described in a Wall Street Journal report as “a word-of-mouth specialist.” It’s raising $14 million from venture capitalists to expand its business, which consists of selling “the old-fashioned way ¾ by getting people to talk to others about the product.”

BzzAgent’s 120 client companies include Volkswagen and Anheuser-Busch, the Journal reported. It has trained 130,000 people to talk to other people about products. The trainees are mainly young people who like to think they’re trendsetters. They aren’t paid in cash; instead they amass points redeemable for prizes.

Meet buzz, known by critics as stealth marketing and by adherents as word-of-mouth. It’s a hot-growing $100 million to $150 million advertising sector, with perhaps 85 percent of the U.S. top 1,000 marketers making some use of it, according to estimates in Advertising Age.

Techniques vary. Sometimes it’s hiring actors who ask visitors to take their photos at the Space Needle in Seattle or the Empire State Building in New York. The tourists snap the shots, admire the snazzy new Sony Ericsson camera, and presto, they’ve joined an on-the-spot product demonstration.

Or it’s the graduate student featured in another Wall Street Journal story who talks up the new cream cheese and yoghurt spread she served at a pre-wedding brunch. She was part of a 12-week BzzAgent push involving 2,000 agents.

“Word of mouth,” one marketing honcho tells the Journal, “is the ultimate form of consumer engagement.”

You’ve got to love the enthusiasm. It’s as if this sales presentation was some therapeutic outreach intended to lure timid consumers out of their shells and get them truly involved ¾ genuine “engagement” ¾ with the goop they’re slathering on their bagels.

Advocates do rhapsodize about all this with the fervor of real conviction, as the height of authenticity, a way to empower the lowly grassroots of the buying public. It brings a lump to the throat. The website of buzzmarketing.com makes the whole push sound like some proud insurgency. “We don’t think like normal advertising, marketing, and PR people. We defy convention…”  Word-of-mouth is “the oldest, most effective form of marketing on earth,” which raises the question of what convention it could be defying.

One could be honesty. Commercial Alert, a commercialization watchdog, complained to the Federal Trade Commission in October about Procter & Gamble’s Tremor campaign. That’s a four-year-old program which, USA Today says, uses 250,000 teenagers to talk to friends about new things that P&G sends them. Tremor also purportedly rents out these teens to such pals as Toyota, Coca-Cola and Kraft Foods, and the watchdog group wondered whether the entire undertaking might not be fundamentally deceitful.

Disclosure is supposedly a key issue: Do the agents fess up? Buzz marketing’s trade group, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), has an upstanding ethics code that requires agents to tell what they’re up to and forbids them to praise products they don’t actually care for.

That’s comforting. It’s even possible that these tens of thousands of semi-trained marketing irregulars, eager to be envied as trend-spotters and hungry for the perks and geegaws that moonlighting for their patrons brings, might actually heed such admonitions. But that’s not what this is all about.

What’s it’s about is injecting, deep into the tissue of ordinary, day-to-day social relations, a whole range of commissioned, ulterior agendas. Buzz works as a sales technique only  because it attaches itself, parasitically, onto the loyalty and mutual regard that are the qualities we esteem most in relationships, and rides them for personal gain. This isn’t about disclosure. It’s about a corruption of core values to a depth that even the cynical genius of U.S. marketing had not previously dared to aspire to.

Before long you won’t even expect to trust anybody. Then we’ll be ready for spouseware

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