Image by Mike Monteiro
“Diederich Hessling was a dreamy, delicate child, frightened of everything, and troubled with earache.” That’s how the novel ‘The Patrioteer‘ by Heinrich Mann begins (one of my personal favorites). Decades later, and we still have way too many Diederich’s in this world. They are afraid of everything but they are mostly afraid of taking a stand, developing a unique opinion that’s not already filtered by the opinion leaders of op-ed pages, blogs and Twitter. And most of them are not only troubled by earache – their spine and brains suffers heavily.
Following opinion leaders blindly has lead to the financial crisis, a deep recession, the Iraq war – the list could be continued for pages. We should trust Greenspan, right? He knew what he was doing. We should trust Paulson’s request bailout package, correct? He should know how to fix the credit crunch. We should trust Colin Powell and his UN speech, correct? He seems so trustworthy and would never fool us, right? The culture in the US doesn’t allow for and most people are not able to tolerate a lot of ambivalence. There are just a few brave souls that publish their opposing opinions and stick to it through attacks. In the Social Marketing field, we still see strong challenges of opinion leaders throughout the discussion of the Kmart promotion but once certain opinion leaders say their piece, the majority falls in line and accepts their opinion as gospel. Frankly, I was almost shocked to see that almost nobody criticized the Panasonic coverage throughout CES . At one point, Twitter felt like QVC: people discussing the awesomeness of Panasonic, their products and all their people. (That’s my only concern with these kind of promotions: You’re spamming me with irrelevant information, tweets of people wanting to get a Sears/Kmart gift card, clogging up a very personal channel of information. You’re doing exactly what advertising has done for year, not adding value to my life.)
The Kmart promotion might be one seminal moment in the history of Social Marketing – suddenly PR excursions are okay because the opinion leaders said so. This is proof of Robert Michels’ theory of the Iron Law of Oligarchy: Democracy leads to Oligarchy. A few tell many what to do.
We’ve seen this attitude of ‘If you’re not for us, you’re against us’, played out in US politics in the last decades. We’ve seen it wreaking havoc on major financial institutions when dissenting voices were shut down very quickly. (Just watch CNBC and see how pessimistic analysts are basically shouted down immediately.) And, in the end, nobody is responsible for anything because the system failed. The model failed. Not the individual failed. Nobody is taking responsibility for anything, it was always the fault of something we fools won’t understand anyway. Sure, there will be a perp walk sometime soon (Maddoff, are you ready?) but the real issues behind the meltdown will be covered by the opinion leaders, blaming it on VAR or other acronyms most of us won’t bother to even try to understand.
Obviously, the Social/Conversational Marketing field is still in the honeymoon phase and I’m happy to see that open discussions are commonplace and democracy still reigns. In order to survive and thrive, Social Marketing needs more leaders, more thinkers, more outspoken personalities, more provocateurs. We need to be able to live with and live through ambivalence. Actually, we should cherish ambivalence as one of the most important values in our continued exploration of this new space. Dissenting opinions should be further explored and not painted over with the broad brush of majority opinion. This little, nodding and spineless Diederich needs to be defeated. Each and every day.