News & Views

Corporate Emotional Responsibility

by Will Sansom

I was struck recently by an interview with fashion mogul Tom Ford in British news magazine The Week, in which he cited the 'narcissism found on Instagram' as a pet hate. At first I thought it hypocritical for someone with eight different fragrances named after them to condemn any strain of egotism in their fellow man, before quickly realising that this in itself could be an indicator of how serious things have got. Put simply, if one of the most powerful people in an industry built on self-expression thinks we're becoming too self-obsessed... well, you get the point.

A quick search on Instagram shows a staggering 143 million photos with the hashtag #me - a number that has nearly tripled since a BBC journalist counted in June. And yet, despite the explosion of 'selfie' culture being well documented, more column inches seem to have been dedicated to the behaviour itself, rather than asking whether it is acceptable in the first place. You wouldn't walk into someone's house and think it normal for them to have hundreds of photos of their own pouting face strewn about the place, would you? So why are we ok with this happening on social media platforms? Perhaps more importantly, why do we do it ourselves?

An anthropologist would probably claim that these narcissistic tendencies lie dormant within all of us and that social media platforms simply amplify them, to a greater or lesser degree. What concerns me (as someone who works in marketing) is what part brands have, or will continue to play in this. Through our Contagious Insider consultancy arm I've discussed with clients the concept of 'enabling users to create social currency' - i.e. nuggets of content that are deemed valuable enough on Facebook etc for the user to share. But of course the most valuable content on these platforms is the stuff that makes you look #smart #sexy #likeyouarereallygoingplaces, etc. So basically, it's fuel for our narcissism. #instantpowerpointregret.

Is there a danger of a brand doing something just because it can, without asking whether it is right? In other words, should brands be helping to amplify narcissism? Not only can that social currency make the person seem vain, but it can also have a detrimental effect on their audience. The University of Michigan recently ran a study, observing 82 people over the course of two weeks, and asked a variety of questions at random intervals every day. Participants had to answer questions like 'how worried are you right now?' and 'how much have you used Facebook since the last time we asked?' and rate the answers between 0 and 100. The study concluded that the average Facebook use over the course of the 14-day experience-sampling period predicts decreases in life satisfaction over time.

Do I really need to know that you've just completed a 6.2km run that you've decided to brag about via the 'share to Facebook' functionality on your tracking app? If I've just completed a run myself then I may be happy to give you a virtual high five, but if I am sitting on a busy commuter train at the end of a long stressful day, dropping bits of a lukewarm Big Mac into my lap, then that update will probably just make me feel miserable. Indeed I know people who have stopped visiting Facebook so regularly simply because the constant exposure to all the great things happening in other peoples' lives just made them feel worse about their own. Of course, if these exchanges happened in person we'd be able to gauge whether some gentle bragging was appropriate or not, but conducted remotely over social networks, we lose all such sensitivity or empathy.

So will brands soon have to consider what responsibility they have in enabling us to promote our various emotional attributes? I.e., is this a fundamentally good characteristic that we are amplifying in our customers or fans and what emotional impact does it have on the people around them? Hopefully our anthropologist would say that there are plenty of more positive or socially constructive qualities that sit alongside narcissism in our psyches, such as empathy or generosity; if so, should brands be focussing on these?

So much has been written about the effect that social media has had on the transparency of brands, that we've almost forgotten how transparent it makes people as well. Perhaps the next great challenge for marketers in social, is in aligning these two transparencies and figuring out how the value of a brand can be directly mapped to what makes us good people. It's certainly another way to interpret that sense of 'purpose' that so many marketers seem to be chasing at present.

Oh, and next time you think about taking a selfie using Instagram, remember, you're upsetting Tom Ford.

Will Sansom is Director of Content & Strategy, Contagious Insider