By Adam Arvidsson
The use of word of mouth has a long history in marketing. Already during the First War, American war propaganda would stage ‘spontaneous’ outburst of patriotic fervour in movie theatres, restaurants and other places where large crowds gathered. Recently however, the reliance on word of mouth, or better, autonomous communication processes that unfold among consumers themselves, has increased. The reasons for this are primarily threefold. First, during the post-war years, and in particular since the 1980s there has been a tremendous expansion in the amount of advertising facing consumers. Combined with the concomitant media differentiation (more television channels and new media platforms like internet, mobiles and computer games) this has diminished the efficiency of advertising. Consumers are less likely to watch advertising spots. (They can shift channels more easily, shift over to a different media platform, or just have their Tivo to automatically bypass advertising). Even when they see it, they are less likely to take notice and be influenced. Continuous massive exposure to advertising from young age has created a blasÃ© and ironic attitude even in adult consumers. The massification of advertising has diminished its use-value: like other traditional media, such as television, radio and the press in general, advertising is loosing its grip over the formation of public and market opinion.
Second, this very same development has enhanced the power of interpersonal communication. The arrival of powerful interpersonal, or social media like networked computers and cellular phones has enabled ordinary people to communicate more effectively with a much wider range of people. This has made it possible to produce and circulate public and market opinion, as well as new forms of lifestyles, fads and fashions faster and more efficiently than before. It has also enabled users to create ethically significant social bonds and shared experiences beyond the limits previously imposed by space and time. All in all, new interpersonal media have become social media, a powerful tool for the construction of a common social world. They have in a sense realized the dreams of radical media philosophers of the 1970s: that media become collectively used means of production.
Third, and as a consequence of this, marketing has begun to focus on a new model for generating surplus value and profit. While the focus of previous marketing was almost exclusively on sales, the focus today is shifting over towards brand management. That is, while sales are still important, the primary aim becomes mobilizing ethical support for the brand, which can in turn translate into forms of brand value to be realized, primarily on financial markets: The ethical standing of the brand legitimizes appropriation of a share of the global surplus distributed on financial markets. (In turn this is linked to the general financialization of the economy, visibile in things like ‘share holder oriented corporate governance’.) In order to create such an ethical standing for the brand, it is crucial to rely on and activate interpersonal networks of communication. Thus brand management has evolved into a discipline that is primarily concerned with the management of social processes. It tries to make them unfold in such ways that their autonomous interaction patterns come to strengthen the standing of the brand. Brand management has come to increasingly focus on managing social relations. Advertising, product placements and other forms of traditional media practices are still important, but these are more often thought of as generating an environment for the spontaneous unfolding of consumer interaction, rather than, as previously, as forms of propaganda that would convince or seduce consumers. Hence the use of ‘viral’ , ‘guerilla’ and ‘event’ marketing. These are all techniques that aim at producing affective intensities (‘events’) able to activate investments in advertising by enabling the message to circulate within communicative processes that unfold among consumers. Thus, Trojan games has launched several successful campaigns that build on the principle that consumers circulate advertising material among themselves. Diesel now conducts a campaign where (primarily young) consumers are invited to city walls in Berlin and Milan. It is hoped that the brand will thus become a topic of conversation within the target audience. Presently, this principle, to create and valorize what Italian economist Maurizio Lazzarato calls an ‘ethical surplus’, has become a key principle for the online economy. Sites like Skinnycorp thrive on giving a space for users to create a community of interest. Similarly the astronomical prices paid for MySpace and Skype on the part of large corporate actors were motivated by the ethical standing that these brands had accumulated, rather than any realistic predictions of recuperating investments through advertising or other revenues.
Informational capitalism is characterized by a growing separation between production and valorization. The production of immaterial values like knowledge, affect and sociality increasingly takes place in autonomous processes of technologically empowered communication that unfolds among users themselves. Their valorization occurs through the ability to appropriate a share of the global surplus, which is distributed on financial markets. The ability to accumulate an ethical surplus therefore becomes a necessary condition for the ability to appropriate surplus value. Therefore recent forms of brand management, that intervene directly on social communication without relying primarily on advertising and other forms of propaganda are becoming a central managerial technique for the information economy in general.