An Idea So Good That It's Worth Spending Time Explaining Without Expecting Something in Return

On Friday evening, Creative Commons announced a partnership with BzzAgent, which styles itself as a buzz-marketing (word-of-mouth) advertising company. Suw Charman responded at length, and I comment at length in response to the comment by BzzAgent's President and CEO, Dave Balter. My main points in the comment were that BzzAgent may be providing the service free of charge, but individual BzzAgents were not only getting rewarded for mentioning products they were tasked with (actually, the idea seems to be that they already have bought into the quality of the product, and want to be rewarded for pimping it), but expected the reward. That is different than promoting something, as I have, with no expected reward. In fact, I've donated and mentioned and linked to and bought the t-shirts (plural) for the Creative Commons, and all I got was a conversation with a pretty girl at a party about it. Actually, that was pretty cool, because she was drunk and her boyfriend was sitting next to her and he was sober, but I didn't care: I was talking about something I was a little knowledgable about and passionate about, and the only reward I got was the satisfaction of telling another person about it.

I was taken by surprise by the announcement, partly because of when it was announced—in politics, one of the best ways to bury a story is to announce it on a Friday evening; in fairness, the partnership had been semi-announced earlier—and partly because BzzAgent and undercover marketing are, in a word, creepy. The premise is that people will go to social events or places where people gather and have conversations with people, judge whether there is a chance to discuss a product that that person has been tasked with mentioning, and bring it up as naturally as possible. The idea is that word-of-mouth advertising is better than traditional advertising on TV, radio or print, where the product or service is separate from what the TV show, radio program or print media is discussing. In movies, it's now common to see commercial products that the company had paid to have included—this is also common in rap music videos, if you watch closely—but undercover marketing can be more devious because people whom you think of as friends may be secretly trying to sell you something.

It's at this juncture that I quote extensively from the documentary The Corporation (I covered the book version for One Book, One Vancouver in 2004 and interviewed the author, Joel Bakan). Jonathan Ressler, CEO of Big Fat Inc., which the movie calls an "undercover marketing" company:

I could give you a day in the life of a person who might be the target of undercover marketing and I will tell you that some of these things are happening right now, around you. So you walk out of your building in the morning in some city and you walk by the doorman and say "hey good morning" and you notice there's a bunch of boxes at his feet from some online or mail order retailer. And there's a bunch of boxes there with of course a big brand message on it. You walk out and [think] "a lot of people must be ordering from that company". Well what you don't know is that we paid the doorman to keep those empty boxes there.

You walk out into the street and you hear some people having a kind of loud conversation about a musical act. And they're kind of passing the headphones back and forth. "Wow this is great." "Hey do you know that I heard this CD is really hard to find but I heard they sell it at Store X".

You hear it and register it and might kinda pick up on that and maybe later on you'll think "what about that hot act that's bangin'" that might be in your head. Now you get into your office and there's a certain brand of water in the refrigerator, what is that? Take it out you drink you it slug it down it's there you're not really thinking about it. "Wow that's pretty good water." Who knows, maybe someone placed the water there.

You kinda go out for your lunch break you're sitting in the park people are kinda out there talkin' in the park and bang, all of a sudden you see another message.

By the time you go to bed, you've probably received 8 or 9 different undercover messages. People are always thinking "oh I know product placement, that's when they put stuff in movies." Well, yeah, kinda, that's definitely traditional product placement. But real life product placement is just that, placing stuff in movies but the movie's actually your life.

We'll take a group of attainable but still aspirational people. They're not supermodels, there kinda people just like you. They're doing something for us, whether they're having a certain kind of drink, or they're using laundry detergent. Whatever it may be, they are kinda the roach motel if you will. People are going to come over to that and give them this little piece of "brand bait". Could be a soundbite of knowledge or a ritual.

Consumers will get that piece of roach bait and then they would take it and go "oh, pretty cool" and then they'd go out and spread it to their friends.

If you want to be critical if you want to go through life like that, sure be critical of every single person that walks up to you, then sure, everybody that walks up to you, be critical. if they're showing you something that fits something that works and something that makes your life better in some way, well then who cares? Again, just say thanks.

That's right: just say thanks for having something sold to you by someone you didn't think was selling something to you. If I may depart a bit from what Suw wrote in her response, most of the resentment from me comes from the idea that as a bzzagent (lowercase), I didn't expect reward in return for reading up on and promoting the idea of an alternative to the current copyright regime—actually, it is a supplement to the current copyright regime, allowing creators to give certain rights away but keep others. I see the partnership with BzzAgent (the company) as admission of failure, i.e. that individuals promoting Creative Commons both through advocacy in their weblogs and other media and through dedicating works, new and old, to the Creative Commons is no longer working. I say this as someone who has released some writing and some photos for people to manipulate as they so please so long as they give me attribution (in one case, since I'm distancing myself from the writing, they don't have to give me credit if it's used in a non-commercial context), and as someone who thought about releasing everything I've ever written that is not already licensed into the Creative Commons in a simple Attribution license.

Now I'm holding back: almost everything written on the justagwailo.com domain has all rights reserved still, and though I had planned to change the license May 1st—that would be today—I'm delaying that decision until June. Also, a donation I had planned since January will go unpaid until I hear more from Creative Commons about the deal and what it means for the people who have already, unsolicited, given much of their time and money and effort to promote something that we believe changes the way people will view creativity, that is, as a process that uses freely from the past to build upon it. That's right, this partnership has the potential to cost the Creative Commons forgone revenue of $100. If that seems petty, then I assure you that yes, it feels like I'm being petty. But this partnership with an undercover marketing outfit feels creepy, and I'm not sure I want any part of it.

A conversation about Creative Commons' partnership with BzzAgent is not complete without addressing at least some of the people who think the partnership is a good idea. Eric Rice says that while he would have problems if BzzAgent worked with the RIAA, but that they're working with Creative Commons furthers a good. It's not an intellectually consistent position: he's effectively saying that the ends justify the means. I don't think that BzzAgent's working with the Creative Commons is a good idea to begin with. Peter Caputa says it's just whining, and tells us to “get over your righteous selves”, which is pretty rude, and too bad, since it comes from a guy who wrote a must-read article on open-source and the new software service model. (Oh, and I really like his site's design.) The problem I have with BzzAgent and other so-callled word-of-mouth advertising companies is not the word-of-mouth part, but the marketing part: I mean, why does a company need to use the word "honest" 7 times on their Code of Conduct page? Their their top 100 agents page highlights someone who interrupts a conversation about politics to talk about what shoes the politicians were wearing. A quote from the person in question: “It's a Trivial Pursuit fact. Every President since Fillmore has owned Johnston & Murphys. See these shoes I am wearing? These are Johnston & Murphy LiTes. These shoes don't have shanks either so I don't have to worry about running around airport security with socks.”

That rings alarm bells, because normal people don't talk like that. If you're objection is "sure they do", my only response is "No, they really don't." That's the reason why traditional advertising doesn't work anymore: people just don't talk and the same way in commercials as they do in real life. Advertisers have figured this out, too, and now they're trying to manufacture word-of-mouth (search engine ranking is actually a bigger deal, worth a ton than 'word of mouth', because here are people actively searching for something, meaning if they find it online, they'll be a lot more likely to pay for it than if it's advertised somewhere), but there's no guarantee that this will work. In fact, this is something we can resist. We can tell the people that have ideas we think are good ones—and I think Creative Commons is an idea so good that it is worth spending time explaining without expecting something in return—and we can tell them that they are so good that they don't require underground marketing campaigns to make them succeed. If we let undercover marketing techniques succeed, then it's the final and clinching triumph of the shill. I want to live in a society where commerce is not the highest form of human interaction, where we can go somewhere and expect not to be sold something we didn't ask for.

Creative Commons posits that creative works will spread virally if you reduce the barriers to re-use those works, but the Creative Commons is itself an idea that has spread virally without requiring a company to co-ordinate the campaign. Their partnership with BzzAgent signals to me that they've given up on the people who spread the idea for free, and if they don't think their idea can survive on its own, then that signals to me that they have less confidence in it than I initially thought they did.

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