Frontline’s ‘Generation Like’ Takes Digital Marketing To Task.

If you love PBS like we do (and we know you do) you’ve probably been thinking a bit about one of the latest episodes of Frontline. “Generation Like” is a somewhat Orwellian picture of digital marketing, but does provide an essential tutorial on the importance of social media, both to the young consumers who use it and the digital marketers who strategically deploy it.

There’s nothing inaccurate in the piece, but we thought we’d chime in with some points that weren’t made. The takeaway from “Generation Like” could easily be that digital marketers are evil manipulators of content and that today’s teens are psychologically weak to a point never before seen in history. We disagree on both counts.

A Bleak Picture Of Today’s Youth

The focus of the piece was to show how teens are using social media. To illustrate their point Frontline first showed a group of high school friends sitting around a table, all staring at laptops, discussing the number of “likes” a particular photo or post had gotten for each of them. They shared their methods and philosophies with each other on how to get more people to like them. They also made regular eye contact with one another, and laughed, and while obviously a bit privileged, appeared to be normal, well-adjusted teens.

Their next example was a lone teen girl who, according to its promotional website, was “one of the top 100 fans” of The Hunger Games. This portrait was a little darker and there is some undeniable ugliness to address. The young girl appeared to spend all available waking hours, shut away in her bedroom alone, tweeting and posting and generally doing a lot of unpaid work on behalf of the brand, simply to achieve “sparks” that kept her in the biggest fans ranking. The argument was made that today’s teens have been tricked into willingly coming to work in a digital sweatshop, and as you watched this teen’s story unfold you could hardly argue that wasn’t the case.

Teens Have Always Been Teens

What we can and will argue is that this isn’t a new and fiendish plot cooked up by digital marketers against the youth of today. Before the internet, teens were just as obsessively hitching themselves to popular culture. The Beatles had teenage girls screaming and crying and fainting in public places and their marketing team played up to that. A Hard Day’s Night basically has fun with the idea of the entire band being chased around London by a pack of rabid girls. Other than the tone, how different is that than Frontline’s picture of a obsessed teenage fan of The Hunger Games?

The Young vs. Old Premise Is Just Wrong

The biggest omission in Frontline’s story was how social media is likely to be used by those teens 5 or 10 years from now. They seemed to be saying that there were two groups of people, the young and the old, and the latter were simply taking advantage of the former.

To show how the older crowd was using social media Frontline showed an “adult” cast member of a popular television program interacting with his head of digital marketing. The adults were benefiting greatly from the popularity of the actor, and the implication was that the actor had nothing to do with his social presence. It was all a grand manipulation of the teen public in his name.

It was an appropriately sad, and cynical picture of teens versus adults, but it wasn’t really a fair framing of what’s going on there. As digital marketers we are expert translators. In the same way that a good journalist takes interview notes and portrays their subject accurately, we take the raw material and ideas of our clients and convey them to social media. We do that so our clients have time to do the things that need promoting in the first place. Somebody, for example, is tweeting on behalf of the POTUS so that he can go on being President

This last point is key. Is it a deplorable deception for the actor to have a marketing team or is it simply an example of good time-management? Maybe some socialite has nothing better to do but tweet his/her every move, but most of our clients have talents, and those passions, while exciting and even enviable, require work on their part. Letting people know about that work is our job as marketers. It is not a deception anymore than a conventional press release is.

Why There Is No Them vs. Us

Ultimately there’s a level of self-interest to everyone’s life, even a teenager’s. Let’s get back to Frontline’s most cynical example, The Hunger Games’ unpaid advocate. Like any teen she has interests and like many she devotes the majority of her time to her favorite. A single-minded pursuit of something sounds a lot like what it takes to achieve your dreams. Frontline seems to think this young woman will grow up a dupe and never be rewarded for the time she’s spent learning the intricacies of social media. If she’s still working for “sparks” in her 20’s they might be onto something.

Chances are very good though that like any teenager she will grow into adulthood developing her own ideas. Her childhood heroes will become adult influences as she makes something that’s her own. The Hunger Games girl might start designing clothes, or writing, or hell, she might even go into digital marketing so that she can help others get the attention they deserve for their passions.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

If you’re using social media, or any channel for that matter, to manipulate people, marketing isn’t doing its job. Advertising effectiveness is at an all time low because of that kind of hard push to manipulate. At its core though social media is a way for real communication to occur between brands and their customers, to the benefit of both parties. The fact that some people abuse that spirit of good faith doesn’t spell doom for “Generation Like” or the marketers who use it to refine brands or help deliver better experiences.