“The Social Dilemma”: What This Netflix Documentary Means for Marketing Agencies

One thing many of us have become accustomed to in “The Q” (quarantine) is the seemingly endless stream of content on Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Prime, Peacock, Disney+, and more. From getting to know Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin on Tiger King, to seeing strangers get engaged on Love is Blind, we’ve spent a lot of time watching (and tweeting) about mindless television shows. But one of the most recent streaming hits struck a different chord with us than any of the others: The Social Dilemma. This documentary about the harmful effects social media is having on our society caused us to pause and really think about the implications this thought-provoking film could have on the social media marketing industry and how we operate as an advertising agency.

Let’s unpack what this documentary could mean for marketing agencies everywhere, and what the potential implications could mean for the brands we represent.

Quick Film Synopsis

In case you missed it, this one hour and 34-minute-long documentary discusses everything from the original intent of social media at the time of creation, to the alarming and dangerous impact the platforms have had on human behavior, mental health, and screen time consumption patterns. In a quick series of interviews, we get to meet many of the tech experts who were once involved in online platforms including Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and others. These prominent figures in the tech world share everything from their experiences working at powerhouse digital companies, to where they are today and the guilt they feel for helping birth such influential and all-consuming entities that have changed the fabric of society as we know it. The film also dives deeper into the effectiveness of social media advertising and remarketing campaigns that attract customers through highly targeted ad placements, and quick, in-app purchasing opportunities.

Our Reaction

It was difficult not to come away from the film questioning our own personal habits and the detrimental relationship some of us have developed with social media. I, for one, quickly limited my screen time in the iPhone Screen Time app and deleted social media apps from my phone, vowing to only check social media sites on my computer or iPad. From there, I began to spiral into a slew of rhetorical questions about what this could mean for our company, a multi-platform branding and marketing agency, and for our clients. The next day, I met with a number of my coworkers to discuss the implications of the film.

Here were our four key takeaways:

  1. The meaning of “customer” in social media isn’t what you’d think: The people using social media platforms are not the customer, they are the product. That means that when you sign up for a social media account, you’re signing up to have your demographic, socioeconomic, and personal information provided (anonymously) to companies at a cost with the goal of marketing and ultimately selling to you. The platform is designed to categorize and segment your data, package it up, and “sell you” to the companies that seek advertising placements.
  2. We must seek content outside of our regular feed: The algorithms put in place on social media platforms have grown so sophisticated at using our behavior online to predict what content we are likely to react to and engage with that it has created an “echo chamber”, only showing us content that we agree with, further reinforcing our beliefs and, arguably, further polarizing us as a nation. This fact is even more alarming as we head into one of the most divisive presidential elections this country has ever seen. Lines are being drawn deeper and more stringently by what we read and see on our own feeds, without kindness or empathy for the other side of the argument. With nearly 8 in 10 Americans thinking the country is more polarized than ever, this issue will continue to divide our society if we don’t seek (and try to learn from) viewpoints that are different from our own.
  3. The bad actors don’t speak for all of us: The film paints the picture that advertising on social media is used by bad actors such as foreign powers or domestic extremist groups that want to harm our democracy – and in a lot of instances it seems accurate based on what the film shows. There certainly are ethical implications to advertising on social media, but most of the agencies and brands out there do not have bad intentions. As an agency, we pride ourselves on being transparent and true to our clients’ vision and mission. We take on clients that align with our own values, and we advertise in a way that considers the interests of the customer consuming the content. The bad actors on these sites certainly don’t speak for all of us.
  4. Change is coming: Based on the staggering statistic that the average American teenager is spending over nine hours a day on social media, and the link that has been shown between heavy social media use and increased risk of depression, anxiety, and other disorders, it’s no surprise that these mental illnesses are on the rise. With this, our last takeaway is that we believe change is coming in the coming months and years. We already see some restrictions on how, to whom, and what you can advertise on social – including technical requirements, limits on demographic targeting, ad content regulations, and more – and we expect to see additional restrictions in the future in order to better protect the people that use social media services.

We’re Using Our Powers for Good.

Case Study: Oakhurst Dairy

With all of this in mind, highlighting the tools our agency is using – both online and offline – for positive change is an important part of the conversation. We focus all of our campaigns and projects on helping our clients elevate their brand while still being true to their roots. For example, Oakhurst Dairy came to us with one goal: develop an authentic connection with new millennial moms by showing exactly where their milk comes from. How did we achieve this? We decided to highlight the good, the bad, and the ugly of a day in the life of farmers and new moms, showing that the small moments make every tough moment #SoWorthIt.

The campaign included the following marketing tactics:

  • 30-second tv spot to bring those stories to parents who are both on and offline
  • Baby mailer with a grocery coupon
  • Newspaper ad that highlighted the beautiful, little moments of everyday parenthood
  • Encourage parents to show their #SoWorthIt moments on social media

And the social media posts spoke for themselves.

All and all, we know that there are many people in this industry who are focused on using social media as a powerful, positive actor for change. But there is also no way to ignore the rallying cry that if we don’t pay attention to the negative, we should be afraid of the consequences. As an agency, we remain committed to using our powers for good and doing right by both our clients and their customers.

Have you seen The Social Dilemma? What were your biggest takeaways? How do you anticipate it will affect your social media marketing?

About Ethos

Ethos is a multiplatform branding agency that develops and executes integrated marketing campaigns across multiple channels for companies inside and outside of Maine.

At Ethos, we believe that the most effective way to set a company’s marketing course is by finding its core truth – its ethos. We know that once we discover and communicate that core truth, we can truly make a difference for each client’s unique marketing and business objectives.

With Ethos, you get more than a marketing agency. You get a long-term partner whose goals are your goals.

Learn more about the Ethos approach and the work we’ve done for our clients. Want to have a conversation about your brand’s core truth? Contact us!

Written By

The ETHOS Team