A Space for People of Color, By People of Color. Be Cool.

Some of you who follow me on twitter know that I've been back in school recently and I've been working on a small research paper. It's not the greatest of all the academic papers, but I don't think it's all that bad. I thought some of you might be interested so I thought I would share it with you as a post. So here it is!

SOCIAL JUSTICE AND MARKETING ON TWITTER: THE DANGERS OF COVERT PRODUCT PLACEMENT

Marketers have always known that consumers respond well to their products and brands when they associate them with positive feelings and actions. Many if not all large companies set aside money to give to charity or set up scholarship funds, etc. to ensure they are seen as being 'good' citizens. Often companies will highlight these efforts in advertisements or otherwise draw attention to them hopefully to create or reinforce consumers' positive associations with their company. At the very least it can try to counteract any negative associations with a company which may be involved in distasteful business from time to time.

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Media technology changes though, which means consumer behaviour changes, and over time marketers learn more about social engineering. New techniques for creating positive associations are always being devised. Many of them are not at all altruistic and many are not necessarily benign to the general public. Sometimes active harm is done to people.

Today we live in a time where consumer cynicism is high. Consumers are not easily moved to positive associations with capitalist entities. Marketers must find ways to create a positive association without obviously advertising. For many years, marketers have employed a technique called product placement. Sometimes known by other names such as in-program sponsoring or product integration, product placement describes a marketing tool where a product, logo or other branded material is contextually woven into a media vehicle for the purpose of commercial gain. The idea is that the viewer will get exposed to the brand or product through the natural course of watching the media (Hernadez et al., 2011, p. 2). We see this all over television and the movies. It's been around for a long time. In fact, it's now easily noticed by cynical viewers so it often fails today when used in this way. Product placement thus often takes different forms today.

The media landscape is ever-changing. Today we have new media platforms that have drastically changed the way people interact and therefore the way companies interact with people. Twitter in particular has become hugely popular. With Twitter, companies have been able to interact with a huge number of consumers on a very personal level that was not possible in the past. Marketers have studied twitter and noticed ways in which companies can increase their visibility and positive brand association using it. They have learned that when you find a community on Twitter and get heavily involved in it, when you bring something of value to it, people will follow you and become more aware of your business. If you act in a positive way and have a good time while you're engaging the community, people will have a positive feeling about your company (Weinberg, 2009, pp. 133, 134). Today, every company has a Twitter account and how you interact with your customers on Twitter is very important. If you wish to have a good company presence on Twitter, your success on the platform is reliant on your ability to understand the communities you will be engaging. Twitter has a reputation for having a large social justice minded community. This is not surprising since Twitter has long been very popular with marginalized people.

Much has been written about Black Twitter over the years, for instance. The phenomenon has been noticed for some time and some people have posited that it relies on communication concepts that lend themselves well to known Black cultural elements. For instance, it's been said that the hashtag "…serves triple duty as 'signifier,' 'sign,' and, 'signified,' marking as it does the concept to be signified, the cultural context within which the tweet should be understood, and the 'call' awaiting a response"(Brock, 2012). Each year until 2014, Black people reported being almost twice as likely to use Twitter as white people. In 2014, the rate evened out as more white people then ever began using Twitter that year. The percentage of Black users remained about the same (Duggan et al., 2015). It's worth noting that the overall Twitter usage jumped significantly as well. It's also worth noting that in August 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, a Black teenager was shot by police, which sparked nationwide protests against racism and police brutality which are still ongoing as I write. I firmly believe the jump in overall Twitter users in 2014 was in part due to the desire to follow breaking news from the Black community about this issue. This may point to 2014's sudden jump in numbers being based on inorganic factors. That is to say, white people may have followed Black people to Twitter for a specific reason; they didn't decide to suddenly start using it all on their own. This would make the sudden drastic change in demographics an anomaly.

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So how do you market to a social justice minded community on Twitter anyway? How can you actively engage in such a community that as consumers are already viewing you with suspicion? Several companies have attempted it recently. February is Black History Month and many companies make an effort to brand themselves as diverse and anti-racist during this time. One such company, Hstry, decided to stage an event on their Twitter page. Hstry is a web-based company that is intended for teachers to use to create what they call 'timelines'. A teacher can create a timeline about a certain topic and share it with their students as a learning tool. They sell this service with a subscription model. They also sell learning packages with prebuilt timelines about various historical topics (Hstry, 2015 -a).

For Black History month, Hstry decided to re-live the trial of Emmett Till as told first person through the eyes of his Uncle Moses Wright:

Taking place in a couple of days, on Wednesday February 4 2015 at 5pm (EST), we invite you all to follow our Twitter account (@HstryOrg) as we bring the Murder of Emmett Till and the subsequent court case to life by re-living minute by minute the horrific event from the perspective of Moses Wright. You can follow it all unfold via the hashtags #BHM and#BlackHistoryMonth. Please feel free to share our work with your colleagues and friends.

The timeline is accessible on our website or via our platform where you can share it with your class. (Hstry, 2015 -b, para. 11-12)

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Hashtags are used to get visibility and engagement for your tweets. You choose relevant tags and hopefully your message is seen and engaged with by interested parties. If you are a company on Twitter you get the added bonus of having your brand or company name or product 'placed' (usually in the form of your username) into someone's Twitter timeline.

Most Black people on Twitter were made aware of Hstry on February 4th when it was noticed tweeting under the #BlackHistoryMonth hashtag. In this case, the dialogue went downhill quickly. Hurt and anger were immediately voiced from the Black community. Demands for apologies were made. Many Black people did not wish to re-live minute by minute the horrific event of Emmett Till's lynching. Many were upset that Hstry did not consult the family members before broadcasting a story told in Moses Wright's voice. Hstry alternated between tweeting apologies to outraged Black users and continuing their story for several hours. When it was complete, they deleted the tweets and issued an apology (Hstry, 2015 -c) in which they acknowledged many concerns. Instead of creating a positive association, they had created just the opposite and their marketing efforts ended up hurting people. Perhaps they damaged their reputation with Black people on Twitter, but rarely does a marginalized group's anger effect capitalist endeavours.

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Bigger fish have bigger budgets and better marketing teams. Bell Canada recently used a social justice issue to forward its own marketing efforts. Going one better than piggy backing on an existing hashtag, Bell Canada had the resources to create their own tag and market the hashtag itself on billboards and television, etc. long before they even got to Twitter. Bell created the hashtag #BellLetsTalk, marketed it heavily and on January 28th took to Twitter to talk about mental illness. The advertised purpose was to create a dialog about mental illness and raise money for mental illness initiatives.

Bell's hashtag choice was itself a bit of product placement. It was presumably about mental illness but nowhere was that concept alluded to in the hashtag. The first word however was the name of the company. Bell would first and foremost like you to remember that its name is Bell. Its name is Bell and it is internet savvy and it cares about mental illness. Hashtags are really helpful for brands trying to increase brand visibility. #BellLetsTalk trended on twitter for several days. In every engagement about mental illness that Bell Canada instigated, their brand name was mentioned at least once. Each tweet is seen by all of its writer's followers who in turn respond to and retweet the very good ones, pushing them onto the timelines of the writer's followers' followers and so on and so on. In this way, one mention of Bell's brand name can be seen by a number of unique users that grows exponentially. That is not a mistake or a coincidence. Bell Canada 'bought' product placement from everyone who engaged with the hashtag under the guise of helping raise awareness for mental illness. There are various layers to Bell's product placement on Twitter.

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Bell also ran into trouble on Twitter though. Chief among the charities that Bell Canada intended to raise money for was the Center For Addiction and Mental Health, a very large group of facilities in Toronto, Ontario. This facility has a has a gender identity disorder clinic, which many trans people find very problematic for various good reasons. They took to Twitter to complain, but up against a huge company, such a small group didn't make much of a dent in Bell's plans. Bell is a massive corporation and was already riding goodwill simply from the large campaign advertising their intention to have a conversation. In addition, when your hashtag is your product placement, even angry dissent becomes an ad. Even complaining about how much you hate the tag furthers Bell's goals. Yet again, people were hurt by a capitalist enterprise pushing its way into social justice issues.

A certain amount of people do defend these companies' efforts, however. When others express anger at the company in question, some suggest that others should back off because they perceive the company is just trying to help. Some may be concerned that fewer good deeds will get done if people are worried that others will get angry if the deed is done wrong. People argue about intent. Even within the community that is currently being used for marketing there will be defenses. I saw Black people and queer people on Twitter during the events I described arguing that those who are angry should just back off and stop criticizing because the company is just trying to help. While these arguments come from a good place, they are really apologetic for the companies in the face of the harm they do. I imagine good marketers count on these arguments to shield companies from criticism.

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The truth is though, that some good is probably being done even as some are hurt. There is something to be said for spreading awareness and awareness is likely being spread about important issues in many cases. The question becomes, "Is it worth it?" How much capitalist chaff (hurt community members) is acceptable in relation to the amount of social justice wheat (raised awareness) we receive? "Ultimately, product placements among entertainment firms, corporate brands, and agencies are all monetarily driven, either directly or indirectly"(Hernadez et al., 2011, p. 5). Capitalist enterprises will never be able to genuinely engage in pure altruism on Twitter (maybe anywhere) partly for that reason. As long as we allow capitalism to brand its social justice efforts, we must accept that the efforts come at a cost. By saying that we condone a certain amount of collateral damage in the quest to raise awareness (or achieve any other social justice goal capitalist enterprises may undertake), we accept that we have made unwilling martyrs out of members of our communities. We ask members of our communities to pay the psychological cost of having capitalism running roughshod throughout our spaces.

Certainly, we cannot accept any psychological cost at all. As we saw with Bell Canada, a large enough corporation can and will completely ignore any group small enough not to make an impact if they get in the way of its bottom line. Marginalized people will most often qualify as 'small enough' as they are generally in the minority. Queer people with legitimate complaints were easily ignored by Bell Canada and it will go on its way having gained its benefit regardless. Hstry did not ignore Black complaints completely, but certainly didn't stop tweeting and the story is still available exactly as written on their website (Hstry, 2015 –d). However, their 'after the fact' apology post will provide them with a certain amount of renewed goodwill among certain demographics outside of Twitter even so. After all, their stunt was not intended for the benefit of Black people's education in the first place. Companies always come out of these engagements unscathed or on top, regardless of the level of offense taken on Twitter.

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Any psychological costs associated with these marketing campaigns are always paid by the marginalized, not the companies. The benefits promised never seem to be realized to any appreciable degree. As examined here, sometimes communities are even left worse off than they were before. This behaviour is the very antithesis of the ethics that social justice minded people espouse. Social justice is concerned with trying to give people equality, whereas capitalism is concerned with what it can take from people. These missions can never peacefully coexist. They are at odds with one another at their core.

It is colonialist thinking that accepts human collateral damage in an outsider's quest to mine those same human's resources (whatever they may be). Even if and probably especially if those marginalized people are offered a false currency in return.

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I'm not religious, but there are certain concepts in every religion that I believe are simply good morality. I'm reminded of a passage in The Bible, "So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full" (Matthew. 6:2 New International Version). Truly, the good deed should be reward in itself.

References

Brock, A. (2012). From the blackhand side: Twitter as a cultural conversation. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. Dec. 2012, 529-549. Available from: Academic OneFile, Ipswich, MA. Accessed February 10, 2015.

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Duggan et al. (2015). Social Media Update 2014. Retrieved February 8, 2015, http://www.pewinternet.org/files/2015/01/…

Hernandez, E., Page, R., Petrosky, A., & Williams, K. (2011). Product placement effectiveness: revisited and renewed. Journal of Management and Marketing Research, 7(1), 1-24.

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Hstry. (2015 -a). FEATURES. Retrieved February 11, 2015, http://www.hstry.co/features

Hstry. (2015 -b). The Murder of Emmett Till & Launch of African American History Month. Retrieved February 11, 2015, http://www.hstry.co/blog/the-murde…

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Hstry. (2015 -c). The Emmett Till Twitter Reenactment - Our errors in judgement. Retrieved February 11, 2015, http://www.hstry.co/blog/the-emmet…

Hstry. (2015 -d). THE MURDER OF EMMETT TILL. Retrieved February 11, 2015, http://www.hstry.co/timelines/the-…

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Weinberg, T. (2009). The New Community Rules: Marketing on the Social Web. United States: O'Reilly Media Incorporated.

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