Culture

Those GoDaddy Superbowl Ads, Cruel Click Bait, and Other Ways Media Manipulates You

 

Unless you’ve been living in a bunker for the last week,  you’ve probably seen the controversial GoDaddy ad where the lost puppy returns home only to find out he’s been sold online. The ad has been pulled from the Super Bowl lineup and the online version was removed after vocal protests by PETA and other animal rights groups. Now viewers are waiting with eager anticipation to see the replacement ad (which will no doubt feature a large-breasted, scantily clad woman who is not talking about the product GoDaddy actually sells).

“This was not a stunt,” a representative for GoDaddy told FOX411.

That might be a credible statement if GoDaddy’s entire marketing strategy wasn’t built on controversial ad campaigns.

GoDaddy founder Bob Parsons explained in an interview with Inc.com how his company’s strategy originated:

“I decided to advertise nationally, and the Super Bowl was coming up. I thought, That would be a hell of a debut, but how do I get a bunch of drunk people’s attention? If we explained what we do, we’d be dead in the water,” he said. “So then I thought, be outrageous. It doesn’t take Harvard Business School to figure that one out.”

He said the scantily clad GoDaddy girl was his idea. He told the ad agency, “I want a really well-endowed, good-looking gal in a tight T-shirt, with our name right across her breasts.”

GoDaddy bought two slots that first year, but because of the uproar, the network pulled the second one. “I was doing interviews for days,” Parsons said. “The media called the ad inappropriate, which got even more traffic to our site. Our market share shot up to 25 percent, and my mother’s very proud that I’ve established a standard for indecency in broadcasting.”

Every time I see a story like this I’m reminded of a book by Ryan Holiday called Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. In the book Holiday, the former director of marketing for American Apparel (a rather liberal-leaning guy), describes how he would intentionally create provocative ads designed to generate controversy and outrage.

“If I could generate a reaction, I could propel the ad from being something I had to pay for people to see (by buying ad inventory) to something people would gladly post on the front page of their highly trafficked websites,” he wrote in the book.

He described the time he ran a series of completely nude ads featuring a porn star on a couple of low-budget websites.

“A naked woman with visible pubic hair + a major U.S. retailer + blogs = a massive online story,” Holiday wrote.

Predictably, the ads were picked up by Nerve, BuzzFeed, Fast Company, Jezebel, Refinery29, NBC New York, Fleshbot, the Portland Mercury and others.

“Some blogs wrote about it in anger, some wrote about it in disgust, and others loved it and wanted more. The important part was that they wrote about it at all,” Holiday said. “It ended up being seen millions of times, and almost none of those views was on the original site where we paid for the ads to run.”

He said he had “substantial data” to back up the fact that “chatter” over such controversial stories resulted in increased sales. He claims his guerrilla marketing tactics rocketed online sales at American Apparel from forty million dollars a year to sixty million in three years.

And so we have two examples of how viral marketing works and how public opinion is manipulated for profit.

Fair enough, you might say. It’s the word we live in and besides — go capitalism!

And you’d have a point. Questionable (and sometimes outright dishonest) sales tactics have been in use for as long as people have been trading. Caveat emptor — let the buyer beware and all of that. If you’re the type of person who chooses your web hosting company based upon the breast sizes of the models in the commercials, more power to you. I wouldn’t want my business associated with a company like that, but it’s a free county.

This isn’t really hurting anyone, is it?

Unfortunately, the same tactics used to propel a brand into the national spotlight can also be used to destroy someone’s life.

Holiday describes the phenomenon of online “degradation ceremonies” in his book:

Their purpose is to allow the public to single out and denounce one of its members. To lower their status or expel them from the group. To collectively take out our anger at them by stripping them of their dignity. It is a we-versus-you scenario with deep biological roots. By the end of it the disgraced person’s status is cemented as “not one of us.” Everything about them is torn down and rewritten.

You may remember the congressional staffer who dared to write something critical about the Obama daughters on her personal Facebook page. The young woman wrote about Sasha and Malia’s eye-rolling at the White House turkey pardoning ceremony and criticized what the first daughters were wearing at an official event. One of her Facebook “friends” leaked the post to someone who knew exactly what to do with it.

The story (which I’m not going to link to because I don’t want to give it more air) went viral. You couldn’t open up Facebook or any website that covers news (or even entertainment) without seeing her picture and reading about what a terrible person she was. The young woman quickly apologized for her Facebook post and resigned from her job, but that wasn’t enough to quell the rage of the mob. The broadcast networks devoted an astonishing 14 minutes over two days to this non-story about a mid-level congressional staffer’s personal Facebook post. The Smoking Gun ran a story about an alleged arrest when she was 17 years old (but neglected to provide any documentation, which calls into question the veracity of the story). There were allegations that Obama staffers were complicit in pushing the story out.

The young woman criticized the first daughters — and by proxy, the president —  and she needed to be destroyed.

Holiday described in his book how the process works. He said that blogs (by which he means all online publishers) level accusations on behalf of an outraged public. “If you don’t feel shame, then we will make you feel shame,” Holiday says. “The onlookers delight in the destruction and pain.”

Another recent example is the young woman who became a Twitter sensation after posing with a Bible and a gun in front of a Chick-fil-A. A blogger (who claims to be a conservative and who I won’t bother to link to) thought it would be a great idea to expose a moral failure in her life from a few years ago. The blogger bragged on Twitter that he had outed her and exposed her sins to the public. (A week later the same blogger attacked conservative talk radio host and Blaze contributor Dana Loesch, which is ill-advised, at best).

Holiday wrote,

Blogs lock onto targets for whatever frivolous reason, which makes sense, since they often played a role in creating the victim’s celebrity in the first place, usually under equally frivolous pretenses. You used to have to be a national hero before you got the privilege of the media and the public turning on you. You had to be a president or a millionaire or an artist. Now we tear people down just as we’ve begun to build them up. … First we celebrate them, then we turn to snark, and then, finally to merciless decimation. No wonder only morons and narcissists enter the public sphere.

These days, anyone can become a target and a victim, whether because of a craven quest for page views or because of a more sinister motive — a deliberate attempt at character assassination. Your risk increases exponentially if you do anything that puts you in the public eye (especially if you’re a conservative), but there are plenty of examples of people who were leading perfectly normal lives and became overnight viral YouTube sensations because they woke up one day and said or did something stupid (or brilliant, or controversial, or funny). Suddenly, through no real fault of their own, they’re famous and they’re a target.

And there’s not a thing you can really do to prevent this from happening to you, except for perhaps unplugging completely and heading for the bunker. And even that won’t really protect you (but at least you won’t have to endure the public humiliation).