The Buying and Selling of Reputation

I find it very curious that highbrow business journalism keeps documenting new marketing abuses as news, but consistently fails to connect the dots and validate them as a trend. The trend: amoral marketing innovations that cynically appropriate social reputation and ultimately corrupt it. There has been a spate of stories on this topic in the past few weeks:

Many people might respond to all this, So what else is new? Selling out is a venerable tradition. And in one sense, that’s true. But the very newsworthiness of the latest stories suggests that there is more going on here. Marketing is now reaching more deeply and insidiously into social environments that have historically been insulated from commercial pitches. Social communication that we once considered sincere and credible – casual social encounters on the street, the theater, broadcast news – are being quietly corrupted by commercial motives.

While any company wants to enjoy social goodwill, most of them seem more eager to buy it than earn it. Earning it takes too much time and effort, and the end result is uncertain. In any case, business culture likes to think that everything has a price, that consumer loyalty can be bought. So businesses, ignoring the reality of the social commons, feel free to colonize the dwindling pockets of credibility in the public landscape.

Here’s what I’m wondering: Knowing what we do about the marketing business – its guile, ingenuity and lack of scruple – how can social commons protect themselves from commercial appropriation and replenish themselves? Is there a way to break marketers’ “pump and dump” cycle of purchasing reputation and then moving on to the next untouched source of social credibility? A good place to start is by identifying and punishing marketers who trade cynically on social trust. Accountants like to monetize consumer “goodwill.” Maybe they should first ask if it’s for sale.