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Last week, I posted a video from McDonald’s Canada, in which we get a behind-the-scenes tour of a burger photoshoot. The video is a great example of how honesty can be instrumentalized as a marketing tool. McDonald’s Canada has launched one of the best advertising campaigns I have ever seen, founded on that very principle. “Your Questions” allows customers to make brutal, probing inquiries like, “why do your burgers not rot” (Mark H.), “where do you buy your potatoes and are GMO’s used in producing them” (Scott T.), “how fat will i get if i eat mcdonalds every day” (Jack B.), and “why do you put so much salt on your fries” (Neal C.)? By exposing and acknowledging the most common myths and criticisms of their products, McDonald’s defuses, at least to some degree, the potency of those attacks. Although many of the provided answers are evasive or uninformative, the actual information provided is largely irrelevant. Instead, what matters is the credentialing of McDonald’s as an “honest” and forthcoming company. I must admit, I noticed that spending time on the Your Questions site increased my interest in eating McDonald’s, both during my browsing session, and over the long-term. Furthermore, I have returned to the site periodically to check for more videos and entertaining questions. The campaign itself constitutes one narrative—you asks us questions, we answer them, alias “quest for the truth”—but Your Questions incorporates a number of micronarratives or subplots that encourage users to revisit and follow the separate storylines.
Take the series, “McNugget Under the Microscope.” Are McNuggets made from a pink processed slurry of bones and chicken parts? To the lab! Tune in next week for part 2, where we’ll go over the results…These micronarratives almost demand the investment of emotional or libidinal energy in the outcome from the user. Spinning several individual stories allows the marketing team to cast a wider net and to increase the amount of time users spend engaging with the marketing materials.
One of my favorite applications of the micronarrative principle is the Ikea campaign, “Mark Lives In Ikea.” Mark Malkoff moved into Ikea for a week, sleeping in a bedroom set, getting tucked in by a security guard, and eating lunch with customers. Almost instantly, viewers cared about Mark, what happened to Mark, and about the milieu of his adventures, Ikea.
No news here: advertising is about storytelling. McDonald’s is innovating the ad-story framework, however, by raising the stakes. Or at least making it seem as though the stakes are incredibly high. “We’ll tell a story about unveiling the secrets of our product.” What’s in Big Mac sauce? Secret no more. McDonald’s Canada has been testing this strategy since last year. In this campaign, though, involving the consumer via social media has raised the stakes to a tipping point. Getting caught up in a micronarrative is easier when the character in play is a convincing symbol for yourself. Better production value helps, too. Ultimately, Your Questions is generating buzz because the combination of an “honesty” macronarrative and high stakes “micronarratives” is designed to stimulate uncontrollable interest.
What does all of the above have to do with Facebook? Well, Facebook is rapidly becoming the McDonald’s of social media. One public relations nightmare after another. Thus far, or at least before their disastrous IPO, Facebook managed to recover from privacy debacles and various other marketing mishaps. After becoming publicly traded, however, public relations take on a new significance. Previously, PR influenced user rates to some unknown extent. Now, PR is both more closely tied into the company’s financial fate and exerts a measurable effect on stock prices. ReadWriteWeb published a superb lede paragraph on why the last two days emphasize Facebook’s failed PR strategy:
In a frantic 48-hour stretch starting Saturday, Facebook leaked the news that it was testing a new app, faced the threat of a lawsuit by someone claiming the company had stolen the idea, and announced that it had shelved the project. Separately, the company also changed the listed email of all users to an @facebook.com address. In other words, it was just another two days in the post-IPO life of Facebook.
ReadWriteWeb calls Facebook’s PR approach “machine-gun” style: they announce update and initiative after update and initiative, all in quick succession. Like a shotgun strategy, this style is not suitable to a post-viral, post-social media marketing world. It has poor resolution, poor granularity, is less than convincing, and is depersonalized to the nth degree. In short, Facebook has a serious public relations problem and its current strategy is making matters worse. Savvy consumers do not respond to shareholder-centric PR messages. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be an issue, except that Facebook’s long-term revenue model necessitates an engaged and growing user base that trusts Facebook to deliver quality advertising content. Yet, Facebook seems to be trying as hard as it can to undermine its own trustworthiness. The machine-gun style requires a continuous jettisoning of failed projects, rapid and fragmented changes in the user interface, and endless retractions. The consequence is a perception of instability and uncertainty on the user-side of the interaction.
The implications are obvious: Facebook can learn a lot from the McDonald’s Canada advertising campaign. If Facebook does not already suffer from as poor a standing with the public as McDonald’s, it is well on its way. Like McDonald’s Canada, Facebook needs to add another term to its catalogue of brand values: honesty. This could best be accomplished with a candid marketing program that, like Your Questions, directly engages with users and respects them as human beings. Since its beginning, Facebook has treated the user as an anonymous piece of data—ironically so, considering how Facebook’s core function is to distinguish the individual on the grounds of a personalized web page. Facebook needs to drop the charade, loose the machine-gun, acknowledge its users, and get back to basics with a well-produced, well-conceived, careful image repair campaign.