A blog about digital & online

Should the same rules apply to online and offline marketers?

Digital marketing waters can be murky. There are some straight-up, transparent methods, which can take time and effort, and there are some not so transparent methods that cant to the side but deliver quick results – if you have a comfortable budget. For the purposes of this post I’m referring to the practice of paying bloggers to write positive product or service reviews. Back in 2009, the US Federal Trade Commission amended its guides regarding the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising to include online endorsements by bloggers, especially celebrities. It also extends to Twitter, although some celebs play fast and loose with the rules.

The UK’s Office of Fair Trading also had a go at regulating celeb product endorsements in their blogs and Twitter and Facebook feeds.

The latest country to tackle the problem is South Korea. South Korea’s Fair Trade Commission has amended its regulations to ensure that all companies and bloggers that enter these mutually beneficial online marketing relationships come clean. Any blogger, tweeter or Facebook user caught not revealing the profitable nature of their comments will be fined.

The matter raises some interesting questions about the nature of online marketing and whether the same rules should apply as to traditional marketing.

The short answer is yes; the same rules should apply.

Without rules and with sizable profits at stake, marketers could, hypothetically, be ruthless in their attempts to woo customers. The web naturally lends itself to deceit, which would make marketers lives that much easier.

Think of the fake social media accounts that have been set up by large companies to try and win online attention. Think of the fake advertising campaigns that have done the rounds. Think of the sneaky backdoor viral campaigns.

Some of them backfired, but that didn’t stop them from trying. Even after the backlash from uncovered fake accounts, many marketers still try that avenue.

With no rules online marketers could run riot online – metaphorically speaking.

In offline marketing it’s almost standard practice to pay high profile celebs and sports stars to punt products. Look at Ben Kingsley advertising Santam Insurance. He’s an Oscar winning actor. And he’s advertising insurance. That was a big coup. Lots of US celebs advertise products in Japan, probably because Japan is willing to pay big bucks. They advertise things like cigarettes and booze, things they probably wouldn’t be allowed to endorse in the States, where they have to stick to things like fast-food chains and department stores.

The point is that on TV, radio and print ads the connection between the celebs and the product is obvious. If you saw Bruce Willis advertising a Japanese jewellery store, you’d assume he’d been paid for it. You wouldn’t assume he really liked their watches and did it out of civic mindedness.

But, if Bruce Willis suddenly tweeted about the excellent time keeping on his brand new Japanese jewellery store watch, you wouldn’t be too sure, would you?

It’s entirely possible that he really likes his new watch and wants to share that joy with the world. Or, he might never have seen the watch. He might just have seen a $2000 cheque that necessitated the sharing of his joy.

The problem is that people love celebrities. They want to be like them. So they buy the things celebs buy. They wear the cloths celebs wear. They eat the same food and drive the same cars.

Celebs are gold mine. One positive mention by Kim Kardashian on Twitter and product sales go through the roof. No wonder marketers want to tap into that.

The bottom line is that consumers have to be protected from themselves and not marketers. If they believe that they can have a tiny part of Lady Gaga’s life by using the same perfume as her then perhaps marketers aren’t entirely to blame for exploiting that.

The only way to protect consumers from themselves, however, is to impose rules on marketers. So, the long answer is also yes: the same rules should apply to online and offline marketers.

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