Russell Brandom and Ryan Manning wrote an interesting piece for The Verge this morning. Readers of the site will know that I don’t often discuss the Snapchat because I don’t enjoy the service, and can’t even bring myself to be academically interested in their efforts to monetize entertainment content through their Discover service. Perhaps the most interesting part is the generally creepiness of sponsoring people with followers to promote products in a way that crosses the line from entertainment into advertising. Sure, there’s product placement in entertainment (often with really clunky dialog about using a product or service) but there’s something about the way a singular person promoting a product that has a disgusting feel to it. As if this personal blog would start to talk about the virtues of Taco Bell’s Cap’n Crunch Berry Delights™.
That time I wrote about the Starbucks app? Because I wanted to, not because I was compensated to do so. That would never be my default assumption when reading someone’s personal blog, but what about in a few years? Will I look at someone else’s writing, or their videos, and distrust their reporting because I’m suspicious of compensation that isn’t clearly spelled out? That’s not even a foreign notion, with it occasionally happening on websites. It’s not like I’m a reporter, nor is Shaun McBride. Shaun knows that the disclaimers can make people avoid sponsored content:
“As a society, we’ve kind of learned to tune out advertisements on TV,” McBride says. “With Snapchat, we’re not used to it. When you advertise on Snapchat, if you do it in a fun and creative way that adds value; they don’t see it as an annoying ad. They actually enjoy it.”
Shaun fails to understand that this is fundamentally deceptive. Even if he does an amazing job at constructing his videos in a way that communicates that money is changing hands (probably not, bro!) that doesn’t mean that everyone is. After all, it is the very act of making it seem like it isn’t an ad that gets people to pay attention to it.
As all the grownups know, there’s a good reason to regulate this. The Verge cites a Cole Haan case on Pintrest where the FTC fined Cole Haan. However, as Russell and Brandom note, that’s very different for Snapchat, or Periscope, or anything else where the content expires.
But Snapchat’s self-destructing nature makes it hard for regulators to keep up. The FTC isn’t an investigative agency and most of its targets come from consumer referrals. But if a video disappears as soon as you watch it, it can’t be sent to regulators, and recording and hosting a Snapchat Story is still out of reach for most consumers. Advertisers on broadcast channels face even stronger restrictions, spurred by concerned parent groups, but there’s no equivalent for social media, and the ephemeral nature of Snapchat means there’s little concerned parents can point to.
Not to highlight an unfinished writing project, but blurring the lines between advertising and personal lives is the sort of dystopian future that speaks to me.