Thursday, March 29, 2007

Consumers are selfish, irrational and disloyal. It’s their right.

 A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

When Carling Black Label brought a case for trademark infringement against a group that had parodied the brand in South Africa, it was said in court that “Black Label has the luxury of having the most money, and therefore the most speech”.  The court saw the company as having a greater voice, and sought to protect the freedom of expression of the consumer.

But as we’ve seen in recent years, that balance has been swinging away from companies as the internet empowers the individual to get even.  Untrammelled by any requirements of taste, decency, accuracy or balance, consumers can say pretty much what they like – so when they’re also right, it can mean pretty fierce language and tactics which companies are rightly circumspect about confronting.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the opprobrium WalMart had attracted by using flogs (sales promotions posing as blogs) to promote themselves, and the PR storm Kryptonite suffered at the hands of bloggers when their $90 bike lock turned out to be openable with a bic biro.

Now it’s the turn of a company in Britain to get burned, and there are useful lessons to be drawn for all of us. 

You might have seen TV ads and tube cards in recent weeks for a group fighting the ‘information revolution monopoly’.  Ask, the search engine formerly known as Ask Jeeves, is trying to persuade consumers that there should be freedom of choice in where they get their information from, and they’re directing consumers to a site they’ve set up at

The TV ads run without a soundtrack, and look like they’ve been shot on a webcam – activists are seen holding up messages on cards to camera, suggesting people visit  On the site itself, a link then takes you to the information revolution microsite, where you’re presented with a manifesto and message boards where they encourage debate.

And this is where it all starts to peel apart.

From reasoned criticism of Ask’s site – “I use Google because most likely I get the result I want without…having a huge large type sponsored advertisement links like ASK and MSN do” to fry-eyed “Way to go, Jeeves, now you’re not only incompetent and stupid, you’re evil as well”, hundreds of posts have lambasted Ask’s campaign.

Whilst the campaign is tongue in cheek, this makes no impact on the messageboards, where people tend to have a very literal interpretation of advertising.  What comes through is three basic complaints – consumers are being driven to a site under false pretences, they are being patronized by a fake ‘revolution’ line which belies the selling message, and finally that the product’s no good.
In the hundreds of posts, I couldn’t find a single positive one.

We can all see what the benefit to Ask might be if we used search engines other than Google, but consumers clearly struggle to see what might drive them either emotionally or rationally to Ask.  And herein lies the real message for all of us who are secretly relieved we didn’t sign this one off.

Consumers are selfish, irrational and disloyal.  It’s their right, and so it ever has been.  They don’t mind being sold to, but they resent being misled – even if the agency and the client think it’s witty.  So you’d better do what it says on the tin, because they’re not going to take it lying down if you don’t.

Feedback will be swift, and it will be merciless.  They will revel in your discomfiture, and hijack your communications to serve their own agenda.  They will expose your every weakness, and pick it to bits.

And this is Ask’s problem.  If their product is superior, consumers can’t see it and the campaign doesn’t show it.  And where in traditional media it might have ended at that, with some swiftly-forgotten brand-tracking data, in digital the effect has been to aggravate consumers and give a platform to detractors.  As one forum contributor puts it, “I love the smell of back peddling in the morning”.