“Virgin Media are coming to install superfast broadband this morning. I hope this will stop me feeling like digging a shallow hole and burying myself in it.” This was the message I parped onto Twitter one morning earlier this year. It was an honest reflection of my feelings about a summer that, with its combination of relentless rain, the Jubilee and the Olympics, I had come to regard as cursed. I didn’t expect a response, so I was a little surprised when, later that day, Virgin Media got back to me. Their message read ‘@notvoodoo So do we!’.
Now, this is obviously a flagrant lie. Virgin Media do not care if I inter myself in a hastily dug hole. They probably don’t even have a policy on customers burying themselves, so long as it doesn’t interfere with their direct debit arrangement. And it wasn’t Richard Branson making the call on this one, it was their social media manager, probably some hapless 23-year-old charged with updating their Twitter account.
This function is quite like what DM agencies used to call CRM, or Customer Relationship Management, but on Twitter it’s a step closer to advertising, branded behaviour taking place in public.
And this is a problem you see, because it screws with one of advertising’s central fictions. Agencies have always tried to create relationships between consumers and brands, but they were just that: creations, concoctions of words and pictures designed to produce the impression of a personality in the mind of the viewer. It was no accident that these personalities were often humorous or intelligent, the kind of personalities you could care about, and might expect to care about you in return. The agencies made them that way because in reality our relationship with them was one-sided. Aside from an encounter with a sales rep, maybe the odd mail-shot, my ‘relationship’ with a brand was effectively something I did alone with the product, like a lonely person talking to a spoon.
It seems like the best social media campaigns are good precisely because they acknowledge this new crack in advertising’s fourth wall.
The new Bodyform video, The Truth, is an advert about advertising. In it the alleged CEO of Bodyform apologises for misleading men with all those images of women skydiving and rollerblading, bringing us back to the reality of “blood coursing from our uteri like a crimson landslide”. It’s a smart idea which acknowledges that many of marketing’s biggest lies are only possible so long as the consumer is never permitted to call us on them. That said, the things that make this particular spot work are a funny script and great lead performance. Maybe the best social media isn’t so different from TV after all.
But it’s certainly a long way from the social media manager’s role. Pity them: fledgling copywriters forced to man a complaints desk, located at the centre of a baying mob, with nothing to protect themselves but a Tone of Voice document. Who can blame them if they make other forms of advertising look sincere?
‘Gordon Comstock’ is an ad creative based in London. He tweets at @notvoodoo