Friendvertising: When your Facebook friends become unpaid marketers

Forget the common cold. Forget bird flu. Forget Sars (oh, you have? Fine). There's a virus spreading whose potency should make us all shudder, and to which many of us are exposed for hours every day.

It gets into our brains. It makes our mouths say other people's words, as if we're ventriloquists' dummies. It leaves us confused about our own identity, so we put our names to other people's faces. It makes us complicit in the deception of those we love and trust. I'm unsure of its Latin name, but I know what the advertising industry calls it: friendvertising.

The idea is that friends become "influential brand enthusiasts" (unpaid, of course). Advertisers know we're all weary of having our web-browsing interrupted by cars speeding across a screen or garish videos popping up whenever we unwittingly hover a mouse in the wrong place. And they know that we're more likely to trust our friends than corporations. So they make content that is designed to be shared on social media.

Relationships that we've built up over decades suddenly become conduits for a remote corporation's message. This is bad enough when the ad in question is straightforward and honest in its intention, but it's usually a different sort that creates what marketers call "buzz". (A more apt word would be "hiss", as cockroaches do.)

There's a ghastly tendency for corporations to disguise their true purpose, crafting short films purporting to further a socially beneficial aim. The most shared ad of 2013 was Dove's Real Beauty Sketches. It's all about self-image and is part of its Campaign for Real Beauty, asserting that all sorts of bodies can be beautiful, unlike those nasty adverts for, say, Lynx. Funny then that both products are made by the same company. It's as if, I don't know, they're just telling us what we want to hear, and don't actually care a jot about any of this stuff, and that the whole thing is a stunt born of the darkest cynicism.

Almost as disingenuous was the appearance, just before Christmas, of a video promoting Canadian airline WestJet. We were led to believe that it bought presents for its passengers purely out of kindness. But those things coming down the chute onto the conveyor belt at the end weren't gifts – they were corporate investments. It wasn't an act of generosity, but an attempt to gain undeserved goodwill by spending a pinprick of their profits ($65.1-million in the third quarter of 2013 alone) on mere tokens of affection. They probably spent Christmas laughing at us from behind piles of cash as we shared this visual soma with each other.

Another advert from Coca-Cola doing the rounds at the moment is particularly nauseating. It's a supposed celebration of family life, depicting the joys and travails undergone by new parents. Yet given the corporation's history of child exploitation in its supply chain and its products' effects on children's teeth, it leaves a bad taste.

But, you may say, so what? If these videos make us feel better for a few moments, where's the harm? To which I would reply: wouldn't you look at Fozzie Bear a bit differently if you knew the strings were being pulled by Daniel Plainview?

It could certainly be argued that the moment we join Facebook, we're working as unpaid writers and photographers for a vast, multibillion-dollar advertising platform, whatever we choose to share. And it's hardly new to say that advertisers are cynical. But there is something contemptuous in the way that we and our friendships are currently being treated; the way our lives and likes are being interfered with by a pernicious marketing strategy demands resistance.

The good news is that we can all do something about it. We can all decide not to join in. We can watch or share a friend's song or video or blogpost instead. We can kill this advertising virus – and we'll feel all the better for it. – © Guardian News and Media 2014 

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These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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