My Twitter exchange with @TheBKLounge last week didn’t just lead to my first purchase of an Angry Whopper, it also sparked an interesting conversation with Warren Sukernek, regarding Social Media transparency. I’ve got a lot of respect for Warren (he is, after all, the Twitter Maven), but we had a difference of opinion that I thought was worth discussing in a more open forum – it was, after all, about transparency. Warren questioned whether the @TheBKLounge Twitter account was being run by Burger King’s ad agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, or by a Burger King employee. I’ll let Warren put forth his argument in just a moment. First, here’s my take…
Transparency is a legitimate issue in PR in general, and especially so in Social Media where the engagement with consumers is so direct. However, I think this particular case is an exception to the rule, and here’s why:
1. Consumer advocacy isn’t an issue
Consumers aren’t being defrauded nor is their trust being compromised. If Crispin Porter set up a Twitter account called @The_RealBarackObama and then tweeted: “Man, I love Burger King,” that would be fraudulent. Or if Alex Bogusky went on Twitter and said, “The Whopper is the best burger ever,” but didn’t divulge that his agency worked for Burger King, that would be deceiving.
2. The King is a fictional character
The avatar for @TheBKLounge is The King. A fictional character and the brand persona of Burger King. I would argue that not only does it not matter whether CP+B or Burger King corporate is behind the account, but that actually knowing would break the illusion. The best storytelling requires a suspension of disbelief, whether a movie, book or in some cases, Social Media engagement.
3. What’s the difference between CP+B and Burger King?
Ostensibly there is little (no?) difference between a CP+B employee and a Burger King employee in this case. Either way, the person running the Twitter account is working on behalf of Burger King, with Burger King’s consent. Last fall I participated in the Mad Men on Twitter Social Media event. It would be completely fair to argue that I should have had a disclaimer saying I was not affiliated in any way with the show, because I wasn’t. But in this case I don’t see the issue. Twitter is a loosely regulated environment right now and the natural inclination, especially among the most exemplary of Social Media custodians may be to go by the letter of the law. But I think we need to allow for some creativity, and yes, a little magic.
Long live the King!
And now, let’s here from Warren…
First, Rick thanks for inviting me to discuss this important issue on Eyecube. Social media is all about relationships and engagement with our customers. In order to achieve that engagement, consumers must trust us. We help to build trust by being transparent and authentic. If we cannot be authentic, then how can we engage with a customer with honesty and respect. One of the tenets of social media is the Cluetrain Manifesto by David Weinberger (@dweinberger), Doc Searls (@dsearls) , Rick Levine (@ricklevine), and Chris Locke, whereby markets are conversations. To me a conversation with a character managed by an ad agency does not seem like it’s following the Cluetrain Manifesto. I really think the practice of using a fictional character to represent a brand on Twitter is a slippery slope, especially since the brand has no other presence on Twitter.
1) But enough about my ideas and thoughts, let’s see what Twitter had to say. I asked Twitter, “Is it ok for an ad agency to bring a client’s character to twitter and tweet as if they are that character, as if they are the brand?” http://twitter.com/warrenss/status/1117517669
And here were some of the answers:
Former Apple Director of Advertising Michael Markman (@mickeleh) Can’t tell you if a brand character sock puppet performed by an agency is OK. I can, however, tell you it would make me puke. http://twitter.com/Mickeleh/status/1117527444
To show how @mickeleh really feels, check out his next tweet, “Hi, I’m Charlie the Tuna. Follow me on Twitter and we can be fishy BFFs.” http://twitter.com/Mickeleh/status/1117537857%202
The issue about always being in character is suspect. Just a couple of weeks ago, @thebklounge sent a Cease and Desist notice to a fan who had brandjacked, @whoppervirgins, http://twitter.com/theBKlounge/statuses/1063696337
If @thebklounge is always in character, how are we to take this seriously?
3) As Mark Drapeau said in his provocative Mashable post, Twitter is about people sharing information with other people.
Who would you rather talk to on Twitter, a brand’s character or someone directly working at the brand?
4) Kate Kaye also writes in Clickz about best practices that some leading brands are implementing on Twitter to engage with their customers and solve marketing, customer service or relationship issues. She states,”[Regardless of how brands are using Twitter], “there is some consensus regarding the need to take a personal approach”.
Sorry, Twitter (and social media for that matter) is not another just channel for brands and their ad agencies to push out their message. We want to engage with brands, but in a realistic, transparent, and honest manner.
Now, with regard to the @theBKLounge there is a great deal of room for criticism. Warren, it seems to me, though is missing the forest for the trees. When we’re talking about a fictional character created by an ad agency, there’s no need for the sort of “transparency” that Warren is demanding. If there was a Twitter account that was @NYSGovernorsOffice, we could and should demand to know who are the people manning that account. If the account was called @GovernorDavidPatterson, even more so. Or what about @LeVarBurton? We’d all be heart-broken if there was a publicist at the helm of that account, and not LeVar himself as it appears.
But with @theBKLounge, this level of transparency is neither required nor useful. The King is a character invented by Crispin Porter, and it seems rather obvious to everyone that that account has a CPB person running it. But there’s no deception here – no one actually thinks that The King exists, therefore no one is going to be heartbroken or feel misled when it turns out that the The King himself is not punching the keys. The account might as well be @SantaClaus.
Furthermore, suppose that CPB notices the demands for transparency and obliges. A press release comes out revealing that Account Executive Sarah Smith of Miami, FL is the voice of @theBKLounge. Where does that leave us? We’ve learned no useful information and (importantly) the way that we approach the account and the information coming out of it does not change one iota. Calling for transparency just because we’re Web 2.0 PR people and that’s our mantra is just dogmatic. In the case of this Twitter account, transparency gains nothing for the consumer.
So that’s the trees, where’s the forest? In my opinion the biggest reason to criticize @theBKLounge is that it doesn’t really scale well does it? The account has accrued a little over 700 followers. You might argue that these people are influencers, but a quick perusal of the list shows that that doesn’t appear to be the case. If our assumption is right and this is a CPB tactic, they’re getting some wonderful engagement with users, but it’s got to be a pretty low ROI figure for what they’re spending.
Thanks Fernando. And now, here’s another perspective:
Saman Rahmanian is an Interactive Art Director at CP+B – the agency responsible for Burger King’s Whopper Sacrifice campaign among others. Here are his personal thoughts on the issue of Social Media transparency:
When Fiction Blurs Reality
The Twitter account @theBKlounge has sparked a social media debate between advocates of transparency with those of… well, storytelling.
The first group reasons that social media should not be abused by masqueraders and that the source of information should always be apparent. The second group takes a different approach arguing that the information per se is what matters, not where it comes from.
In the past, social media channels that are intrinsically transparent and authentic in nature (MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter,…) have seen numerous examples that have gone against the norm. Helga from the VW ads with her MySpace page a few years ago comes to mind or lonelygirl15 who had a terrific success on YouTube with her video posts on such topics as her lazy eye. Fake Steve Jobs with his hilariously insightful blog was a more apparent example of a fictional character entertaining the crowd.
So why do people follow these characters? Because people love entertainment. To be exact, people love stories. In some instances the very question of whether a character is real or not becomes the story, as in the case of lonelygirl15. But what truly makes this hype work is that people can now become part of the story they love. Let’s take Donald Duck. We all know him. We all know how he dresses, in what town he lives. We know the names of his nephews, and we even know which girl he fancies. But before social media came to place, this story – whilst being a great one – could only be unidirectional. We could only sit back, enjoy and find out more about him. It was not possible to converse with him. This can change with social media.
Now Donald Duck could have a Twitter account (I don’t think there is one) and people would be on the same level with him. He suddenly becomes a buddy who you can talk to and who you can ask questions that have always lingered in your mind (like “why do you wrap a towel around your waist when you come out of the shower while you normally don’t even wear pants?”).
So if it’s the story that people are after, why are people so concerned about the source? What difference does it make whether the agency, the company or a BK fan is behind @theBKlounge? And while I respect @warrenss and his views on authenticity, quite frankly it doesn’t matter. As long as people love the story, they will follow. And because I like @warrenss, I will give an educated guess on the authenticity of @theBKlounge: Has the King ever talked?
I guess that as always I’m less interested in this stuff from a marketing tactics point of view than from a consumer point of view. As in, why would a regular consumer (who is not in the business of persuasion, as it were) want to “follow” the king on Twitter?
Possibly they expect to get some kind of payoff in the form of, I don’ t know, special offers or maybe services or something that only King followers would know about.
Possibly they just think Burger King advertising is kind of funny/weird/whatever and expect that the King’s tweets would live up to that. In a way, the King having a Twitter feed seems to me at least on some level to be a satire of celebrities having a Twitter feed. If Shaquille O’Neal, why not the imaginary Burger King? In other words, it’s all just a goof. For kicks. Like that.
So I don’t think they’d care if the tweets were written by an employee of BK, CPB, or by a robot. As long as they got what they wanted — some kind of deal, some entertainment, whatever. I’m not sure what engagement people would be looking for beyond that — I don’t think anybody would expect that much of a mascot’s Twitter feed. But then I’m not a certified Twitter expert, so maybe I’m wrong.
I really can’t thank Warren, Fernando, Saman, Rob and the other participants enough for their thoughtfulness and passion. This is a worthy discussion and I hope it continues - in the comments below, on Twitter and hopefully in other forums and outlets.