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October 28, 2010
Looking for Transparency in Marketing? Sorry, There’s Nothing There

Consumers may want it, but marketers and brands will never reveal all
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about our hyperconnected world, it’s that things are getting really weird out there. You really need a strong filter to figure out what’s real and what isn’t, and the lines are becoming ever more blurred.
Amidst all this, people are calling for transparency -- in marketing, media, politics, and business. Good luck finding any.
In the last few weeks, we’ve seen articles claiming that Facebook sells user information to app makers. We saw millions of dollars being poured in to our elections -- and if the sources of the lucre weren’t completely anonymous, the money was filtered through some nebulous-sounding organizations. A putrid video circulated reportedly showing how chicken nuggets are really made. Those are just for starters. No one appears to know the truth, or if they do, they have their own version of it. There’s no transparency there.
Does there need to be transparency? How much is the full truth or full disclosure worth to you? 
Many people think marketing needs to be transparent. We’d like it to be, but it’s not. For example, plenty of marketers play the news media for suckers and get free PR by feeding stories and promoting their wares under the guise of news. As consumers, we accept this.
Companies and marketers aren’t in the business of being transparent. In a lot of cases, they’re simply incapable of being completely truthful. Corporations will do what it takes to protect their images and their profits.
Think of the type of products you buy. Who makes your clothing? Who grows your food? Who assembled your iPhone? Chances are, you don’t know. That’s OK. Most people really don’t want to know. It’s also the kind of information that overwhelms people when they start contemplating it. They have other, more personally relevant things to worry about.
This lack of full disclosure may not appear to be a big deal, and it certainly isn’t going to result in any sort of consumer uprising. The truth is, it may not matter whether Facebook apps use your information or not. You may never be harmed by that. But what makes it so insidious is that you’re never sure what’s really happening behind closed doors in business or politics, and uncertainty is quite the opposite of transparency.
And social media, that bastion of engagement and openness, is ripe with obfuscation. Hotel owners are threatening legal action over consumer-generated TripAdvisor reviews that may or may not be defamatory -- showing there can be real harm to business in the name of customer feedback. Also, BP’s PR division and the “new” Gap Logo had highly active Twitter accounts -- ah, but they were fake accounts holding real conversations. Now, of course, most observers can see the facetiousness at work and they can play along, but it shows how social media can add a muddled layer of confusion to a brand. I’m sure neither BP nor The Gap were happy to see people play along.
As marketers, what can we do to promote transparency? After all, it’s true that consumers often appreciate the effort when it’s made. That won’t be good enough for corporations. We’ll need to prove that consumers want it and reward transparency -- and we’ll need to demand that our clients embrace it, not just in their marketing efforts but in their business practices as a whole.
Companies of all kinds need to increase the human contact with customers as much as possible. It’s harder to fake or obscure something when real people are the face of it. Keep clients, marketers, and the agencies behind their efforts accessible. And marketers should try, as much as possible, not to hide behind a singular, impersonal corporate voice. Comcast was reviled (and still is to many), but when Frank Eliason became the face of their customer service on Twitter, the facade of anonymity was shattered, and it helped the company.
I think it’s a good idea for companies to connect customers to the people who make or support the products. We’re seeing an increase in the extreme opposites of this phenomenon these days. More and more local,  so-called “artisan” types of foods and products get a higher profile. Companies that live and do business primarily on the Web can get real-time feedback and adjust their business accordingly. Yet for the world of products at large, the supply chain is getting longer and longer, and we’re more removed than ever from the people who make what we consume.
No matter what advertising and PR professionals try to do to increase transparency, it’s gonna get weirder. As digital media becomes more easily manipulated, and half-truths and falsehoods get instant, worldwide dissemination, we’ll see more videos get doctored and appear on the news. We’ll see more photos being altered. We’ll see people spin the truth to reflect any narrative they want. And while we’ll see some marketers embrace a transparent way of doing business, we’ll see more global corporations cover their tracks to protect themselves.
Well, at least that’s what I see happening. The future of transparency in our business just isn’t very clear. 

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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