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Could brands have something to learn from fake news?

Earlier this month, Collins Dictionary announced fake news had made it… It had beaten unicorn, echo chamber, and gig economy among others to win the accolade of Word of the Year 2017. And the worst (or best) of fake news is yet to be seen… Just a couple of weeks before, Anjana Ahuja, a science commentator with the FT, had run a piece entitled The ultimate fake news scenario where she reported on “the sinister potential of Face2Face”, a facial re-enactment technology that allows its users to alter elements of a video (like facial expressions) in near real-time. In her opinion, we are not far from a world where public figures, like the past presidents in the videos used to demo the software, could be made to say things they have not – very much like the fake news articles that became a staple of the US presidential campaign.

Fake news, whether we like it or not, has rapidly become part of our vocabulary and more importantly, part of the culture of our times. The way we feel towards the term itself says as much about us, as about the people around us: whether one believes in it as an artefact of manipulation by shrewd politicians or simply as a defence mechanism to deflect ruthless attacks from the press goes beyond one’s politics… it is a window into an individual’s system of beliefs, into the culture of a group of people.

Now more than ever, culture is being built from the ground up. The barrier to entry and the opportunity to scale has never been what it is today: anyone can produce content (independent of truth or craft) worthy of attention that can spread like fire through social media channels to shape opinions, and in the most extreme cases, redefine the values and perceptions of a group of people. Fundamentally, this is not new: we have always relied upon a network of individuals to influence our choices – from aspirational role models or celebrities, to our friends and families – because we trust them. Yet today, that system of trust is being redefined by scale, and content in the form of updates, shares and likes is the currency it trades in. It is no surprise that entire businesses have been successfully built on models of shareability or likeability.

Why should marketers care? Because this new iteration of our attention economy is not only challenging our pre-conceptions of creativity and good content. It is also blurring the lines between message and medium as platforms influence more and more the shape that content takes (the concept of ‘built for feed’ and rise of vertical video are good examples of that). The ubiquity of mobile devices has created new opportunities for distribution by creating more time to reach people but it has also turned the concept of audience on its head: people are no longer passive receivers of a message; they imbue it with their own views and opinions, and set it back alight into their social sphere reshaped, transformed in meaning and relevance. A mere like or share is an endorsement, a comment can reposition the message – just like Face2Face can make G. W. Bush’s face contort in ways he wouldn’t naturally.

As we reflect on what the journey to post human means to us, to our identity and to our culture, we must also ask ourselves what it will bring for brands. How can brands continue to be relevant, distinctive and specific to avoid commoditisation and oblivion? Come explore this and more with us on November 9th

Ruth Zohrer, Head of Connections Planning, Mindshare UK