The Magazine's review of blogs
By Alan Connor
British blogs have recently found themselves getting comments from a fictional character who promotes a household cleaner. Weblog Watch looks at a new, personalised form of advertising.
Ahh the fresh smell of bleach
Imagine you keep a diary.
Now imagine writing an entry about making contact with a parent after three decades of silence. And now imagine finding someone had slapped an advert for bleach on it. One which made reference to you, and your particular situation, but which still advertised bleach.
Welcome to blogging, 2005.
It's not just the personal bloggers who have recently found themselves transformed into billboards. You might be writing about politics or technical doodads; you might be talking about many things unrelated to domestic cleaning fluids, and still find your weblog being used to host human-written, customised adverts for a new bottle with a whacky marketing strategy.
For the uninitiated, blogs consist of articles which generally welcome comments. Normally, those comments are from your regular readers; if you're unlucky, though, they're from conspiracy theorists, witch-hunters, stalkers, or - worse still - viral marketeers.
Weblog Watch is the BBC News Magazine's weekly review of blogs
The product in question here is called Cillit Bang, and it's the latest brand to endure the humbling experience of trying to use the web to "build a buzz", or "go viral", or some other awkward phrase. But the way this particular Pooterish product went all Pete Tong is instructive.
So: what have we learned from this Cillit Bang fiasco?
Lesson 1: Irony might not be quite dead
Cast your mind back to 1995, and you might remember when "Cheesy Listening" went mainstream. Kitsch stopped being cool around the time the Mike Flowers Pops hit the charts. Astonishingly, though, and however many times we read about "the death of irony", there are still marketers who are hoping to make people refer to a product as "so bad it's good!!?!".
Otherwise, it's difficult to understand why the campaign for Cillit Bang would be so self-consciously vulgar and anachronistic, especially since it comes from the same canny multinational as Dettol, Lemsip and Mr. Sheen.
This "kitschy" aesthetic is sometimes still associated with "young people", and so is "the internet" - at least, that's the only way to make sense of a site like the bewildering "Barry Scott Here", a blog which tries to push Cillit Bang while wringing laughs out of Shakin' Stevens and the recently-departed Luther Vandross - in the hope, reckons Complete Tosh, that we'd think "this stuff would be all the more devastatingly effective for not being a mainstream detergent".
Incredible though it seems, the most logical explanation is that the marketers were hoping that some comments on the most respected and popular British blogs would prompt a new "I Kiss You" or Hampster Dance: something people would e-mail to each other, doing the advertising for them.
But you've got to presume that you don't get a bleeding-edge readership coming back for thrice-daily RSS updates if you're susceptible to a kind of lame humour that's out of date to the tune of 10 years.
Lesson 2: Blogs are not public space
But there must, surely, be a defence for the viral marketeer?
If you were to imagine someone who somehow managed to make a (paid) living from sitting around posting comments under assumed names among sundry (unpaid) British blogs, how would you justify that as an honest wage?
The most obvious tack would be to argue that anyone who puts their diary on the internet, with comments open from Aars to Zweibrücken, has to expect to be hijacked by the odd ad, be it automated or human-generated.
But to the very bloggers that make up the intended audience, this behaviour looks like trespass -- and, happily, there's a cogent explanation as to why.
Danny O'Brien, a writer in that British confluence of humour and public-spiritedness, has a post at Oblomovka that's one of those must-read accounts of how the web works.
The idea is this: before the web, there were cleaner distinctions between the secret, the private and the public. You had to go out of your way to be "public". But nowadays, there's a lot of communication that's ostensibly "public" (anyone can see it), but which etiquette demands that you regard as "private" (you don't just blunder in and start shouting).
Or, as someone who has to think about this in his dayjob, puts it:
"If you still don't get it, try visualising it another way: Tom's pouring his heart out to friends in a restaurant. Spotting them, and knowing the nature of their conversation, a marketeer bounds up in a chicken outfit, seeing it as an ideal time to sell them detergent."
Lesson 3: All publicity is not good publicity
Well, unless making yourself officially the least cool product in online conversations counts as "good publicity"; unless blog posts with headlines like Cillit Bang-bang, you're dead are part of the long game; unless you think that being talked about in the most disparaging terms is better than not being talked about - then it's best to heed this advice from within the industry:
"If marketing people (and I'm one of them, by the way) want to use blogs to get closer to customers and engage in dialogue, I think this is a good thing. But you have to do it openly, honestly, humbly and with authenticity. Shabby tricks, faux blogs, clever-clever and short cuts will backfire and bite you on the arse."
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