The only continent that doubles as a country has given us some amazing things. The Mad Max movies. Men at Work. Vegemite. Russell Crowe. The didgeridoo. Crocodile Dundee. The Wiggles. Australian Rules Football. Dame Edna. Midnight Oil. And now, Australia is contributing to the social media environment by giving brands something they’ll never forget:
Thousands, if not millions, of free marketers: your fans.
In July, Australia’s Advertising Standards Board issued a ruling which either completely missed the point of social media or it has the potential to change the landscape of social media completely. Or, more likely, it’s just going to make brands do a lot more work on social media properties in Australia.
The case had the incredibly sexy title of Case Number 0272/12 and dealt with the official Facebook page of Smirnoff Vodka for Australia. After a number of complaints about content appearing on the page that was posted by Smirnoff’s fans and after hearing Smirnoff’s official response, the Board issued the ruling that was in favor of Smirnoff.
But it was a battle won, war lost situation. While the specific complaint that the Board dealt with (pictures of people who may have been under 25 drinking Smirnoff when the legal drinking age is 18) was decided in Smirnoff’s favor, the ruling itself contained this bombshell:
The Board considered that the Facebook site of an advertiser is a marketing communication tool over which the advertiser has a reasonable degree of control and could be considered to draw the attention of a segment of the public to a product in a manner calculated to promote or oppose directly or indirectly that product. The Board determined that the provisions of the Code apply to an advertiser’s Facebook page. As a Facebook page can be used to engage with customers, the Board further considered that the Code applies to the content generated by the advertisers as well as material or comments posted by users or friends.
I added that last bit of emphasis. If the blog let me, I would have put fireworks behind it along with a crying unicorn to emphasize just how big a decision this could be. Content posted by a brand’s fans will now be considered marketing material just as if the brand itself had published it.
The marketing attorneys reading this are already cringing, openly weeping, or rending their garments. For those of you who don’t understand the impact, let me just say this: brands have very strict requirements about what they can and cannot say when advertising. You may not think so based on the thousands of times you’ve heard the nonsensical “new and improved” but there are limits. The bigger the company, the more they are a target for those regulations and the more they do to ensure their marketing materials comply with the laws.
Now the governing body that ensures compliance with those laws in Australia is saying the same rules apply to content posted by a brand’s fans. So, while Smirnoff would never post something like this on their Facebook page:
Smirnoff Vodka is made of 100% genuine unicorn tears and, if consumed on a date, will guarantee you a sexual encounter with the mate of your choosing.
If a fan of Smirnoff posts this message on the Smirnoff page the Board in Australia will treat the content as if Smirnoff itself had said it.
This goes against the core principle of social media–to have conversations. The Board is essentially saying that brands cannot talk with your customers or fans–instead of talking to a brand your fans are talking through the brand’s mouth. This essentially forces brands to now monitor and potentially censor content posted on their page by others. Australia has always had a slightly different view of censorship than the US and most of Europe, so this may not concern them greatly. But the end result is that if this ruling stands then brands will need to constantly monitor their page for the content their fans post. That’s if they don’t just turn off fan comments/content completely.
Hopefully the Board can be convinced that this doesn’t make sense in social media. Or the rules themselves can be changed to distinguish between marketing content from brands and fan content from individuals. Because social media users understand the difference between the speaker and the page owner. When a friend posts something on my Facebook profile and others see it, they see that person saying they love Justin Bieber and know that it isn’t me. (It isn’t. It really, really isn’t.) If I were to copy that message and then post it myself then I would be saying it, but I never would. Ever. Ever ever. The same is true for content posted on brand pages.
We know that the whole toilets-flush-clockwise-in-Australia thing is a myth, but maybe the land down under does want to do social media in reverse. Instead of making it a platform to enable conversations they want to give brands thousands or millions of free, untrained, uncontrolled marketers that the brand is responsible for. It’s like the world’s worst ventriloquism show for marketers. And it could be big trouble.