Dispatches: ‘Celebs, Brands & Fake Fans’ – SSDD?

I confess I missed the first half of the Dispatches programme on Channel 4 last night, but when I tuned in to see the producers setting up a fake brand called ‘Puttana Aziendale’ (which means corporate whore in Italian), I had to watch the second half.

The episode should be available on 4oD soon, and it’s worth a watch if you get chance. Dispatches lifted the lid on the ‘black hat’, unregulated scamming that goes on within the social media sector, with brands and agencies taking advantage by creating falsely bloated Facebook fan number, Twitter followers and celebrity endorsements.

For me, Dispatches didn’t reveal anything we don’t already know. Social Media is still in it’s infancy, and so are the ASA and CAP regulations. There simply is no regulating body big enough to check every tweet, post or comment, and arguably there never will be.

Here’s what we already knew;

  • There are many fake accounts on Twitter and Facebook
  • There are companies out there who do nothing but set up and manage fake accounts and profiles, with the idea of making money from it
  • Many brands sign up to schemes (unknowingly or not) to boost their Facebook fans and Twitter followers
  • There are rogue Social Media players that will take advantage of points 1 – 3 above
  • Celebrities and endorsements can have a huge impact on interaction rates and followers

Here’s what we, as digital marketers, should worry about;

  • In March 2011, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) expanded the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) to cover the digital sector. We expected a tougher regulatory regime for all online activity, and in fairness, the ASA has clamped down on many ‘unethical’ practices….so far. The problem is that whilst the ASA have made inroads to catch naughty, unlawful campaigns,  no-one could have predicted the Social Media boom that would take off at the end of 2010. That opened a very large can of worms, that has become very difficult to control and govern. The ASA and CAP code exist to uphold the key principles of fair advertising: that every campaign is legal, decent, honest and truthful. What we saw last night was a long way from any of those traits.
  • Digital marketers, brands, agencies and celebrities need to be careful of the competitive claims they make in public. We can’t mislead consumers. If we’re advertising on behalf of a brand, we need to disclose that a tweet / press release / widget / competition etc is for, or on behalf of that brand. Disclosure is one of the main areas we need to focus on, especially around the area of Social Media and celebrity posts and endorsements. Last nights programme showed a huge failing in that area.
  • A major concern for me is that some brands still focus on Facebook fan numbers and Twitter followers growth as KPIs. Dispatches showed how easy that is to manipulate, and it sends a shiver down my spine to think that there isn’t a bigger focus on building genuine brand loyalty, engagement rates (with real fans and followers), advocacy and overall digital attribution.
  • My biggest concern however, was that whilst this was nothing new to most people in the digital marketing industry, it was a peek over the fence for the wider public. What they saw was not a good representation of the Social Media landscape, nor the agencies that work in it.

Let’s not forget, the CAP code began to cover digital partly because of pressure from consumer groups wishing to build public trust in online marketing.  Whilst last night exposed some wrongdoers, I just hope the general public don’t taint us with the same brush.

You can see all the latest ASA rulings at http://www.asa.org.uk/

You can also check how many fake Twitter followers you have by using this nice little tool – http://fakers.statuspeople.com/

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