We Have An Ethical Issue With “Evangelist”-Driven Marketing

Hey, did you hear? LeBron James is transferring to the Lakers.

Then again even if you don’t follow basketball like me nothing short of solitary confinement in Siberia would stop this news from reaching you.

I’m not here to talk about that, though. I’m here to talk about the almost frighteningly visceral reaction from some corners of the so-called “fan” community and how it relates to the marketing of entertainment.

Among the massive amount of buzz generated by this news, a subset of fans are…disappointed in LeBron. I’ve seen him called a fraud, a liar, a sociopath, a hack, a sellout, and a slew of other profanities that I’m not going to repeat. I’ve seen calls to boycott his games, for his contract to be tossed out and for him to be blacklisted from basketball.

The problem with about being part of a fan community is that you can sometimes have trouble observing it objectively. Not being a particular basketball enthusiast I feel comfortable commenting on how gobsmacked I was at the ferocity of these attacks, many leveled at LeBron personally. Over a basketball player changing teams.

One friend thoughtfully contextualized how big of a deal this was by saying that this was as if Apple had bought Google. Fine, but my statement still stands.

Unfortunately, this gave me nam flashbacks. What I am a huge enthusiast of is video games, and this is a pattern I’ve sadly seen before in the industry. Whether it’s journalists getting death threats just for reporting on a video game’s two month delay, or a game writer’s children being threatened for not liking her work on a popular series the game industry has no shortage of zealous fan behavior turning frightening.

The blame often begins and ends with the petulant, bratty behavior of the fans themselves. While they absolutely should be held accountable for their attitudes we need to start talking about the marketing that influences and even encourages fans to behave like this.

Media marketing – especially for entertainment that tends to have a built-in and passionate fan base – can be a tricky beast. You’re setting expectations for a lot of people who experience not just necessity or desire but outright joy at what you’re doing.

Promoting this kind of product or media is going to turn ugly when you consider the state of marketing today. It’s not enough that marketing and public relations sells products or experiences. The public relations world is a place of pie in the sky promises and of not just creating customers, but creating zealously loyal “brand ambassadors” who treat products or media as a reflection of their self-identity.

Don’t take my word for it; one or or two Google searches turn up countless articles on how to turn your customers into evangelists. Marketing taglines encouraging you to believe the hype (hi, Titanfall) and brand communities that constantly encourage involvement by consumers regularly encourage them to make media part of their identity.

It’s not enough that you need to encourage repeat business among customers anymore. You need to create fanatically loyal (!!!) customers. This one article explicitly refers to the culture you need to create to keep customers coming back. Probably the cherry on top is this article where someone encourages people to build fan bases like the notorious fans of Apple by – I kid you not – defining your enemy.

The most dangerous aspect of these wildly sensational articles is that many of them are written by well-versed, well respected marketing leaders. In other words, the types of people that executives and other marketers listen to.

You should be seeing by now what the ethical issue is.

Marketing has become a place where you actively seed and grow this level of unhealthy loyalty to products regardless of the fallout or eventual consequences. It’s the type of environment where companies get to profit off of unhinged, abusive creeps without calling out the resulting behavior.

Then again, why would they? It only works to a company’s favor that a hardcore foundation of “evangelists” are chomping at the bit to consume and defend and fight on behalf of their products like caricature drug addicts. The most vocal and loyal of audiences tend to spend the most money, which is why the same people who will wait in line for Apple product launches tend to be the ones who will yell at you on Twitter if you’re critical of those same products.

You may not have actively sought out people who are vulnerable or impressionable enough to be willing to make your product such a core part of their identity that they’ll viciously assault any perceived threat, marketers, but you’re certainly responsible for it.

So what needs to happen?

When It Comes To Teaching Marketers

From an ethical standpoint we need to start teaching the importance of treating your customers like people. Marketing needs to emphasize that concepts like “brand ambassadors” and “fan evangelism” are unhealthy. They’re part of this trend where you’re selling an identity back to people and not a product.

Except when people feel that their identity is under attack they resort to the kinds of horrific behavior we’ve been discussing in this very blog post. We need to get back to selling products and not affirmations of who people are. It will be better and healthier for everyone, and make marketing a better place.

When It Comes to the Marketers and Companies Themselves

Yes, you are responsible for the behavior of your customers even though some of you would like to imagine that isn’t the case. Your “hands off” policies may avoid some awkward questions, but when your customers are viciously and personally attacking people in defense of you, it’s your responsibility to call them out and hold them accountable.

Think about this logically. Is it really worth having your brand name tarnished by having it associated with the types of creeps who attack and harass other people? If the answer is anything other than “no” then I would advise some self-reflection.

A Message for the So-Called Fans

I’m going to avoid too much finger-wagging and encourage you to look at this objectively: Acutely vicious reactions to LeBron James joining the Lakers, or someone deciding to criticize Apple, or video games being delayed isn’t normal or healthy. I sincerely mean it when I encourage you to reflect on what’s important for your life and for you to get help.

In closing I’d like to refer to this memorable segment from YouTuber George Weidman, aka Super Bunnyhop.