Advertisers: Don't gush or cloud

The sorry Singtel-Gushcloud saga brought into focus how social media is striving to transform the way consumers make buying decisions. Anything goes apparently in this wild, wild West world of advertising and promotion. Should some limits be established for the public good?

The question assumes importance as established corporates are turning to so-called influencers with supposedly substantial social media reach, in the belief that this is an effective way to connect with younger consumers. In the case of Singtel's e-campaign to promote a youth mobile plan, the "influencing" also took the form of a bid to smear rival telcos M1 and StarHub. That went beyond the pale.

The apology by Singtel's CEO helped to mitigate the damage to its credibility. And StarHub's and M1's acceptance of the apology showed welcome restraint. It would have tarnished Singapore's corporate image if leading business players had engaged in an unseemly scrap, especially when trust in key service providers is deemed an important asset.

In the freewheeling world of marketing influencers, Gushcloud and other social media agencies should engage in some soul-searching on campaigns that are dubious both in intent and execution. Blurring the lines between independent and paid-for comments misleads the public, erodes fair competition and, ultimately, devalues blogs as a supplementary tool for communication in contemporary society. Bloggers must see that the law of diminishing returns applies when they stoop to tactics that are bound to be exposed sooner or later, as indeed was the case involving Singtel. In 2011, global agency Burson-Marsteller was taken to task by the Public Relations Society of America for running a negative campaign against Google and for not disclosing the identity of its client, Facebook.

All acts that flout ethical codes should not be tolerated. The Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore says that campaigns should be legal, decent, honest and truthful. When product comparisons are undertaken, greater care must be exercised to remain neutral. Indeed, it ought to be obligatory for all those involved to disclose any pecuniary or other interests they have in a product or service. Anything less is just plain deceitful, as more content is put out by social media players who specialise in consumer persuasion. Netizens should insist on transparency and shun those who opt to remain silent or beat around the bush.

Industry players should proactively craft guidelines on appropriate conduct when engaging social media influencers, including mandatory disclosure of sponsored content, polling methodology and any selective use of data.

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