How fake news impacts marketing – and vice versa

Brands can be both victims and purveyors, writes Professor of Marketing Leyland Pitt, one of the international experts taking part in Victoria University of Wellington's 'Open knowledge vs fake news' event.

Fake news has received considerable recent attention in the media. While fake news has been around since our early human ancestors, advances in technology and social media have meant it can spread far more rapidly and have far greater reach than in the past.

There are two key concepts: truthiness (the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidence) and post-fact (a culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from details of policy and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored).

Fake news is critically important to brands and their management. On the one hand, fake news threatens the authenticity on which most successful brands are built. On the other, brands are frequently complicit in the dissemination of fake news.

Marketing’s problem has always been that it is somewhat duplicitous and has flirted with the untrue. Most really good and effective marketing is about seduction, whereby customers are enticed to suspend disbelief in order for marketing to do its job.

Beauty products promise that the user will become different, mysterious and irresistible; cars offer the driver the opportunity to become adventurous and heroic; theme parks and vacation destinations transport visitors into imaginary worlds that never existed, don’t exist and never will.

Unless the seduction turns into cons and outright fraud, this has never been a particularly serious problem, and there is lots of evidence that consumers actually like to be teased, tempted and gently tricked.

Now, however, mostly facilitated by a social media age in which everyone is not only an audience member but a broadcaster too, the problems have become far more serious. This impacts organisations and what for most of them are their most valuable assets: brands.

Brands can interact both directly and indirectly with fake news. In some instances, brands are the victims of fake news, and other times the purveyors. Directly, brands can either finance fake news or be the targets of it. Indirectly, they can be linked via image transfer where either fake news contaminates brands or brands validate fake news.

As targets, brands can be fake news casualties. Pepsi’s stock prices fell around four per cent just prior to the 2016 US presidential election when a fake news story about Pepsi’s CEO Indra Nooyi telling Trump supporters to take their business elsewhere went viral. Brands can appear associated with spurious stories, and this can tarnish or contaminate them while lending validity to the content.

Consumers reading of an apparent affair between Yoko Ono and Hillary Clinton might have been reassured of the story’s validity because Fiat-Chrysler’s brand Ram Trucks prominently sponsored the page. Brands also risk consumer backlash if consumers interpret that brands support suspect or misleading news. For instance, this was the case when the Kellogg Company was forced to pull its sponsorship of the ‘alternative fact’ site Breitbart.

Alternatively, brands can propagate fake news. Searching for greater reach, brands tend to associate themselves with the most popular stories – whether these are true or fake. Ironically, brands may be the primary force behind the fake news explosion: fake news attracts eyeballs and eyeballs attract advertisers. In this way, brands can also fund fake news sites. They fund them directly by simply targeting popular sites, because web traffic attracts advertisers. Moreover, they target sites based on the information search profiles of likely customers, centred on the type of content to which potential customers are attracted. In addition, they may fund them indirectly by tracking customers as they surf from site to site.

By understanding fake news and the damage it can do in this age of digital technology and social media, by being vigilant and having strategies in place to deal with it, astute marketers can minimise the risks to brands.

Leyland Pitt is Professor of Marketing and the Dennis F Culver EMBA Alumni Chair of Business at Beedie School of Business, Simon Fraser University, Canada.

Professor Pitt and other international experts will be discussing ‘Open knowledge vs fake news’ in a free public event at the National Library of New Zealand in Wellington on Tuesday 6 November as part of Victoria University of Wellington’s Capital City Universities Initiative.

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