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Marketing and Misinformation
We set out the case why misinformation is not only a policy issue but a critical one for brands to understand
We often talk about misinformation in the context of politics and social policy, less often in relation to brands. And yet misinformation in the commercial space can harm a brand’s reputation, with studies suggesting that the mere association with misinformation can potentially result in adverse financial consequences, boycotting of the brand and harmed perceptions of brand value. This week we are looking at the sorts of threats there are for brands (as opposed to public sector policy) and examine the broader considerations of looking at misinformation in this context.
There are a number of ways in which brands can be associated with misinformation. They can of course can be the target of campaigns, falling victim to claims that have no basis in reality. In addition, there is a danger that programmatic advertising can lend validity to fake news stories by brand advertising appearing alongside them.
Another element, examined a paper by Caitlin Candice Ferreira, Jeandri Robertson and Marnell Kirsten, suggests that brands themselves may have a more active or unwitting role in misinformation than we may always consider. This seems quite bold claim, but it does lead us to an important and necessary discussion about what we understand by what we understand by the term ‘misinformation’ and how the lines between this and legitimate marketing activities might be finer than we think.
Misinformation to discredit
We turn first to the most obvious case (as cited in the Ferreira et al paper) in which brands have been the target of misinformation campaigns, seeking to discredit the organisation. One example of this is a 2015 video featuring ‘pink slime’, in which it is claimed that the ‘slime’ is the core ingredient of a leading fast-food brand’s chicken nuggets.
With the video going viral, the brand launched a marketing campaign to counter the claims. Their ‘Know Our Food’ campaign aimed to offer transparent knowledge of their products and also encouraged people to do an online search for these claims, directing them to a website that fully explained and challenged the claims. Videos were available where explicit mentions of the ‘pink slime’ were made before reassuring consumers of the false nature of these claims.
This seems a textbook example of how we might think about misinformation – a third party making false claims. And also a textbook strategy of how to deal with it, providing a clear and robust challenge to these claims, in a very transparent way.
But is it always this straightforward?
Misinformation or marketing?
In other cases the line between truth and misinformation is not always so simple. While some misinformation is entirely fabricated, other misinformation may contain ‘kernels of information’ that may in fact be ‘internally constructed’. This suggests that the brand itself is involved (deliberately or unwittingly) with the creation or propagation of what could be viewed as misinformation. While this seems quite a claim, we can perhaps better understand this through the example Ferreira gives of a British supermarket retailer. In 2016 this retailer was accused of using fictional farm names, such as ‘Woodside Farms’ and ‘Boswell Farms’ on their products.
This, it was claimed by some, was an attempt to mislead shoppers into believing that produce was sourced from small-scale producers. When questioned, the retailer pointed to their interim results, pointing out that the brands continued to be popular with consumers despite this being widely reported. According to the paper, the retailer went on to suggest that all parties understand the concept is fake, meaning that the marketing activity was justified.
This is a challenge to the traditional notion of fake and real – and in many ways references other work we have done which suggests that our relationship with ‘facts’ is more nuanced than we might initially think. For example, when we asked people about a range of beliefs, (that are often considered conspiracy theories), such as ‘Princess Diana's death in a car crash was not accidental’, 40% of people considered it was ‘plausible’. While this seems high, many of these people were not in fact fully signed up to this, with over half of those considering it plausible, also agreeing with this statement was ‘not strictly accurate but a reasonable challenge’.
Just how people understood these fictional farm names is a matter of some debate. Whether people fully considered that the farms were in fact physical locations where the food came from or a marketing device is unclear. But as the Princess Diana example shows, people are typically more nuanced in their beliefs than they are always given credit for. We need to be careful about assuming people are binary in their beliefs about what is ‘true’ and what is ‘false’.
In another example, Ferreira and colleagues set out the way that millions of consumers accused a mobile phone brand of deliberately slowing down older models. While this was initially denied, the brand later apologized for doing just this, but saying it was the unintentional consequence of software updates. They clearly stated that they would never do anything to intentionally shorten the lifespan of their products, spelling out that the slowdown was in fact intended to increase the lifespan of the products. Despite these explanations, (and a reduction in the prices of new batteries to resolve the problem), the delayed response from the brand appears, (according to Ferreira), to have sowed seeds of distrust amongst consumers.
Perhaps situations such as this are more common than we might expect. Although not always as extreme, many industries are considered to be involved in misinformation about their impact of their activities on issues such as public health, climate change and pollution. Indeed, in some cases the issues become undisputed, as was the case in the cover up of vehicle emissions by Volkswagen with the group's chief executive at the time, Martin Winterkorn, saying his company had "broken the trust of our customers and the public”.
But in other cases there are often fewer clear lines. What might be considered by some to be legitimate marketing claims or explanations of business practices may be seen by others as fake news or misinformation.
There are three key conclusions that we draw from this. First, what we consider to be ‘truth’ or fact’ in never entirely agreed on. One person’s misinformation is another person’s legitimate position. These lines are blurry and therefore what constitutes legitimate marketing practice versus misinformation activity can easily become contested ground.
Second, we need to be cautious about the degree to which people are vulnerable to misinformation. Some researchers point out that the degree to which people are manipulated by misinformation is overstated, as they do not necessarily believe what is presented to them. Indeed, as the British Royal Society have recently reported, it can be debated to what extent misinformation actually influences the public’s beliefs on a large scale.
Third, as we saw at the outset, given that misinformation is considered to be a problem by the public (regardless of the degree to which this is in fact the case), then being associated with it is an issue for brands. Moreover, with influencers playing a role on shaping views and behaviours, the line between misinformation and opinion can become blurred. So much so that when Kylie Jenner made a comment about Snapchat ("sooo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore? Or is it just me... ugh this is so sad."), it wipes £1bn from the company’s share price. Clearly, brands can be vulnerable to reputational harm, making the case for brands to understand misinformation.
In summary, just what is and is not misinformation is a blurry line. As such, understanding the way in which the general public construe these terms, be able to assess when marketing activity risks appearing to be misinformation, and knowing how to deal with these claims are all critical issues for brands in managing their reputational risks.