Friday, July 19, 2013

Social Media: What A Car Wreck

My buddy Gunner wrote the worst car book ever. He wasn’t trying to write the worst car book ever, but he was editing something called Old Cars Weekly and he had all these pictures of car wrecks, and got the assignment of making a book out of the old car-wreck pictures.

Gunner's problem was even though his job was to make a book of car-wreck pictures, he couldn’t suggest that car wrecks are somehow fun, because, you know, a book full of Hupmobiles with crumpled fenders and wayward headlights might make impressionable youth come up with the idea that this stuff is knee-slapping funny. (The combined efforts of hundreds of Mack Sennett two-reelers were not factored into this particular equation.)

So someone’s solution – I’d like to think it wasn’t Gunner’s – was to make a book full of car-wreck pictures but make it an auto-safety book, a book showing what could happen to you if you aren’t careful with your 1921 Kissel.

The car-wreck pictures are the car-wreck pictures, so the only way Gunner could convey this message was through the cutlines. As a result, every picture of a flattened Ford or a crushed Chrysler is captioned to the effect of, “An almost new Model A Ford roadster ran into this seven- or eight-year-old American LaFrance fire engine on June 29, 1930, in New Jersey. Judging from damage to the truck, this Ford was probably a total loss. Don’t loose [sic] your antique Ford to careless driving!”

If you have trouble stomaching one of these, just think: There are almost 250 pages of these pictures, two pictures to a page, and each picture has a similar caption. I know the pain I’ve had reading them; I’d have to imagine Gunner felt like he was giving birth each time he sat down at the typewriter and tried to come up with some novel way of describing a fender-bender involving a 1949 Plymouth and a 1950 Ford.

The trade press did not feel his pain. The description of Antique Car Wrecks as the worst car book ever is not mine; I believe it came from Editor and Publisher, though I’ve lost the original review.

Here’s the thing about Antique Car Wrecks: It may be the worst car book ever, but every one of those excruciating captions would make a perfectly acceptable – even desirable – tweet or Facebook posting for many, many legitimate companies of long and good standing.

The fact that a perfectly terrible book can make perfectly good social media has a couple of lessons for marketers. First, social media is not literature and should not be judged as such. That’s fine to an extent, though it is not an excuse for poor spelling, bad grammar, and improper usage. Social media is not literature, but the English language is still the English language and deserves our respect. Remember: Even if only one person in your audience is judging you based on your use of language, why risk alienating that one person? Say it correctly and be sure.

The second is that stupid stuff is still stupid stuff, regardless of the channel. Using pictures of old-car wrecks is an ineffective way of encouraging auto safety, whether it’s in a tweet, on Facebook, or in a real book. Facebook is not a license for you to turn your brand into a never-ending string of inanities under the guise of engagement. Real engagement, if it’s going to happen (and I have my doubts), has to occur on a higher, more meaningful level.
A corollary of that is don’t use stupid stuff to build your brand. I can see how a dental-insurance company posting a picture of a cat gnawing a toothbrush with the caption, “Caviteez – I fightz dem,” can encourage a very primal level of interaction. I can’t see how it furthers the brand.
Finally, don’t be coy. Don’t use social media to suggest your brand is something it isn’t, or to play pittypat with your brand attributes. Your brand is what it is, and that needs to come across regardless of the channel, audience, or message – even if your message is, “Postwar collector cars need good tires, too!”
Though if that is your message, I can get you Gunner’s phone number.

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