Art & Commerce: Consumer Republic

Rumors are accepted as truth–just ask your friends
Whom are you more likely to believe: the gray-templed anchor of the network evening news or the whispered gossip of a good friend? To find out whom info-bombarded consumers trust, DiMassimo Brand Advertising devised an experiment that was part social research, part Candid Camera.
To test the power of word-of- mouth, the agency concocted rumors that agency president Mark DiMassimo says were deliberately designed “to be pretty hard to believe.” They include: Monica Lewinsky is running against Hillary Clinton for the U.S. Senate; Kenneth Starr is the CEO of Starbucks; Kosovo is in South America; and “Just do it” is the ad slogan for Ex-Lax. Then the agency recruited 200 people to plant these rumors in the ears of 500 friends. The volunteer rumor mongers also supplied the telephone numbers of the recipients of their disinformation. A week later, the friends were contacted and asked about the same subjects.
The survey found that 28 percent who’d heard it from a friend believed Monica and Hillary were fighting for the Senate seat, 29 percent thought Ken Starr was in the coffee business, 17 percent associated “Just do it” with the laxative and 12 percent put Kosovo on the wrong continent. Welcome to the information age.
Before you smirk at how dumb some people can be, dear reader, I should point out that demographically speaking, these gullible saps are you. To set up his info-sting operation, DiMassimo recruited clients, agency staffers, PR professionals and others in the marketing and media business to pass along the misinformation.
Assuming people socialize with others of roughly the same educational, cultural and economic level, we can deduce that the 27 percent of respondents who believed that “The other white meat” is the ad slogan for milk are college-educated, media-literate, middle-class professionals. These results, says DiMassimo, suggest that the population susceptible to what their friends tell them, no matter how ludicrous or ill-informed, includes not only “the dumb people that marketers don’t want, but the smart ones that they do.”
To judge how the word of the friend fared against the power of “official” organs of information, such as news and advertising, the survey included a randomly selected control group whose knowledge of the same subjects was also put to the test.
The results indicate that one word from someone you know is worth millions in ad time. Nike, at least, can take comfort in the fact that 58 percent of the control group knew “Just do it” was its slogan, not the tagline for Ex-Lax. But overall, messages backed by big budgets didn’t make a great showing.
Ever wonder how many gross ratings points have been thrown at the McDonald’s-Tarzan promotional tie-in? Yet only 17 percent of the control group knew the correct identity of the movie the fast-food chain was promoting, compared to 20 percent who, having been informed by a friend, thought the movie in question was the R-rated Eyes Wide Shut.
I’ve heard extolled in a public forum as “one of the world’s great brands.” But how great is it when only 11 percent in the control group knew it was an online book store? That’s about half the percentage of those who believed it was a fashion site for plus-size women, courtesy of friends. But Jeff Bezos can take
comfort in the knowledge that only 3 percent of the control group knew Alan Greenspan was chairman of the Federal Reserve, and only 23 percent knew George W. Bush was running for president as a Republican.
Advertising has always been an artificial, second-best word-of-mouth, never as effective as the real thing. Even back in the “golden age” of advertising, when legend has it that bovine consumers bought everything TV commercials told them to, a neighbor who testified that Anacin cured her headache was worth 10,000 strokes of that damn hammer pounding the
sufferer’s skull in the ubiquitous ad.
What is different today, and far more dangerous, is that word-of-mouth travels farther and faster than a conversation over the backyard fence. A rumor’s velocity is both a marketer’s dream and nightmare, the source of brand cults and brand disasters. Which is why the falsehoods DiMassimo’s experiment planted were designed to be harmless as well as ludicrous, lest one escape from the lab and spread destruction like a runaway virus.
“We constantly hear how cynical and distrustful the consumer is,” says DiMassimo. But this cynicism is little more than gullibility turned on its head. One of the most convincing rumors, repeated by 40 percent who heard it, was the claim that Stanley Kubrick had faked his death to promote his film Eyes Wide Shut.
In an era in which there is an inverse relationship between the amount of information and the level of credibility, savvy consumers are as easy to fool as their “naive” predecessors. Plus ‚a change, plus c’est la mme chose.