Should it really be anything goes?


I’m starting to think that we’ve lost all sense of perspective when it comes to online marketing, selling and behaviour.

I just read that Unilever has been running a TV ad on a British Web site for its Lynx cologne that shows women in “sexually suggestive poses, juxtaposed against brief scenes involving a worm, a frog and an old man in bed.” Apparently the ad is intended to be so weird yet so “arousing” that you hit rewind thinking “what the heck was that I just saw?”

The software used to show the ad is from EyeWonder. The company’s CEO said in a Washington Post story: “The Internet allows you to communicate more precisely to a demographic you want to reach without having to worry about Susie, who is six-years old, seeing it. You can appeal to John, who is 22…with more creative licence.”

First of all, it is one thing to sell software but quite another to hype its value as unlocking creative licence when all that is really at play is a lewd pitch that gets by because the Internet is not censored.

Second, the notion that the Net lets you “communicate more precisely to a demographic you want to reach” is ludicrous. It is this Alice-in-Wonderland logic that marketers hand out to justify pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in a public forum.

The way companies justify their behaviour can be intriguing. For example, I recently had an exchange with a newsletter distributor who had sent me a publication on the say-so of a client who provided a list that the client claimed was opt in.

Of course, the list was no such thing, and when I suggested to the newsletter company that it should be using double opt in subscriptions rather than just trusting clients, the CEO responded: “Confirmed opt in [also known as double opt in] is certainly an ideal method of building a list. However, the marketplace is pushing in the opposite direction.”

Let me translate: “We know what we should do, but we’ll drop our standards if we can see the money.”

I realize that revenues are dropping so the client’s needs must be met to retain their business. But following such an acquiescence comes further acquiescences until you have no principles left.

What I’m trying to highlight is a mounting tendency to abandon all standards that might be considered mature in favour of business expediency.

From one viewpoint this might be perceived as an evolution. As the Net becomes less geek-oriented and more commercially driven, the need to find and establish the new frontiers of sales and marketing in what is an unstructured, unregulated universe becomes the primary driving force.

In many respects this exploration of the limits of what can be done online and, as a consequence, what is acceptable, is exactly what U.S. cable channels have done with extreme programming.

But the Net is very different from cable television in that the cost of experimenting and the cost of an experiment failing are trivial in comparison with creating and airing a TV show.

More importantly, even slightly successful online experiments (as in the public voting with its dollars and clicks) become part of what is considered acceptable. And if your company operates in these nether regions of online marketing and selling, the consequences will affect you.

For example, do you want to be in charge of making spam campaigns happen? Do you want to enable dubious business practices and ethically questionable operations? These are important questions because you make these activities possible and they will, because of your support, compromise your ethical and moral position.

You need to decide: If indeed “anything goes,” will you go first?

Escape clauses to

Gibbs is a contributing editor at Network World (U.S.)