Lawmakers in the U.K. recently announced new and stringent regulations concerning word-of-mouth marketing online, scheduled to go into effect on May 26. What does it mean? Brands who hire reps to knowingly promote a product or service online without explicitly identifying themselves as marketers are subject to fines, and, in some cases, prison. Same applies to bloggers who write about a product or service without disclosing they are being paid to do so. Wow.
In other words, companies who hire people to pose as consumers online in favor of a particular brand, product, or service are no longer seen as witty, clever, or smart. As for whether they were witty, clever, or smart in the first place, consider the long-time debate concerning ethics and transparency in marketing, and you’ll soon realize it is all up for grabs.
Onward, although the impending restrictions govern online marketing exclusively, these laws seem to suggest a future where similar restrictions could be applied to brick-and-mortar tactics, and, if such laws came to fruition, how would they be enforced? Well, before I wax poetic on the deeper meaning of marketing or explain why ethics and values are the cornerstone of any successful branding effort, blah blah blah, let’s consider this question. It’s a big one.
Let’s take you and your new iPhone, for example. Say you travel to London to spend time with a girl you met on MySpace who seems just amazing enough to warrant a hellish flight in a cramped plane, and, while you are there, you run into your old college roommate from NYU, the Brit who drank coffee instead of tea, liked pop Country instead of pop punk, and somehow managed to to alienate everyone with his freakishly strong and unintelligible accent. So you and your roommate, the Brit, are sitting there in a pub and sharing a pint and you whip out your iPhone to show him a few pictures of the mystery girl you’re destined to meet, excitedly describing your illicit plans when, BAM, all of a sudden, police sirens. Handcuffs. The muffled sound of walkie-talkies working hard to decide your fate.
Sound ridiculous? It is. Still, the above is one of the many far-flung scenarios that come to mind when considering the implications of new and impossibly broad laws. Clearly I don’t have enough information at my disposal to understand how such a law would actually work, and maybe the reality is it will never get that far. What I can tell you is guerrilla marketing that employs word-of-mouth tactics can be risky, for the ambassador, and the brand. While running the Central Region street marketing campaign for one of Nokia’s hand-held devices several years ago, more than one of my reps in places like Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Fort Worth, were harassed, kicked out, and, in one worst case scenario, temporarily jailed, for a various string of defenses running the gamut from things as innocent as “loitering” to the much harder-to-pin-down “you trickered us.” In almost all cases of unfortunate consequence, our reps were not wearing their Nokia-branded t-shirts, hats, and wristbands, or carrying their Nokia-branded backpacks – and that is likely because people were more inclined to listen to a messenger they didn’t believe was employed by a brand.
At the end of the day, the street campaign saw much success. Did the unplanned lack of transparency on certain levels hurt the brand in the long run? Hard to say, hard to tell. The bottom line? Brands in the UK are no longer being trusted to make these decisions for themselves, at least in the online sphere. And until we know what exactly what the Brits plan to do when they find a could-be-consumer-or-could-be-undercover-marketer “lolling” online while touting the benefits of their brand-new INSERT LATEST HOT PRODUCT NAME HERE, be careful with whom you talk.