Consumer control issue is marketing's two-edged sword

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So marketers want consumers to be in control, do they? "Truly the consumer wants to be in control, and we want to put them in control," General Motors marketing executive Roger Adams told the Association of National Advertisers' annual meeting.

Be careful what you wish for. What most marketers haven't come to grips with is just how much consumers are now calling the shots. They have the ability to change the way ad messages are being received-and even come out with their own counter-messages.

At the International Advertising Association World Congress in Beijing last month, delegates heard how consumers now have the power and the know-how to alter marketing behavior. Now it's consumers who are in the position to manipulate marketers.

Rod Pullen, CEO of Batey Red Cell in Singapore, told IAA delegates from 42 countries how two ordinary consumers, the Neistat brothers, created a Web site and film to protest that Apple's iPod battery couldn't be replaced and lasted only 18 months. The film, "iPod's Dirty Secret" (using iMacs to produce it) showed the brothers stenciling their findings about the iPod battery all over Apple's poster ads for the product. The Web site generated over 15 million hits from around the world and forced Apple to change the battery.

Another IAA speaker, Kolchi Yamamoto of the Dentsu Communications Institute, called the influence of Web logs "the strength of weak information." After Coca-Cola premiered its new C2 Coke product in Japan, Mr. Yamamoto said consumers created the better part of 40,000 Web pages about the product. The blogs had a "strong impact" on what consumers thought about C2, even though they had no specific verification of the information. Mr. Yamamoto said opinions about C2 from these "weak information" sources had a greater impact than the opinion of friends, who all tended to think the same way.

The blog creators are influencers-people who pride themselves on knowing all kinds of arcane, insider details about the product, hence giving them credibility with consumers.

What's clear is that advertising no longer has the luxury of being a one-way monologue. Consumers, much like voters, have the ability to not only absorb advertiser messages, but to change other consumers' minds about the message content and the product itself.

So marketers must now be ready to change their communications based on consumers' own feedback. Political ads have long adapted to what their polls show voters are most concerned about, and now consumers have the same opportunity-only consumers, through their blogs, are polling themselves.

If blogs are liberating consumers, they are having an equal impact on voters. More and more people are turning to blogs for their take on political events of the day, and traditional journalism is taking the hit. After The New York Times Magazine ran a story on political blogs, one reader wrote: "I love the way the mainstream press finds itself scratching its collective head, wondering if blogs are a `good' thing. Get over it. If not for the bloggers, stories you guys refuse to tell would drop into the memory hole forever. Don't be bitter because they're doing your job."

The journalistic bloggers bypass professional journalists. Will consumer blogs bypass professional advertising agencies? As I said, be careful what you wish for.

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