Tag Archives: Wal-Mart

Fighting Social Media Storms

As a Wal-Mart executive noted at a recent marketing conference, “the customer is in control,” meaning individuals now have social media power to disrupt a marketing campaign.

The recent uproar about data mining on Facebook and elsewhere can easily leave us with the impression that consumers not only have little privacy, but that they are also pawns in the hands of shrewd marketers. There is truth to these fears.  Online users do have less privacy; and sometimes we are the victims of campaigns that can seem to make us easy marks.  Russian online disinformation is, without doubt, a serious threat to our sovereignty.  But as is true with so many claims about advertising and marketing, we often assume an organization or company has more control than is actually the case.  Like all of us, advertisers have been brought low of internet contagion that sabotages their best efforts.

For example, several years ago the marketing staff managing the beer Bud Light decided to tinker with the labeling. Building on a campaign running in multiple media and using the slogan, “Up for Whatever,” the label on some products was redesigned to include an additional hashtag and bold letter wording that said “The Perfect Beer for Removing ‘No’ From Your Vocabulary for the Night.” Obviously, the campaign was meant to appear relevant and responsive to quips that fly between users of social media. But since beer drinkers are often younger adults, it might have been expected that a social media backlash could result. And it did. Complaints poured in. Anheuser-Busch-InBev was forced to formally apologize, acknowledging heightened sensitivities about unwanted sexual advances abetted by too much alcohol, especially on college campuses. New York Congresswoman Nita Lowey was one of many Americans to express their displeasure on Twitter. She asked followers to write the company “if you agree” that the “Up for Whatever” “campaign should promote responsible—not reckless—drinking.” Her hashtag was #NoMeansNo. In a follow-up e-mail to the New York Times she noted that “We need responsible companies to help us tackle these serious public health and safety problems, not encourage them.” That was enough for an Anheuser representative to admit that “the message missed the mark, and we regret it.”

The Customer is now in control.

To be sure, this was a small moment in the nation’s busy marketing landscape. But it is representative of how quickly a campaign that seeks to tie itself into social media can go off the rails. As a Wal-Mart executive noted at a recent marketing conference, “the customer is in control,” meaning that individuals now have the social media power to disrupt a marketing campaigns that might have once unfolded with no mechanisms for immediate public rejection.

With this view in mind, a couple of short observations:

  • Trump the tweeter may his own worst enemy.  When the  time between a thought and its dissemination is nearly simultaneous, there are bound to be unanticipated and unwanted effects.  His tweets are like firecrackers landing at the feet of revelers.  A few may be delighted; most others are horrified.
  • Strong opinions made anonymously generally deserve their fate of quickly disappearing in the internet maw.
  • The old adage to never argue with an organization that buys ink by the barrel is no longer so accurate.  Quarreling with a media outlet carries fewer risks.
  • All of us want to believe–and most marketing organizations sell the idea–that there are clear pathways to managing public opinion.  But social media contagion can be triggered by nearly anyone from almost any corner of the culture.

 

 

 

What Counts as Genuine Persuasion?

Bill Lumbergh in Office Space
Gary Cole’s Bill Lumbergh in the film, Office Space

When there are differences of opinion, the richest forms of communication still allow those with contrasting views to walk away, without penalties. 

The word “persuasion” is the preferred term to identify moments when one individual or group attempts to alter the beliefs or behaviors of another.  But the word is frequently misused, especially if one “persuader” has used extra-verbal inducements to get what he or she wants. It’s interesting that when Aristotle wrote his own study of persuasion 2500 years ago, he noted that the use of knives and torture counted as “inartistic” forms of influence.  He didn’t miss much.  He would no doubt marvel at the additional bludgeons we moderns use to threaten physical or psychological harm.  The modern equivalent of torture might be the denial of fair compensation, extortion, the possibility of a bad job review.  The ways we can cow each other are nearly endless.

Properly used, “Persuasion” occurs when an individual freely assents to what another asks. No coercion. No risk of retribution.  No organizational advantage has figured in the outcome.  Everything else that may look like persuasion is really what could be called  “compliance-gaining,” as when a boss “asks” an employee to work late.

This is not just an academic distinction with little real-world application.  The difference actually matters. To fully understand persuasion we need to know who or what is actually doing the heavy lifting. The use of threats, power or position are all coercive, a fact that takes away a receiver’s opportunity to truly exercise their own judgment. 

As a student of this subject, I’m not especially interested in the idea of compliance. In communication terms  there’s not that much going on.  There’s no grace in using force or a power advantage.  In such cases the unequal distribution of power does most of the work.  It’s like shooting animals within a fenced game reserve.  It’s easily done, but not very sporting.

What is interesting is how we manage to perpetuate the delusion of free choice. My impression is that managers often see themselves as having a knack for engaging with employees, as with the smarmy Bill Lumbergh in the iconic film, Office Space (1999).  The soul-destroying demands made by Gary Cole’s character are covered in a sticky syrup of forced collegiality. Lumbergh may believe he has the pulse of the office, but the film knows better.  As this clip from U-tube shows, he doesn’t have a clue.

Office Space – Working Tomorrow

Scene from Office Space

By contrast, there’s real pleasure in participating in communication where every side retains the right to walk away with no penalties. That fulfills our faith in a democratic values, especially another person’s right to their opinion. That’s why democracies are called “open societies.”

The problem is the indiscriminate mixing of persuasion and compliance-gaining as more or less the same thing . For example, journalist Steven Greenhouse misses the point when he notes in a recent Atlantic article that Wal-Mart “persuades” its employees to be anti-union. What his otherwise useful reporting actually describes is pure coercion. Try and unionize and you are simply out of a job, or your unit is shut down. Similarly, courses and texts in “leadership” often trade heavily in the language of equal-to-equal communication, ignoring explicit organizational hierarchies.  All of this is represented in phrases like “team-building” and “group problem-solving:” the kinds of things we are likely to hear from faux-egalitarians like Lumbergh.

No one wants to be the apparent autocrat issuing orders. Most of us would like to be seen as good listeners open to the ideas of others.  But openness needs to be earned by accepting the right of an audience member to say no, without penalties.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu