Monday, June 26, 2006

WOMM: Ethics and Normative Potential

--> As our class moves towards its close, I find myself reflecting on one of the most recent topics we've discussed. Specifically, I'm talking about the ethical concerns voiced by critics like Kate Kay in her piece "Sales Pitch Society II" and others regarding what the corporate world's move towards WOMM means for all of us. The commodification of everyday interactions is an interesting topic of discussion, and it's certainly useful for authors like Kay to play the devil's advocate with any new type of consumer-oriented media. We've also learned about the importance of transparency in maintaining ethically-sound campaigns. I don't think that one could argue against the idea of corporate colonization into everyday life, but it seems clear that WOM (if conduted in an ethical manner) actually has strong potential to undermine the daunting influence of corporations. Furthermore, WOM could be the beginning of the end of an era in which companies spouted marketing messages and products from on-high to be gobbled up by we lowly consumers (think about the difference between a product-seeding campaign and those rediculous and kitchy ads sponsors used to run during programs in the 50s).

There can be no doubt that certain unscrupulous individuals in the business and marketing world will use WOMM in ways that the community at large finds unethical. The beautiful thing about WOM, however, is that it can account for just such a problem--these very companies who practice WOMM in a less-than-ideal way can expect to be held accountable by a public that has obviously grown weary of advertising ploys. What's more, however, is that unlike traditional advertising, WOM has so much potential to fulfill the normative possibilites inherent in peer-to-peer interaction, and (I would argue), of a democratic society as a whole.

Let's look at the basics: the very idea behind WOM is that consumers send messages to one another with little or (hopefully) no direct influence from the company in question. This takes out the source of useless ad-related information that is so pervasive today (namely the company or their ad agency). Moving on, it follows then that the product/service itself is what merits organic word of mouth and the much sought-after high Net Promotor Score. If we, as consumers, take steps to eliminate those companies who engage in unethical WOMM, all we'll be left with is essentially products to judge for ourselves. Those who produce good products at reasonable prices will succeed, and those that don't will fail. The question is begged: As WOM becomes more pervasive, will the general public get just as sick of it as they are of tradtional advertising methods? I would argue that this scenario will not play out like some critics have suggested. Of course, it's up to the industry to ensure that unethical practices don't allow this to happen, but the fact that consumers can theoretically determine (for themselves) what constitues a good product should keep WOMM from suffering this unceremonious fate.

I'd like to take the discussion one step further. What is the potential of WOM in fostering real normative change beyond the world of consumer goods? Will we ever be able to infiltrate the political world with messages about progressive social change? How can we identify "influencers" in the area of (for instance) socio-economic development? I beleive that word-of-mouth's empowering nature lends itself to applications for the greater good of society. We all know that we need, lets say, an alternative fuel source. One day, the oil reserves of the world will run dry and the atmosphere will be even thicker with greenhouse gases. The principles of word-of-mouth should be leveraged to increase awareness and activism around issues like this. I'd love to see a WOMM campaign spurring youth activism, or concern for the environment, or more public attention to the problems of the developing world. The list goes on.

If we can find a way to make WOM work towards remedying some legitimate societal ills, I'm willing to bet that some of the ethical concerns voiced by critics will be put to rest. Here's hoping.