Marketing | 06 MIN READ

Marketing with fake news: A dangerous game

We are living in the post-truth world now. A world of fake news and alternative facts. A world where the public believe what they want to believe, and discard everything else. But what impact does this have on marketing? Is marketing ever fake news, or vice versa?

Fake news may be a scorching topic right now, but the truth (HA!) is, that there has always been fake news, it’s just never been so widespread, and so willingly accepted as fact.

Tabloids have been dealing in fake news for years, even decades. It’s what they’re known for. The British press have a particularly bad reputation for this, regularly printing huge, unsubstantiated headlines, followed by a tiny apology for the lie a few days later, usually in tiny text somewhere around page 43.

This has always been tolerated, to an extent. Of course, it influenced some readers, where others would see through the misinformation. The difference now is that this fake news is getting more and more widespread, and it becomes more difficult to tell the truth from the lies. As Amol Rajan, writing for The Independent and the BBC, said: “The truth is hard, expensive and boring. Whereas lies are easy, cheap and thrilling.”

One of the biggest concerns is the fact that young people seem to find it especially difficult to separate fact from fiction. Or, perhaps it’s just that they’re not interested in doing so, which is worse in many respects. Stanford University, in the US, carried out a study which showed that 82% of students in middle school couldn’t distinguish between a news story and sponsored content, which is startlingly high considering this age group are essentially digital natives.

So what impact does this have on marketing? Potentially, quite a big one.

Marketing and advertising has always been about selling your product or service. The way brands do this varies wildly, depending on their audience, what they’re selling, and where the campaign is being pushed.

Some, in the past, have used ‘fake news’ in order to push their products. The most recent, and probably most famous example was the terrifying news of a bacon shortage.

I know what you’re thinking. There’s a bacon shortage?!!! Fear not, there’s still plenty for everyone. Like we just mentioned, it was fake news. Or, and here’s an interesting thought, was it just a marketing stunt? This is where the lines get a little blurred.

It was reported as fact, in some quarters of the internet. People believed it, tweeted about it, and (probably) panic bought ALL THE BACON. I mean, there was even a website made – the no longer active baconshortage.com. To top it off, it was all supported by the Ohio Pork Council. No wonder people believed it.

An example of fake news

Wait…the Ohio Pork Council, reporting on a bacon shortage? Why would they possibly?

Yes, they admitted that it was in part, a marketing ploy. There was a sliver of truth, but it was largely used to push bacon towards hogging (HAHA!) the limelight. It worked, for a short time, but it was quickly exposed for what it was.

In the most immediate sense, it could have been considered a successful viral marketing campaign. In the longer term, however, these marketing tactics can have a negative effect on your brand. People can lose trust in you, which is the most important thing to keep when you want your customers to keep coming back.

We’re not suggesting for one second that people no longer trust bacon. That would be absurd. But do people trust the Ohio Pork Council less? Almost definitely. In terms of branding, after the initial spike of increased awareness, trust levels will likely have dropped.

This was all relatively harmless, of course, and taken in good humour, but it does show the potential dangers of trying to use fake news in marketing.

Think of it in terms of a tangible, popular product. For example, if Adidas came out and said they can no longer make sneakers, people would rush out to try and snap up every last pair. A short term win. What happens in the following week, when they announce that actually, that wasn’t true? Those that rushed out to spend will feel deceived, lied too, and will probably be reluctant to buy Adidas products again.

 

So what should your brand do?

In this time of fake news, deception, and misinformation, there’s only one thing to do. Tell the truth.

Build trust in your brand, and demonstrate your value to the potential customer. Of course, you should be enthusiastic in your marketing and advertising, but instead of focussing solely on the wow factor, give your audience the reason why they should choose you over any competitor.

There are so many ways to build trust too. Display testimonials, allow for customers to review your products and services, and show data on how many customers you have, or what your product or service can do.

Importantly, back all of that up with exceptional customer service, and aim to exceed their expectations. Don’t rely on fake news, or marketing tricks, to get you short term traction. Show that you’re in it for the long haul by developing a relationship with your potential customers.

We put a huge focus on this at Bannerflow. Our new, improved website is dedicated to demonstrating what we can do, and building trust. Then we have our ebooks and blog platform, which are entirely free resources for those who may be interested in not just Bannerflow, but digital marketing in general. So we’re trying to give something back, and contribute to the conversation.

 

But…has using fake news ever worked for a brand?

There are exceptions to every rule. This is no exception. Cards Against Humanity did an amazing job around the recent Super Bowl with some well timed fake news. They didn’t actually advertise on TV, as that’s one expensive route to go down, but they did write an article saying that they did.

You can read about it here, but they describe in great detail how much of a mistake it was to use their 30 seconds of (made-up) ad space to show only a potato. Without context. They write how disastrous it was from every perspective. It’s really well done, funny, and importantly, fits in with the brand itself.

The key difference here is that although it’s posed as serious, at first, it’s quickly clear that it didn’t happen. Also, it’s self deprecating. It has no negative effect on the audience, and it paints the picture of a brand that likes to make their audience laugh.

The same goes for the campaigns you see every April Fools day. Again, these work because the audience are in on it, and it doesn’t do any harm. It’s the one free pass every brand gets every year. H&M got involved, as did Houzz. Flight Centre even offered a too-good-to-true deal to travel to London from Australia, in Cargo Class.

These tend to get good coverage online, and can raise the profile of brands because it shows a more human, fun side. But it only works because of the context.

 

The takeaways

It’s best to avoid the risks associated with fake news. Of course, in the short term it can work, but it’s just not a viable long term strategy. In that sense, your marketing efforts should never look like they’re overlapping with fake news (unless it’s April fools, then go crazy).

Now, more than ever, trust is important. People are growing wiser to fake news, like recently when Wikipedia decided that the Daily Mail was an unreliable source. If your audience don’t trust you, they won’t buy from you. So, focus on building that trust, and be honest as well as innovative in your advertising efforts.

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