Back in 2006, a year still young in the Web 2.0 era, Laura and Jim set off cross-country in their new RV and chronicled the journey on a blog. They pitched camp in Walmart lots across the heartland and posted photos and vignettes from the road, including chipper portraits of the employees they encountered along the way.
What went largely unsaid was that a public-relations firm representing Walmart stores had sponsored the entire trip. They were "Wal-Marting Across America," as the blog was called, on the retailer's dime.
Modern marketers desperately want to fit in - into our blogs, our Twitter feeds, our YouTube uploads and our status updates. Social media, they suspect, convey authenticity. And no quality is more coveted for advertising than authenticity. A 30-second commercial comes off as affected, but a Facebook posting seems artless.
Hoping to capitalize on this perception, companies are turning to guerrilla marketing like this - word-of-mouth campaigns, increasingly via social media, in which putatively objective people happen to suggest a certain product they've tried and loved. According to one estimate, 85 percent of the biggest marketers in the U.S. are now using some sort of word-of-mouth component in their campaigns. BzzAgent, the largest provider of such services, at one point boasted a half-million volunteers who were reporting back to the company on such conversations.
These strategies owe a distant debt to the pioneers of public relations, like Edward Bernays. As Stuart Ewen recounts in "PR! A Social History of Spin," Bernays organized "organic" movements and staged pseudo-events to seem spontaneous, hoping to give a bottom-up sheen to top-down marketing campaigns by politicians and corporations.
For instance, by orchestrating a "Torches of Freedom" march, where early feminists held cigarettes aloft to symbolize equality aspirations, Bernays managed to yoke women's liberation to the tobacco industry's aims. In another sly example, Bernays persuaded physicians to recommend a particular bacon brand to their patients.
The crux of spin, then as now, is to plant persuasion through an intermediary who seems neutral and trustworthy. As Bernays wrote, some 80 years ago, "If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway."
The success of this strategy wasn't lost on other marketers. The use of "brand evangelists" goes as far back as the 1920s, when Macy's cleared out an inventory of white gloves by hiring elegant women to don them on subway trains to stir up conversation. Avon and Tupperware have used women's friendships and social capital to push their products for almost as long as the companies have existed.
And teens have long been exploited for "peer-to-peer marketing." In the 1930s, young girls were recruited and paid to scream themselves into a tizzy to hype up Frank Sinatra. Two decades later, Hires Root Beer targeted popular girls to introduce their classmates to the soda at parties and to record their feedback. Converse, in the 1980s, started "seeding" its sneakers among the "in-crowd" at California high schools.
In the past decade, however, "real-life product placement" has exploded, partly because we've gone from consuming content mostly produced and distributed by media professionals, to content co-created and spread by amateurs. And the more of our lives we spend on Twitter and Facebook, the more marketers will try to reach us there. As Ted Murphy, the founder and chief executive officer of one "social media influencer" firm, emblematically explained to me, "This is the natural evolution of marketing. If you're saying that media is moving to the people, well, if the people are now creating all the media, then the people become the platform."
And as the people become the platform, the marketing industry is undergoing some profound shifts. Most visibly, the roles of advertising and public relations are blurring. The vibrant and participatory online culture that has developed in the past decade - a landscape of Pinterest boards, WordPress journals, TripAdvisor reviews and YouTube commentary - means that clients are demanding more and more word-of-mouth and social-media campaigns from their public-relations reps. And as those campaigns supplement, or even replace, conventional advertising, independent PR firms have become ripe acquisition targets.
The crucial question for the future of the business (and culture) is whether these social-media spaces can retain the feeling of authenticity that marketers find so valuable. Buzz marketing is fueled by the slick logic of "social capitalism," in which friendship becomes a commodity like any other, and online influence gets sized up for exploitation. But as much as certain management gurus like to gush, no one wants to be friends with a brand.
Michael Serazio is an assistant professor of communication at Fairfield University.