First, I have to make a disclaimer. I am not advocating the following, I am reporting on it because it is interesting and illustrates several important properties of word of mouth.
Let’s call it hoax marketing:
Here’s the way it works:
Put out a press release about a phony upcoming event that is so outrageous that the not-too-bright, sensation-seeking press will breathlessly report it and steal it from each other.
It has to be outrageous, plausible and come from a credible source. That’s what happened a few years ago when a Dutch television broadcaster, BNN, announced plans to air a reality TV show in which rival kidney transplant recipients would compete for a new kidney, donated by a woman who is about to die from a brain tumor.
The show was actually broadcast, but revealed the story to be a hoax near the end of the show. The intention was to raise awareness of the shortage of donor organs in Holland.
They actually had three people come on the show and plead for the kidney, including segments from their friends and relatives. The “donor” was allowed to ask them questions.
It’s an amazing and amusing story. While I don’t like stunt marketing — also known as “buzz” marketing — this is one of those extremely rare instances where I think it was appropriate.
They took a terrible situation — the shortage of available organs — and created a situation that dramatized where things were headed if not corrected. The press, which is continually reaching for new highs in sensationalism and new lows in professionalism, gullibly picked it up and spread it throughout the world. The entertainment reporters, at or near the lowest end of the food chain, will believe just about anything about the entertainment industry. They are actually in the business of spreading rumor. It was still being quoted in a Fox news business show as being true, at least one day after it was widely exposed as a hoax.
So, the whole thing was a perfect word-of-mouth situation: an extraordinarily interesting story, spread by people who were in the business of spreading stories to the equally gullible public who were ready to eat it up. In this case, it was all for a good cause and very amusing.
But, it also should be frightening.
The 4th Estate, the professional press, is supposed to be the guardian of truth — with their professional reporters, editors and fact-checkers — who disparage the blogosphere as amateurs who can write anything (and often do play fast and loose with the facts).
But we should all think about potential danger of word of mouth — by far the most powerful force for social change ever invented — when it is used in its most dangerous forms: hoaxes, rumor, propaganda and malicious lies.
Not a week goes by when I don’t receive an e-mail from an intelligent friend repeating an urban rumor. I know it’s an urban rumor because I take the 30 seconds it takes to check it out on snopes.com.
As the political season progresses, we would do well to remember that both Harris and Gallup polls say that about 70% of Americans believe in angels. Almost all of us believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Many believed that the Republicans would cut back spending. Others believed in “Hope and Change.”
All kinds of outrageous word-of-mouth statements are going to be put out there and repeated by mass media that is in its death throes, desperately trying to maintain audience with sensational, manufactured controversy, hype, exaggeration, overreaction, false drama and naïve, breathless stories told by gorgeous people with very few journalistic credentials and even less inclination to use them.
Yes, independent word of mouth is more honest, compelling and motivating than people with special interests, such as candidates, companies and to other people “selling” something. But mass media is not independent like your friend down the street is. And I’m not talking about the obvious and varied political slants of the networks. I’m not talking about the pressures of special interests such as major advertisers. I’m talking about the “objective” mass broadcast and print media news departments that are fighting for their lives against specialized media, such as Web 2.0 websites. Neither seem to have time for scrupulous fact checking. They are reduced to blindly repeating rumors, as long as they are sensational enough to play into our fears and outrage and keep us listening.
Let’s remember that word of mouth provides powerful clues, often points us in the right direction, is usually much more relevant and is much more fun than other forms of information gathering. But let’s also remember that you can’t believe everything that you hear. Let’s remember the dark side: mythology, hoaxes, rumor, gossip, character assassination, big lies, “the-sky-is-falling” fear mongering, propaganda and the entire outrage industry.
Let’s not let our frustration and anger cloud our judgment.