Culture

Peak Buzzword? Tough Times Ahead for 'Influencer' Biz

PR disasters prove consumers hunger for truth, not chocolate with beards.

By Shannon Rupp 30 Jan 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

If I had a hipster business, I'd call it Vellum & Twee.

I know this, courtesy of a very funny name generator that has been making mock of all the precious little businesses trying to sell faux authenticity.

There's also a logo generator.

My friends and I turned it into an online game: The Imaginary Business. When the generator spits out a name, you have to describe the enterprise.

Gate & Dinner? That would be a restaurant selling comfort food from the dropped tailgates of 1940s trucks. Plane & Coffin? What could it be but the inflight magazine of a discount airline? Vein & Barber is obviously the name of an artisanal healer with an alternative health clinic.

The name generator, which has been around for about a year, is a sly bit of satire that gets at this disturbing truth: I fear we have reached Peak Bullshit. And worse, it's harming the economy.

How many of us will be willing to buy anything from anyone if, like Mulder & Scully, we trust no one?

Something fishy

Just consider how the Toronto restaurant Azure has damaged the food-and-drinks industry. As the Toronto Star reported, the hipster restaurant was playing fast and loose with marketing adjectives on its menu to the point of attracting the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. CFIA's report found 20 "misrepresentations" on their menu between 2013 and 2015.

The "organic" granola turned out to be Quaker Harvest Crunch, the "homemade dressing" was from a Renée's Gourmet bottle. But perhaps my favourite bit of wordplay was the B.C. "organic" salmon that turned out to be farmed Atlantic salmon.

When the CFIA inspector called Azure on the misrepresentations, they pointed to the supplier's shorthand on the invoice: B/C meaning "boned and cleaned."

I noticed my mast-mate Steve Burgess, ever the quipster, was calling for a provincial name-change. I can see it now: Boned and Cleaned, Canada's westernmost province. Come to think of it, that's probably a good description of how Upper and Lower Canada treated us.

Can't do much about that now, but as a consumer I'm growing weary of being boned and cleaned at every turn. I've learned to avoid restaurants written up in purple prose, since that sort of hype is usually the sign of a business that cheats its customers. Let's just say that the deeper the aubergine of the marketing, the more I suspect the kitchen is peddling old meat, disguised by bottled sauce.

And when I see the bloggers-for-hire gushing about products, I run the other way.

Buzzwords are like warning signs in the marketplace, and the cynical sales people have managed to taint many a once-useful word.

Curator used to be the term for a skilled and thoughtful professional who organized art gallery and museum displays to make sense of their collections.

Now it's a marketing term that refers to e-commerce websites organized by somebody selling tchotchkes. Or blogging about her own (supposedly) good taste.

This has become all the rage among those not-quite-celebrated celebrities, such as Blake Lively. For a year, the actress best known for Gossip Girl, had the ultimate in fake-authentic hipster curator sites, called Preserve. She finally pulled the plug on the PR disaster last fall after one-too-many of her tone-deaf little ''stories'' went wrong.

My personal fave was the brouhaha over her article romanticizing the antebellum south. (Lovely clothes and gracious living, just don't mention the S-word.)

"It's not making a difference in people's lives, whether superficially or in a meaningful way," Lively told Vogue, explaining why she decided to get out of the Influencer biz before there were human rights complaints.

It's more likely the site folded because there are no longer enough marks in the marketplace willing to buy what Blake, and most of these delusional Influencers, are peddling.

Bullshit, chocolate-flavoured

Curator is just one of a long list of words that marketers have exhausted to the point they're meaningless. Like "story" and "storyteller" and "narrative." As you might imagine, losing those terms to the babble factories is particularly irritating to those who work in fields where telling a story is done in service of the audience, not some unattractive product.

From journalism, to novel writing, to theatre, we're all a touch annoyed with the way these shills are trying to conflate what we do with their amateur propaganda tricks.

My only comfort is that the people who do this sort of thing often do it so badly that it turns into high comedy.

I read about Mast Brothers chocolate a few years ago -- $10 a bar in stylish packaging -- and assumed it was some gag along the lines of CBC's This is That. The two chocolatiers looked like stereotypical hipsters, dressed in beards and plaid, and they told some fanciful story about producing bean-to-bar chocolate on their kitchen table in (where else?) Brooklyn.

Who'd fall for that?

So I was a little surprised to see news at Christmas about a Dallas food blogger exposing the New Yorkers' charade. Apparently the Mast boys were real-life versions of those tailors selling the Emperor's New Clothes. In the early days they weren't producing single-origin chocolate, as it's called; they were using some commercial chocolate, which is a foodie-world scandal. As for customers, those suckers were buying some variation on Hershey's in prettier paper.

I was amused, but their customers weren't. A month later there are reports that hipster chocolate sales are tanking at the finer emporiums. Today, the brothers say their product is as advertised, single-origin chocolate, and they argue their sales are holding steady.

It's another sign that the Bullshit Bubble is about to burst. First, it has become impossible to distinguish satire from reality. And second, consumers are starting to get hostile about it.

So it's not surprising successful purveyors of smoke-and-mirrors are suddenly leaving the biz. Last fall an Australian fashion blogger -- a flogger -- made international news when she gave up being a spokesthingy for brands because it's ''not authentic.''

An American vlogger – a flogger who does videos – echoed her views. She has a huge online following and is famous enough that her customers recognize her in the restaurant where she waits tables. And yet, few are inclined to pay much for her videos.

Time for a change?

One of the most persuasive signs that we're at the end of an era comes from the Guardian. The once great British newspaper, which fell for much of the hipster marketing nonsense, is reportedly mending its ways.

Like many news outlets, the Guardian had followed bloggers into the world of shilling and influencing in the mistaken belief that this was the only way to do digital publishing. They gave away their content free in exchange for the readers' attention. This fake journalism goes by various names -- "native advertising" or "brand journalism" or "content."

But even when it's free, most readers aren't interested in product marketing. And worse, they made the whole paper untrustworthy. Without readers, the newspapers had nothing to sell to the advertisers, who then deserted them too.

So this week, the Guardian announced that they will be labelling articles written for advertisers clearly, and calling it paid content.

I'd like to think that their collective conscience got the better of them. But I suspect it was more to do with loosing 100 million pounds last year. Meanwhile the Times, their competitor, is profitable and losing its print subscribers far more slowly than most outlets by maintaining professional journalism standards and putting up a paywall.

In short, the Times attracted subscribers by giving them a product worth paying for, an enterprise which Guardian managers had dismissed as a hopelessly "19th-century business model." Their solution to huge subscriber losses was to open (and close) a much-mocked Guardian-branded hipster coffee shop.

Their about-face may seem like a small thing, but the Guardian has been a leader online, and quick to snap up any new suit made in the Emperor's imaginary fabric. Labelling their content honestly seems like the harbinger of a new era.

Dare I call it the age of radical truth telling?

If that's the case, and we are at the dawn of a more honest era, I'm launching Vellum & Twee a little too late. Which is a shame, since I finally seem to understand marketing. But all may not be lost. My pal Anne, who is the sort of no-nonsense small businessperson who sells a quality product at a reasonable price, suggested I do the counterintuitive thing.

''You should sell un-Marketing. Try selling products or services for which there is a genuine need by telling the radical truth about what they do and how they do it,'' she said, with just the twitch of a smile.

Was that a dare?

She also suggested I change the name of my new un-Marketing business. So now I'm calling it, Emperor & Clothes.  [Tyee]

Read more: Food, Media

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