Social Media. Picture: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Files
Social Media. Picture: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Files

The chorus of discontent directed to the major social media platforms reached a new crescendo in mid-April.

Speaking at an Association of National Advertisers event, Marc Pritchard, Procter & Gamble’s chief brand officer, ratcheted up his demands that Facebook, YouTube and others should clean up their act and provide advertisers with real eyeballs in a brand-safe environment.

No sooner had the standing ovation from delegates died down than news broke that Lush, the British soap and cosmetics firm, was shutting down its social media accounts.

While Pritchard and Lush maintain that brands are being ripped off on social media, this message has yet to land on Wall Street. Facebook’s share price has grown by 40% so far this year and Pinterest, which listed just before the Easter weekend, climbed 28% on its first day of trading.

An advertising paradox

It’s a paradox. While there is evident value in using data to refine precision marketing, it’s also quite clear that the reality is failing to meet the promise.

Lush’s decision to abandon social media for its UK business was born of frustration that it was being charged to speak to its own community.

In a statement, the brand said: “Increasingly, social media is making it harder and harder for us to talk to each other directly. We are tired of fighting with algorithms, and we do not want to pay to appear in your newsfeed.”

Lush has worked hard over the years to build its online following. It has over 500,000 followers on Instagram and more than 420,000 on Facebook. Yet it feels it can no longer hold authentic conversations, so it’s directing customers to communicate via the live chat feature on its website or by e-mail or telephone.

Lush isn’t the first company to abandon social media. This time last year British pub chain JD Wetherspoon quit Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, citing concerns regarding the “misuse of personal data" and "the addictive nature of social media”.

New media supply chain needed

 Pritchard’s speech was the latest salvo in a lengthy battle for advertising transparency.

He’s calling for a new media supply chain to operate in a way that is “clean, efficient, accountable, and properly moderated”. Along with mentioning brand-safety concerns (relating to an ad being flighted next to offensive content), Pritchard cited research that says that 7 in 10 consumers find online advertising annoying. (On a side note, Mark Ritson’s recent column on why we all hate adverts should be a must-read for everyone in ad-land.)

Pritchard’s point was that the social media giants are alienating our audiences and, because of data and privacy scandals, are breaking down the trust relationship between brands and consumers.

The big take-out

There’s a growing tide of opinion that social media giants are alienating brand audiences and breaking down the trust relationship between brands and consumers.

Anyone who still doubts Facebook’s intentions should sign up to Bob Hoffman’s weekly newsletter. While his views range from cynical to one sided, they do paint a very real picture of a world where tech titans treat consumers and advertisers alike with disdain. And for the sceptics like me who like a bit of industry controversy, the newsletter makes for a good Sunday evening giggle.

If we keep treading the same path, we’ll find ourselves worse off than we were in the Wanamaker days, when we didn’t have a clue which part of our advertising spend was hitting the mark. In Pritchard’s fearful world, we won’t even be able to determine what portion of our spend is downright counterproductive and actively discouraging purchase.

Many marketers will be studying Lush’s next move before deciding whether they, too, should break their social addiction. It won’t be easy. After all, social media has made it ridiculously simple for advertisers to reach consumers. But in the process, social media has denuded our industry of much of its creativity and insight.

• Charlie Stewart is CEO of Rogerwilco.