Desperately Seeking Buzz
It's every agency's dream. You've created a hip, edgy campaign that uses the net in a savvy way to generate a tidal-wave of buzz about your client's product. Sure, you had to bend the truth a bit on the promotional mini-site you created. But wrapping a product in a tissue of deception and manipulation is just another day's work, right? Or perhaps the recent failure of such a promotional site to generate more than a flicker of interest is a reminder that honesty might—gasp—be the best policy.
What do you do if you're a distant second in a portable music player market dominated by Apple? Judging from the recently-launched iDont.com site, you start clutching at straws. This is one of those increasingly-common disposable sites that agencies toss against the wall in the hope that they generate conversations that will rise above the net's deafening chatter, if only for a few days. The impetus behind the creation of such sites is not to inform but rather to pretend, to confuse, to conjure up an amalgam of novelty and controversy that will generate the maze of blog posts, comments and trackbacks that in itself has value and—oh holiest of grails—sometimes results in a real "story" being broken by mainstream media. Such sites can be created cheaply and quickly. If they hit, great, if not just pack up and move on.
So, who's behind the iDont site? The opening post by "Eric (a.k.a. Da Sheep Herder)" informs us that "This site and the iDon’t campaign are the creation of several of us renegades behind the new xx player, from xx. And this is our playful way of saying 'Enough!' Yeah, we’re just fed up with the ever-expanding flock of iSheep swarming through our cities. You’ve seen them. They’re everywhere. Every bus, train and city sidewalk is a mass of white headphones. Blindly they’ve bought into the hype without ever realizing there are other MP3 players out there". (No, I won't be playing their game by mentioning the product or the manufacturer).
The site sinks into using painfully lame-not-hip phrases (Eric is apparently "stoked" at the reaction to the site) to continue its sham call to a revolution that entails throwing off the shackles of oppressive iPodness. Its creators are deluded enough to think that visitors have nothing better to do than download the admittedly amusing PDFs of stickers, and help spread the work by tarnishing the urban landscape ("Stick it to the iMan with these little beauties"). If that wasn't enough, they've thoughtfully provided chat icons, downloadable posters and the ability to buy shirts, buttons and similar junk, all imprinted with imagery from the marketing campaign.
Marketing campaign, you say? I thought this was the work of Eric and his hip friends? In fact, the illusion of spontaneity is a rather shallow one, with the heavy hand of large commercial interests revealing itself soon enough. The latest post tells us that: "OK. We hung a few provocative posters in a few cities, we built a Web site, and then we hoped to get some people (preferably of the disgruntled variety) to listen to our point of view, and maybe have a laugh along the way. Well, our little marketing campaign has hit a nerve—and a big one at that. The last couple of days have seen the blogosphere practically buzzing with iDon’t chatter."
Of course, the site is basically a classic piece of flame bait, relying on the reflex of the Apple faithful to respond in force to criticism of any kind. It attempts to turn Apple's own Think Different branding upside down, with the site itself referencing Chiat/Day's classic 1984 Super Bowl ad, directed by Ridley Scott, which has achieved mythical status amongst agency types. It also slyly provides an echo of recent Apple ads mocking Windows users. The iDont site will leave most visitors puzzled, with at best a mild smile on their faces. But its real role is clearly to provoke a powerful negative response in iPod users that will lead to them helping fan a blogosphere brush fire. From that perspective, I'm surprised the designers didn't include a Pavlovian dog in their bestiary of iPod users.
What does it all add up to? While some of the Apple faithful have risen to the bait and are predictably heaping scorn on the xx player and its manufacturer, blissfully unaware of the irony of their manipulation, a cursory check indicates that the site is a no-starter in the domain of mainstream buzz generation. While four news items on Digg.com link to the site, for example, those items have few diggs and less comments. And of the comments, this is typical: "I like a lot of xx's stuff. I own several of their thumb-drives. But this campaign of theirs seems really forced and rather sad."
So don't expect too many more posts from Da Sheep Herder, who has by now moved on to yet another empty, manipulative site-of-the-week that in turn desperately attempts to whip up attention for another also-ran product.
Is it just me, or is the profession of marketing tarnished just a little bit more each time we encounter something like this? And if so, what responsibility do the designers bear that participate? Because without soldiers, there would be no wars. And without willing and able designers, the iDonts of this world would cease to be.