The Hidden (in Plain Sight) Persuaders
December 5, 2004 10:13 AM   Subscribe

The Hidden (in Plain Sight) Persuaders It's not hard to understand why corporations would try "word of mouth" marketing campaigns to promote their products. But why would regular people volunteer to turn their daily interactions into marketing moments? (NYT - requires free registration)
posted by ericb (45 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"[BzzAgent]'s agents are not screened. They are not chosen. They simply sign up. They are all kinds of people, all over the country."...."Do we really want a world where every conversation about a product might be secretly tied to a word-of-mouth ''campaign''? Doesn't that kind of undermine, you know, the fabric of social discourse?"
posted by ericb at 10:22 AM on December 5, 2004

This is why I take people's advice with a grain of delicious Morton™ salt.
posted by fleetmouse at 10:23 AM on December 5, 2004

"Nevertheless, Jason Desjardins has told a few people about his efforts for BzzAgent, with mixed results. Some people thought it sounded exciting. Others, however, said they felt 'used.' One friend he tried to recruit now responds with suspicion when Desjardins talks up something he has done: 'Are you buzzing me?' the friend will ask. Desjardins shrugs. 'I've been honest about everything.' "
posted by ericb at 10:24 AM on December 5, 2004

registration free link
posted by Grod at 10:24 AM on December 5, 2004

why would regular people volunteer

are you kidding? because in a society that worships consumption, this is like becoming a martyr for allah or one of god's saints. for surely they will be welcomed in paradise and showered with glorious possessions for service toward advancing the kingdom.
posted by quonsar at 10:28 AM on December 5, 2004 finding thousands of takers, perfectly willing to use their own creativity and contacts to spread the good news about, for instance, Al Fresco sausage, it [BzzAgent] has turned commercial influence into an open-source project. It could be thought of as not just a marketing experiment but also a social experiment. The existence of tens of thousands of volunteer marketing ''agents'' raises a surprising possibility -- that we have already met the new hidden persuaders, and they are us.
I find this comparision troublesome. There is a huge difference between an open source collaboration and becoming a corporate tool.
posted by Grod at 10:31 AM on December 5, 2004

I'm reading Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson, and there is a woman in it who is paid to go out to clubs to chat to members of the opposite sex and mention something favourably. Not so that they will buy it, but might pass on this recommendation to others. Although she starts to suspect people when they talk about something they like.

The book isn't very good though (reverse marketing which will lure someone more respected on here to argue in favour of it).
posted by Navek Rednam at 10:35 AM on December 5, 2004

Eurgh. Such friends'd not be my friends for long. Of course by it's nature, it's a little harder to spot than a Red Bull car (189k jpg) or a TatAd...
posted by Drexen at 10:38 AM on December 5, 2004

From BzzAgent, Inc. website: "When you feel it is appropriate, you should be comfortable telling your friends, family, and colleagues that you are a BzzAgent! Sometimes you may want to do this, other times you may not. It is up to you to determine what feels natural. What we want you to know is that BzzAgent is not about 'secretive' marketing and sales. This is about you experiencing and interacting with new, interesting products and services, and sharing your honest opinion with others (and with us at Central Hive)!" .... "Becoming a BzzAgent means you are joining an elite group of marketers who help create Bzz (Word-of-Mouth) about products and services. BzzAgents are confident, communicative, friendly, natural, smart, outgoing, and powerful. "
posted by ericb at 10:39 AM on December 5, 2004

At her grandfather's wake, ''a relative told me how well I was looking,'' she wrote in one report back to the BzzAgent hive, ''and I mentioned that No Puffery helped to keep me looking calm instead of puffy-eyed and as horrible as I felt.''

Oh that's nice, the shilling doesn't stop for the dead.
posted by falconred at 10:39 AM on December 5, 2004

Well slap my ass and call me a newbie.
posted by Drexen at 10:41 AM on December 5, 2004

Was anyone else simply stunned that these people charge about $100,000 to get random schmucks to shill their products for free?

I mean, wow... I'm in awe. If this wasn't so creepily dystopian, I would applaud these guys for a week for so neatly scamming the corporations.
posted by InnocentBystander at 10:45 AM on December 5, 2004

(OT) Ya got me, Navek. Just reread Pattern Recognition. The thing I noticed about it this time was that Gibson seemed kinda bored of standard pulp structure. A lot of the plot folds in on itself, or takes a weird turn: Judy ends up liking Taki, Cayce feels bad about Taki, Dorotea switches sides so many times, Cayce ends up with who she ends up with, the ending's danger is defused suprisingly. It's almost like he's toying with your expectations on plot and character development.

I think PR is more a showcase for the dialogue and cultural ideas. I liked those, so I liked the book. (Love how each character has his own email style.) To each his own, though.
posted by maschnitz at 10:49 AM on December 5, 2004

The thing that gets me is that people are willing to sell their souls so cheap. They get free product samples! I mean if they were getting paid and need the money, I could understand, I can at least grok greed. But they're getting free chicken sausage for this. I'd like to think that I'd at least hold out for a good price before I'd sell out my personal ethics.
posted by octothorpe at 10:57 AM on December 5, 2004

What's the buzz?
Tell me what's a-happenin'

posted by _sirmissalot_ at 10:59 AM on December 5, 2004

are you kidding? because in a society that worships consumption, this is like becoming a martyr for allah or one of god's saints. for surely they will be welcomed in paradise and showered with glorious possessions for service toward advancing the kingdom.

Really well said, quonsar!
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:01 AM on December 5, 2004

This makes a lot of sense to me. I've already heard a few conversations on the train and around town which have that disturbing "sheen" and stiffness of tvspeak and they usually involve shilling some "fantastic" product. It's the next logical step of reality tv. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if that's how a lot of these people imagine they're actions--as a kind of commercial.

There'll come a point, though, where "don't believe anything you hear on tv" will evolve into "don't believe anything." At that point what will people believe?
posted by nixerman at 11:05 AM on December 5, 2004

This doesn't surprise me in the least. I mean, it's the next logical step for people who have been paying for t-shirts with slogans (Nike, X Beer, etc.) for years. Generally, anyone who willingly turns themself into a billboard for a major corporation (and pays for the privelage) is written off as Grade-A Idiot in my book. I think a lot of people who get into this nonsense are going to find that they have a lot fewer friends.
posted by dobbs at 11:13 AM on December 5, 2004

I agree this is bad; it cheapens conversations with strangers, but really, I have always been suspicious of random product recommendations.

And if someone introduces you to a new product, and tells you where to get it, and you like it, isn't that a good thing? Isn't this what all marketing should be? Isn't it the "other kind" of marketing that's much worse: professionals that specialize in disabling critical analysis of a product, showing your potential SUV winding through traffic-free mountain roads?

Now, it gives a new incentive for certain kinds of people to be slimeballs, and that's probably bad.

I don't think this is good, but I don't think it's an order of magnitude worse than existing marketing, as many people's reactions seem to indicate.
posted by InfinitePigeons at 11:15 AM on December 5, 2004

I imagine that getting two seperate agents that are 'buzzing' different brands in a room together might be entertaining.
posted by Navek Rednam at 11:22 AM on December 5, 2004

But why would regular people volunteer to turn their daily interactions into marketing moments?

Don't people already pay money to wear t-shirts advertising sports teams, bands, theme parks, and brands of clothes?
posted by Stoatfarm at 11:22 AM on December 5, 2004

Reality checks are bouncing...I am not going to listen to him advertise put I really like those shoes he's wearing. Where did you get those?
posted by alteredcarbon at 11:25 AM on December 5, 2004

oops...put=but...sorry I'm a newbie
posted by alteredcarbon at 11:27 AM on December 5, 2004

*slaps Drexen's ass*

Way to go, n00b.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:36 AM on December 5, 2004

Wouldn't you get a reputation after a while? People would remember you as "that guy on the bus every morning" or "that girl at the coffee shop who's always excited about everything she buys..." Is that worth it just to get points for stuff?
posted by ironisokratic at 11:40 AM on December 5, 2004

I was a BzzAgent for awhile. I signed up because they were promoting a bar near work. By talking about the bar and letting them know what I said, I got free stuff: free food, a CD or two, and a pair of nice shoes. Really, it was the shoes that sold me on it.

I have not done anything for them recently because I have not seen anything that looked worthy of promotion.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:44 AM on December 5, 2004

What's keeping people from taking the samples and slagging everything?

I mean, a couple of people have sent me stuff to write about in my personal blog. Sometimes I've written about it, sometimes I've not. When I have written about it, it's not always favorable...and I try to disclose that I got x for free. Basically, send me interesting things -- but no contract should be implied, and I reserve the right to a.) not talk about it, or b.) say exactly what I think about it.
posted by Vidiot at 11:47 AM on December 5, 2004

wait a minute... have any of you ever spoken to one of those Apple-using types?
posted by three| at 12:03 PM on December 5, 2004

oops, there should have been a [/i] after that x above.
posted by Vidiot at 12:17 PM on December 5, 2004

Ah, right off the front page at Bzzagent:

"I am a stay at home mom with 3 kids under the age of 7. I have no idea at times what is current or new. But with Bzz I have an edge almost. I can talk to my friends about some new cool things that I would not usually even venture out and even look at. "

So someone uses Bzzagent in an attempt to be cool. It's kind of sad.

If I were a marketer I'd look at this as a great way to bring down the competition. Hire Bzzagent to get it's people dissing the competitor's product. This would lead to street fights between rival bzzagent gangs, and they'd kill themselves off after awhile. Then things would get back to normal.
posted by Salmonberry at 12:30 PM on December 5, 2004

Oh, and "Join the Hive" as a way of getting me to sign on? If I had any imagination, the Borg jokes would start flowing.
posted by Salmonberry at 12:33 PM on December 5, 2004

Have you guys tried these BlackSpot sneakers? They're the best! Heh.
posted by nofundy at 1:00 PM on December 5, 2004

You know, I am probably just playing Devil's advocate here, but isn't this just a way for people to get rewarded for talking about products that they already like? This seems very similar, as others have pointed out, to T-shirts with logos on them. Either way you are shilling for a company, at least this way you get something back.

As an aside, does anyone remember those two kids that were trying to get corporate sponsorship to pay for college. I saw it in Adbusters a few years ago, but I can't remember their names. I think they finally got sponsored by a bank or something.
posted by Who_Am_I at 1:07 PM on December 5, 2004

OK, maybe I'll try a little harder next time before I come asking for help.

I present to you...Chris and Luke.
posted by Who_Am_I at 1:13 PM on December 5, 2004

I never quite realized how insiduous advertising had become until a Verizon commercial flashed on the screen, and my roommate immediately responds "fuck Verizon, T-Mobile is so much better."
posted by Veritron at 1:25 PM on December 5, 2004

This has been bothering me since first reading The Tipping Point. I've never been part of any formal persuader network, but I've convinced friends and family to buy things just because I really do like them ("believe in" is another thing altogether; I reserve that language for, you know, actual principles). It's from a helpful impulse, but there is undeniably something gratifying and ego-stroking about being thought helpful or knowledgeable, and that's exactly what BzzAgent is manipulating. They take a generous human impulse (helping), exploit its underbelly (pride), and get at least some of their agents so hooked on that feeling that they tie their identity to shilling, at the expense of their other social experiences (attending a funeral, celebrating a wedding anniversary, just enjoying a frigging cookout).

At the same time, if you have a good project or product, like so many of people I know who are writers, musicians, and artists, like so many people right here on Metafilter, how the hell else are you supposed to get heard except by word of mouth? I've persuaded people to listen to and read things they otherwise would not have. In doing so, I've given them pleasure, but I've also aided some creative people, in a small way, to clear a pretty dense pack of competition. Now, those simple exchanges are perilous. Who's a fan, who's a shill? How many people are self-aware enough to know the difference, even in their own identities? The woman who started buzzing at grandpa's funeral doesn't seem to realize that her role of persuader has taken over her life to a crazy degree; she's genuinely operating under the belief that she's helping people.

The ability to support otherwise obscure but worthy projects in an overcrowded marketplace has been a flawed prospect since long before I was born. But every year, marketing tactics get more subtle, and the ability to just genuinely like and champion something more suspect. It's distorting some of the best impulses people have: to help, to be kind, to make and enjoy art. And I'm not about to wear a gray sweatsuit uniform and live off the grid, so there's no real answer. Unless, of course, you've found one that you'd like to tell me about. In a great book that people are really starting to talk about, available through Amazon for just $19.95, a real bargain. Gah.

PS: Quonsar, I've been telling all my girlfriends about that fish in your pants, and they just can't stop buzzing.
posted by melissa may at 1:45 PM on December 5, 2004

There's nothing like an expose on advertising to make you incredibly paranoid...
posted by VanRoosta at 1:49 PM on December 5, 2004

This doesn't surprise me in the least. I mean, it's the next logical step for people who have been paying for t-shirts with slogans (Nike, X Beer, etc.) for years. Generally, anyone who willingly turns themself into a billboard for a major corporation (and pays for the privelage) is written off as Grade-A Idiot in my book. I think a lot of people who get into this nonsense are going to find that they have a lot fewer friends.

I despise logos on t-shirts, but it really is hard to find blank ones now a days. Anyway, I signed up, and let me tell you why... It's free. I get free stuff. If I like the product, I'll tell other people about it (like I already do... for example, I love my truck. If somebody asks me how I like my truck, I'll tell 'em.)

Of course, the same thing will happen. If somebody pisses me off, I'll never go back there and I'll tell people not to. Walmart is a prime example. It's really hard to argue that case around here, though.. Target is finally starting to put some stores down here, but Walmart has become entrenched.

So, that's my position. It's not bad to get free stuff that you'll enjoy. Plus, you're screened anyway. They'll probably get mad at me for telling them that I'll tell people that some things just suck.

But, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Also, the idea is not to be a militant about it.. There is a review posted about some folks just hanging out. The guy takes out the Family Guy DVD set (which I personally would buy if I wasn't so damned cheap) and they watched it. Is there anything so damaging there? I would do the same thing if I was in the same situation, even without getting points for talking about the product.
posted by ajpresto at 2:11 PM on December 5, 2004

This is truly hilarious. I'm imagining a bunch of 20-somethings sitting around a bar all competing for air-time. Yup a marketers ultimate dream: scripting of word-of-mouth, what a riot. So when do we see the sitcom? Comedy gold I tell ya.

Ok, so this is just a logical extension of wearing company logos no?
posted by scheptech at 2:19 PM on December 5, 2004

Plain white t-shirts
posted by ericb at 2:36 PM on December 5, 2004

There is a special circle in hell for people who regard their friends as potential sales targets. This is a close cousin to the sorts of fuckwits who invite you to a "party" so one of their friends can sell you useless shit. By all means, if you can stomach the thought of spending your life sidling up to strangers to enrich their lives with more crap then godspeed, but don't try to rationalize taking a giant dump in a garden and then calling it fertilizer...
posted by docpops at 2:46 PM on December 5, 2004

Ajpresto, I second ericb: they're actually not so hard to come by. In fact they're usually, paradoxically, cheaper because the logo of a respected brand is considered a "value add" for the likes of Nike. Lots of times blank T-shirts of various colors will be on the "sale" racks for like $5 each. Check various sporting goods and discount clothing stores in the area.

Also, more upscale places often have a variety of nicer blank Ts, on the principle that they go well under sweaters and whatnot. The one place where I could never, ever find a single logo-less item, though was A&F (perhaps unsurprisingly). Damn, that place is brand-crazy.
posted by rkent at 2:59 PM on December 5, 2004

Television Advertising has become the retina of the mind's eye.
posted by Non Serviam at 3:37 PM on December 5, 2004

Oooh... Nice one Non Serviam.

Bill Hicks:"To any of you who maybe in marketing, kill yourselves... Now I know what you're thinking, 'oh he's so edging going for the anti-marketing market. That's a good market."

I'm really frustrated by how much products are pushed at us, and while I'm certain things will change at some point, I'm not sure how.
posted by drezdn at 4:10 PM on December 5, 2004

If BzzAgent can get these kids to speak properly, it might be worth it.....your points are only valid if you deliver the message without saying "like," "you know," "actually" or "in terms of" (or insert your favorite here).
posted by wolfey at 4:31 PM on December 5, 2004

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