(Photo credit: Terry Johnston Photo via Flickr Creative Commons)
If you haven’t yet heard the Internet-based tale of Louise Delage, it’s worth a few minutes of your time and consideration. Ms. Delage, a 25 year old woman from Paris, joined Instagram on August 1 and quickly became a star. Pretty, fun-loving, and always seeming to be in really chic places, doing really glamorous things, jet-setting Louise acquired more than 50,000 followers within two months,many smitten with her looks, her lifestyle, her persona. She seemed to live the stereotypical perfect Instagram life. And then, on September 30, came a bombshell.
Louise wasn’t real.
Her video post that day showed all the other photos on her account and pointed out that in every single one of them, Louise was holding an alcoholic drink. “Louise,” it turns out, was a French student and actress who was part of a campaign by Addict Aide, a French organization that much like Alcoholics Anonymous in the US helps people get or stay sober. The campaign was an effort by Addict Aide to make young people — the type likely to aspire to Louise’s glamorous looking life — more aware of the signs of alcohol addiction, and to knock down the stereotype that all alcoholics are dysfunctional fall-down drunks.
By most measures, the campaign should be called a success (and most every review or story or post about it that I’ve seen has done so). 50,000+ followers for a mock Instagram account in two months (as of this writing on October 12, it is up past 100,000). CNN covered the campaign and talked about its goals and why raising awareness among French youth about alcohol addiction is so important. AdWeek wrote about the campaign too. Thousands of Americans who’d never even heard of Addict Aide now know what it is and why it exists. Yep, earned coverage, shared coverage, lots of attention… most people in marketing would chalk this campaign up as a success. It will likely be submitted for many of the big awards in our industry, and might even win a number of them. And all over Europe and North America, ad agencies and marketers will sit down in industrial-chic conference rooms to brainstorm how they might create their own Louise Delage for their clients.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that their execution was stellar. But I can’t help but wonder if the short-term victory for Addict Aide came at the expense of long-term credibility for the marketing industry.
We talk often at Brain+Trust Partners about the importance of trust in business, trust that develops from your company’s actions, words, its values… how you take care of your customers, the transparency with which you interact with people, and how you approach the market and communities you’re part of. You’ll hear us say it over and over again: Trust matters. And transparency is an indispensable element of building trust — for individual companies, and for entire industries like marketing and advertising.
The Louise Delage campaign is hardly the first time something in the social network world turned out to not be what it seemed. From the LonelyGirl15 saga on YouTube in 2006, to Australian teen Instagram/YouTube/Tumblr superstar Essena O’Neill famously quitting social media in 2015 and decrying the phony, “not real life” nature of digital personas, there are lots of examples of creative caveat emptor in the digital world. Understanding that things aren’t always how they look online is part of the digital experience anymore.
But to me, this time is different. This time, it wasn’t just a creative exercise using a new medium like LonelyGirl15 was, and it wasn’t just a self-promoting young person carefully crafting an unrealistic image to get attention. This time, it was the advertising and marketing industry actively working to use an audience’s habits and interests to draw them into something that wasn’t real. The campaign was designed to fool the audience, and it worked. And while people in the advertising and marketing industries get in line to pat the campaign on the back (and no doubt try to replicate it), I can’t help but think that the audience may not be as forgiving.
People already don’t trust advertising and marketing. They increasingly use ad-blockers, they skip commercials via DVR, they pay extra to stream content without ads, and platforms change their algorithms frequently to lessen the amount of our content that users see in their feeds. We are too often an intrusion on the experience they want to have, and they don’t trust us when we do show up. And now, on top of that, we have a high profile campaign designed to fool the audience that has generated congratulations and approval from marketers and creatives and the media. I think audiences may well remember this — and not fondly.
When trust and transparency are so important to all businesses and industries, but especially marketing and advertising, and yet our best efforts involve tricking the audience even in pursuit of noble goals, I worry that it’s going to make the environment that much more inhospitable to us. When an already skeptical audience now has reason to turn every new social account into a parlor game of “Find The Marketing Angle,” and believes that any new personality or profile might be gimmicked by marketers, even those marketers who are genuinely trying to be transparent and have open conversations, are upfront about their intentions, and seek to utilize digital channels and content to build trust may find themselves subject to increased skepticism or cynicism. “You’ve fooled us before,” the audience may think — and they’d be right.
Louise Delage won the battle, all right, Her intentions were honorable and her pursuit noble, and no one can argue with a desire to make young people more aware of alcohol addiction. I just hope that in the process of scoring that victory, she didn’t nudge us closer to losing the war.