Is Undercover Marketing Corrupting Your Friendship?

I’ve been off the blog a while giving a series of talks, but with five down and two to go, I can spend some more time here. I’ve most recently been attending a health law conference, where many interesting talks focused on the ways in which doctors and drug and device manufacturers can promote products or services. Serendipitously enough, I’ve also come across the following article on stealth marketing online: What’s the Buzz? Undercover Marketing and the Corruption of Friendship. Here’s one part of the authors’ (Kennett and Matthews’) argument:

The tendency of friends to communicate and receive product information, together with the absence in friendship of the ordinary checks and barriers that operate in public and commercial space to filter that information, is a marketer’s dream; and undercover marketing seeks to take advantage of it. Undercover marketing recognises

and specifically targets our ordinary dispositions to be drawn by those we regard as our friends. It targets us in our role as friend. The undercover agent thus violates their role boundaries between the commercial and the personal to gain entry into our unguarded intimate space.

And in order to exploit the dispositions of friendship effectively the commercial nature and purpose of the viral transaction must not be disclosed. In doing so, however, we claim the virus destroys its host. Genuine (close) friendship is non-exploitative. It is guided (in part) by a concern for the friend for her own sake. When the undercover agent recommends a book, a movie, a brand of sausages, to her friend she is not acting for the sake of the friend but for the sake of her own or a third party’s commercial interests. The friend and the friendship at that point are used as a mere means and this is outright incompatible with the nature of friendship and the

intimacy of friendship. . .

Of course, if individuals’ identities are intimately bound up in consumer goods, perhaps all their friendships are about is shared love of labels. Individuals are increasingly “buying in” to brands, not merely for the pleasure of looking or feeling good, but also in order to construct their identities. Thus it seems to me that Kennett and Matthews’ relational critique of undercover marketing (or “murketing” in Rob Walker’s terminology) needs to be preceded by a perfectionist standard for self-realization–one that would exclude consumerism as the summum bonum of a life well-lived. Of course, much more difficult questions are raised by the marketing potential in a medical social networking site like PatientsLikeMe.

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