Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Influencing The Influencers

The use of Influencers is an attempt to co-opt word-of-mouth.

NOTE:  I started this post before I wrote the last posting on passives and actives.  In retrospect, this is a better follow-on to my last posting.

Advertising has changed so much since I was a kid.  Back then, advertisements were quite obvious. On the radio and television, they were loud and jarring and quite clearly labeled as advertisements. Sometimes they would try to be funny or clever to attract your attention, but for the most part people found them to be annoying.

Print advertisements were clearly demarcated from the rest of a publication.  Today, this is, of course, less so.   Nevertheless, most publications will place the word "advertisement" above or below and ad that may be disguised to appear as content.

Of course, these traditional forms of advertising still exist today, but I believe they are a dying breed. A new, insidious form of advertising is taking over, particularly aimed at the younger generation. Rather than buying ad time on the radio or television or space in print media, or even ads on social networking sites, advertisers are buying people, instead.

I noted before that not a day goes by that I don't get some email from someone suggesting that they will pay me a few dollars or give me a free product if I endorse their company or link to their website in my blog. They're hoping that I will sell my credibility for a few dollars in order to attract customers for them.

But that is small potatoes.   Influencers, as they are called, can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year - or even millions - by promoting products on their social media pages.

For the most part, these influencers are younger people and the products they are pitching are aimed at a young audience.  Gamers in particular are targeted, using influencers who are themselves popular Gamers who have their own YouTube channels, blogs, and social media accounts where they discuss gaming techniques and the like.  A positive word buy one of these superstar gamers can make or break the release of a new video game.

The fashion world is another area where influencers are used to promote products, particularly to young people. Young starlets, or in some cases, the children of movie stars and celebrities, will promote products on their social media pages and the like. They are paid directly for these product endorsements and can earn a nice living at it.

But even on a small scale, influencers exist.  You are a young college student, and are surprised to get an invite from one of the popular kids on campus to a party at a local bar, introducing a new trendy liquor that you've seen advertised in the "alternative paper".   You think maybe your social circle is finally improving - but you'd be wrong.   Liquor merchants and other people selling crap to college kids use "micro-influencers" to try to rope in more customers.  And often, all they have to do to achieve this is to offer the micro-influencer a few dollars, a few free drinks, or a case of crappy liquor.

At first, this sort of below-the-radar advertising seems somewhat insidious. It is somewhat like product placement in movies these days - where the product label for a beverage is placed squarely facing the camera. Whenever you see a brand name of a product appear in a movie or television show, you know money has changed hands.  If one of the main stars of the program uses the product, comments on it, or even mentions it by name, you know that major money has changed hands.

I was watching an episode of Jay Leno's garage (The YouTube channel version, not the crappy "TeeVee" show with fast cuts and shitty overdubs) which featured one of the Back to the Future DeLorean cars.  Jay was interviewing one of the writers for that movie, and he mentioned that one of the network movie studio executives wanted to change to a different make of car because the manufacturer would have paid them $75,000 to include the car in the movie.  In the greater scheme of things, $75,000 isn't a lot of money, but it does help pay for the cost of making a movie.   Throw in enough product placements, you might be able to cover an awful lot of your costs.

The funny thing is, when we watch a movie and see a product used by name, most of us figure out that product placement has taken place.  In a similar manner, most people who follow these influencers are well aware that they are paid shills for various industries.  In fact, the fact that these people are being paid to promote products is usually mentioned in the press.  It is hard to "follow" an influencer and not realize you are basically following a living advertisement.

What got me started on this was an article recently appeared about a young gamer who was paid a million dollars to promote a new video game.  He's considered a major influencer in the video game arena, and his endorsement of the game - even at the cost of a million bucks - was deemed a worthwhile investment.   Hey, if a million kids out there buy a copy of the game, it is worthwhile, right?   Beats advertising on television!

In another recent article, two of the children of a famous celebrity - who was arrested as part of the college admissions bribery scandal - were noted as being paid influencers online.  Keen, young attractive people are idolized and "followed" by other kids online.  Whatever the influencer says to do or buy - they do.  Or buy.

This whole influencer thing is sort of like professional wrestling.  If you go and ask the people at the professional wrestling association whether the wrestling is faked, they would be right up front that it is.  Who wins and who loses each match is determined in advance - as evidenced by their own scheduling which shows the expected winners of each show.  And while there is a lot of athletic ability and real chance of injury that can occur during each match, much of the violence is actually staged stunts and carefully performed to avoid serious injury.  You really can't hit somebody over the head with a steel folding chair - in real life - and not give them a major concussion.

So it is somewhat ironic that these influencers have any influence at all.  Why would anyone follow a celebrity or star or famous gamer and follow their advice when they know this advice is bought and paid for?

Perhaps there are number of reasons, some of them being psychological.  I noted before that people seem to be sheep most of the time and want to be told what to do.  People seek out direction in situations where there are unfamiliar.  You go to a party or a conference and a bunch of people are milling around who don't know each other.  No one knows quite what to do, but if you make it clear there is some sort of procedure or processes to be followed, people will fall into line rather quickly as it makes them feel more comfortable.

I noted before in an earlier posting that in terms of vacationing, many resort owners know about this effect. They create a series of activities for the guests, so the guests have a comfort level of knowing what's expected of them.  And what's expected of them is they take their wallet out and pay money for something - over and over again.  Disney is genius at this.

So maybe comfort level is part of this effect.  People will follow an influencer even though they know the influencer is really a shill for some advertiser.  They want to be told what to do, what product to consume, what style or fashion to wear or what video game to play.  No one wants to be that lamer who bought the wrong video game or the ugly girl who wore the wrong dress or used the wrong makeup.  And given that these insecurities are the highest among young people, it's no surprise that these influencers are used mostly to target youth audiences.

Of course, the influencers know that their credibility is their livelihood. So if they accept a huge amount of money to promote something that is a dud, it could end up killing their career.  Thus, for example, if the gamer recommends a really horrible game and everyone hates it (e.g. a modern version of the ET video game), no one will listen to him in the future.  Similarly, if the fashion Diva recommends a line of clothing or accessories that end up wildly unpopular, no one will listen to her advice in the future.

So perhaps even though these people are being paid, and often well paid, the consumers who are following them still follow their advice because they realize that the influencer has to preserve their credibility and would not likely accept payment to promote a product they knew was inferior or would be unpopular.  The influencer has influence so long as he has influence.  Once he loses influence, he is, by definition, no longer an influencer.

It is a very interesting new form of advertisement to be sure.  Certainly, in the past, we had celebrities endorsing products, but that was not quite the same thing. When Groucho Marx interrupted his television show You Bet Your Life to exhort us to go visit our local DeSoto dealer, we didn't really believe that Groucho was doing this out of the kindness of his heart but because the DeSoto people were paying him.  We also didn't believe that a comedian had a special insight as to what car we should buy.  Nevertheless, in the past, we gave great credence to the endorsements by celebrities, actors, and professional athletes.

But therein lies the difference.  In the past, these paid endorsements were quite clearly endorsements much as the advertisements in the past were clearly demarcated as advertisements. Today, influencers are often celebrities not based on athletic achievement or acting ability, but merely celebrities by dint of being influencers.  The influencer becomes a celebrity by dint of being an influencer, which in turns bootstraps his celebrity.

Today, you could become a professional influencer, where your only qualification is your ability to endorse things

Of course, it is not always clear whether someone is being paid as an influencer or not.  And increasingly, the line is being blurred, particularly on the internet, where the mere mention of a product in a major news article or popular video can drive up sales.  We're never certain as to whether we are being shilled or not.

The classic example is the card game Cards Against Humanity.  Back when I was reading Reddit on a regular basis - a very bad habit that you should absolve yourself of - I saw references to the card game Cards Against Humanity.  The references were not direct pitches to buy the game.  Rather, they were inferences about the game, talking about it as if everybody already knew about it.  Only someone who is completely out of the loop or a lamer would not know about this game, so everyone pretended to go along with it.

It was one of those crowdfunded deals, I believe, and they were successful in selling it, at least initially.  And of course, I fell for the entire thing and went out and bought a copy of the game online. We played it a few times and it was kind of fun - for a while.  But then it ended up on a shelf and was never played again - which is probably the fate of most board games and card games or the like.

And while I enjoyed playing the game a few times with friends, I can't help but feel that I was influenced by those postings on Reddit, which were probably carefully placed to induce me to get me to buy that card game.  And that is one of the many reasons I no longer peruse Reddit, as I feel that most of the postings on there are designed to manipulate me or manipulate my opinions, by making subtle - or not-so-subtle - product placements or mentions.

Of course, you could argue that that's the point of all communications - to manipulate people - get them to act, get them to change their mind.  Indeed, my very blog here expounding my own hot air philosophies could be construed as an attempt to  change people's minds about things.  It is, of course. not very effective, which is why I'm only offered $15 to be an influencer.

But I think it's more than that.  I think our society has changed to some extent, in part because of the internet, in part because of social networking, in part because of the smartphone, and in part because of how we have changed as people.   Modern electronic communications have made us more and more skeptical of the world.  Blatant advertising appeals to fewer and fewer people these days, and subliminal advertising perhaps is it more effective way of getting into our heads.

And that's the unsettling thing.  A lot of people are complaining about the antics of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica and what goes on on Twitter and Instagram and whatever.  People are alarmed by how the cell phone has changed our behavior - to the point where people literally walk into lamp posts because they're so engrossed in an alternative digital reality that they fail to appreciate the real world around them. Or worse yet, people are motivated to shoot up a mosque or join ISIS based on a  YouTube video or an 8chan posting.  We sense that something is off and that something is going wrong, but it's hard to put our finger on it.

Influencers are not the problem, merely a symptom of the problem.  They are merely a data point on a chart or graph showing a trend or a direction in which we are headed.  How to stop this trend, or at least divert it, is hard to say.   Should social media channels be regulated the way television stations were?  Should an influencer be required to divulge they are paid to influence (and would it make any difference?).   Or will people adapt to this new reality and take influencers with a grain of salt?

It is hard to say.

Perhaps, in the future, instead of our 15 minutes of fame as predicted by Andy Warhol, we each will have our 15 minutes of influence.
Maybe that is where we are headed.

Just bear in mind that the influencers are mere puppets - and that they themselves have influencers influencing them, usually with dollars.   That is where the real power lies.