The Social Dilemma: Game's the same, just got more fierce

Published on September 30, 2020

The trending Netflix "The Social Dilemma" documentary underscores the frightening evolution of social media advertising and poses a lot of questions to the ethics of digital marketing, which I hope to shed some light on as a millennial founder of an engagement marketing startup. These exploitational practices are not entirely novel compared to past marketing channels, but social media advertising is an entirely different beast. So how did we get there, what makes it unique compared to past trends, and how can we use the momentum of this conversation to bring more ethical marketing solutions that align brand and consumer wellbeing?

The commoditisation, targeting, and misuse of our attention are not concepts unique to digital advertising among the wider marketing industry. Since the history of people looking at…anything really, those things were turned into ads. Ancient Greeks used walls, now we have print, TV, toilet stalls…connected devices came about the same way. We look at them, ergo opportunity for ads. Sometimes advertising goes a bit out of bounds – I love the example of De Beers creating an entire industry around the “tradition” of buying a diamond ring for marriage, which of course was a tradition they made up, along with the price one should pay for it. It is brilliant for what it is, but the point is that the goals of marketing have long been divergent from the consumers’. So is digital marketing just more of the same thing society has always dealt with?

As Slim Charles put it: “Game’s the same, just got more fierce.” Much, much more fierce. The same concepts are now being applied with an unprecedented amount of intrusion, intelligence, access, and influence – without being too sensationalist, the impact to our wellbeing individually and collectively is greater than ever before.

The difference starts with the nature of digital connectivity. Compare it to print media or television – both are sources of information and entertainment. Sure, we often spend a bit too much time glued to the TV, but mobile communication takes it to new heights – many of our most fundamental instincts of community, relationships, and belonging have increasingly been addressed via social media. We don’t just check our phones for fun, we check them for friendship, for validation, for love, for sex, for expressing ourselves and our beliefs…add in work, entertainment, news, and every other thing you can imagine. And these apps are designed to keep you there. Since The Social Dilemma, Facebook’s former Director of Monetisation compared the app to smoking: “We took a page from Big Tobacco's playbook, working to make our offering addictive at the outset."

Now, using that platform as a background, sprinkle in thousands of ads on a daily basis disguised as regular content from friends. It is like having a mobile billboard in front of you everywhere you go, but that billboard is also your most important emotional connection to the world, and you can’t tell the difference between what is your life and what is advertising. This begins to show why the potential for toxic uses of digital marketing are so high. Not only that, though, the potential for this platform is also how effective it can be used, to the point of seeming alien to us at times.

We have basically transcribed our lives into the binary language of computer programs and algorithms. All of this data on our behaviour, alongside exponential growth of computing power, enables unprecedented, granular intelligence. Every last piece of our behaviour can be ingested by AI to not just analyze, but predict and influence how we think….sort of. For all its intelligence, AI is actually pretty stupid. It has one goal: in this case, to get as many clicks/reactions/interactions on the content it distributes as possible. It doesn’t know what the content is, why you’re clicking it, or what you’re feeling. That isn’t necessary to complete the task. From that perspective, it is just a tool, but a really powerful tool. As with most tools, it depends how it is used. 

It isn’t necessarily bad – I have actually had some good experience’s with Mark’s algorithms suggesting some awesome things for me, other than when someone sees something weird get recommended (I didn’t mean to click it!). That is often how it is used, but there are much more sinister strategies. In marketing they teach what is most likely to go viral: exciting, negative emotional content. Fear, anger, hatred…all a marketer needs to do is build content around the brand to target people experiencing these emotions and the algorithms will push it relentlessly. This leveraging and influencing of emotion is something marketers have wanted to do before, but it has gone from meta (say, a commercial during a certain program) to personal (a person exhibiting a specific string of behaviours). All the while it continues to evolve exponentially like a 21st century Frankenstein.

The Social Dilemma did a great job of presenting how this seemingly flawed business model is impacting society. It has already evolved beyond marketing to create mainstream echo chambers on both sides of the political spectrum. Forget creating a new wedding tradition like De Beers did, there are entire extremist or conspiracy movements being fuelled by the ability to cause, cater to, and reinforce irrational emotional reactions. Not to mention the apparent impact on anxiety levels and wellbeing altogether. And anyone with a Facebook account can do it. It’s time to change the game.

Marketing will always exist, as it always has. But what if we could accomplish our brands’ goals by bringing people up and bringing people together? The term “engagement” had a very negative connotation in The Social Dilemma, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can also come from creating positive, real experiences for consumers. Experience Marketing. This is not only possible, it is extremely effective, which we have seen already on some occasions: Take the ethical implications of Heineken’s “World’s Apart” campaign or Burger King’s gamified Stevenage campaign just this week (brilliant, btw). The good news for this strategy is that it is exactly what consumers want, and when done correctly is much more beneficial to a brand than advertising.

Of course, most businesses don’t have the budgets of the aforementioned companies, but mobile technology opens up possibilities for creating gamified experiences in novel, scalable ways. No Big Deal does this by enabling brands to create wellbeing challenges for users. The app is based on mobile activity tracking tech available in all mobile devices, adding health to the users´ benefits while bringing brands the engagement they need. With 5G coming into play, the possibilities are endless. It is an exciting time to be in this space. This “experience marketing” approach finally aligns brand success with consumer wellbeing – bringing a solution to the perverse incentives created by the social media business model.

Where social media relies on quantity of time spent on their digital platforms, experience marketing is successful based on the quality time spent off these platforms. The Social Dilemma speaks frequently about the way apps are designed to be addictive – this is a necessity for apps that rely on the number of ads they can get you to interact with. Adopting a new approach, the important part for the brands is no longer clicks, but the positive, memorable experience that you can create. Where social media relies on targeted manipulation to make marketing campaigns, brands can use mobile tech to create customer journeys that complement real life experiences that make people feel good. Our users benefit from enjoying their health, the sense of achievement, and awesome rewards from brands that care about them. These are the things that brands are supporting when using our platform. Isn’t that better than associating your brand with pop-up ads?

We are at a critical time now – as AI algorithms are becoming more powerful, people are beginning to push back on intrusive advertising that is at best alien and annoying, at worst deceptive and manipulative. Brands are beginning to seek alternative, ethical ways to differentiate themselves for the good of their brand and their customers. Just as technology enabled algorithms, so too can it enable positive, wholesome experiences in ways that were not possible before. If we can mobilise one of the biggest industries in the world to make people feel good and reverse the current direction, that could be hugely beneficial to society, wellbeing, the environment, everything. No Big Deal is proud to be ready to enable the brands on the forefront of this movement.

Nigel Bergstra

Nigel Bergstra

Nigel holds expertise in strategic marketing and behavioural economics which he has applied to corporate and startup strategy throughout his career.