Are You a Post-a-Day Social Media User? Time for Ethical Marketers to Cut Down on This Toxic Habit

Image of a desk scattered with "social media cigarette" packets, to illustrate the article, Are You a Post-a-Day Social Media User?

As a marketing consultant deeply entrenched in the digital world, I find myself at a crossroads, questioning the ethical implications of social media use in our industry.

While doing some weekend listening to older episodes of one of my favourite podcasts, Econtalk, I heard Noreena Hertz, an esteemed author and economist, poignantly compare social media companies to the tobacco companies of the 21st century, while discussing her book, The Lonely Century.

"I think taking on social media companies in a meaningful way is important. I do believe that in many ways social media companies are the tobacco companies of the 21st century, and I do believe that they should be regulated as such," she argued.

This analogy strikes a deep chord with me, as I confront the pervasive influence of social media on our mental health and societal well-being.

The Ethical Dilemma About Social Media Use And Promotion

Social media has revolutionised marketing, providing unprecedented reach and engagement opportunities.

However, just as the dangers of smoking were eventually acknowledged, the harmful effects of social media are becoming increasingly evident.

Both Hertz and Jonathan Haidt, author of The Anxious Generation, highlight the addictive nature of social media and its impact on mental health.

As someone who pioneered social media marketing workshops in South Australia in 2005, I feel a profound responsibility to address these concerns.

Personal Commitment To Change

Recognising the ethical imperative to mitigate the potential harms of social media, I have initiated Phone-Free Fridays, extending to weekends.

During these times, if I do use my phone, it is strictly limited to calls, texts, maps, and long-form entertainment or reading.

This small step aims to combat the automatic reaching for a social media fix, encouraging more meaningful interactions and presence in the real world.

Strategies For Ethical Social Media Marketing

Reflecting on these challenges, I consulted Perplexity AI to summarise any existing strategies for ethical social media marketing.

Many of them were the cliched precepts spouted by the social media companies themselves. They are not about limiting use but about tweaking our habits.

For example, it rounded up the usual comments about being transparent and honest, and protecting users' privacy. It also dropped in the platitude about staying up to date with the latest ethical practices, which is a nice way to round off any post or story when the writer wants to sound earnest despite knowing that such an ambiguous pleasantry is just the usual "going through the motions".

That said, there are some insights that Perplexity AI found that do resonate with my recent listening, reading, and reflection, with some caveats:

1. Avoid Manipulative Tactics

  • Emotional Exploitation: Do not exploit emotional vulnerabilities, especially during times of distress or on sensitive issues. This can lead to backlash and harm your brand's image. (Um, Perplexity AI, how about it just being bad by itself, rather than only being considered bad if it hurts your brand?). Source of inspiration
  • Screen Time: Avoid tactics that encourage prolonged screen time or create dependency on social media platforms. Promote healthy usage habits instead (and perhaps lead by example, along with bolding using your posts to encourage screen-free activities and connection). Source of inspiration

2. Promote Positive And Educational Content

  • Educational Campaigns: Use your platform to share educational content that benefits younger audiences. This can include information on digital literacy, mental health, and responsible social media use (assuming this is aligned with what your brand is about, of course. It would be weird for a tyre company to start preaching about mental health and social media use. However, it could note how quieter tyres give you more peace for thinking as you drive, or more rugged tyres make it safer to get away for some screen-free time away from the city). Source of inspiration
  • Positive Messaging: Focus on positive and uplifting messages that encourage self-esteem and well-being, rather than content that might lead to negative comparisons or feelings of inadequacy (this is probably sage advice at all times, unless you are Rupert Murdoch and his cronies, wishing to push emotional crack cocaine). Source of inspiration

3. Encourage Real-World Engagement

  • Offline Activities: Promote activities that encourage users to engage in real-world interactions and hobbies. This can help balance their online and offline lives (again, if this is related to your product or service, otherwise that's best left to your personal posts).
  • Community Building: Foster a sense of community and belonging without making users feel pressured to constantly engage online (worth considering if/how this might apply to your business model).

The Analogy: Social Media As The New Tobacco

Much like a pack-a-day smoker, many of us have become post-a-day social media users (at least), often reaching for our devices without a second thought.

This automatic behaviour, driven by a need for a quick fix, mirrors the compulsion of smoking.

The moments of regret after mindlessly scrolling through social media, the realisation of time wasted, and the passive impact on those around us—these experiences are all too familiar.

Passive social media use, much like passive smoking, affects not only the individual but also those around them.

By not being present, we miss out on genuine connections and meaningful interactions.

This analogy underscores the need for ethical marketing practices that promote healthier habits and a more balanced approach to social media use.

A Call To Reflect And Act

As we navigate the complex terrain of social media marketing, it is crucial to reflect on our practices and strive to align them with ethical principles because, well, who wants to be a jerk?

By taking time to experiment with using social media in our marketing ethically, we can foster trust and loyalty while promoting responsible usage of these tools.

The path forward requires us to balance the undeniable benefits of social media with a commitment of doing our best to diminish its overwhelming negative impacts. As Haidt notes, we just know that social media usage leads to negative mental well being. That's just not up for debate, just like smoking leads to bad breath and stinky clothes.

My hope is that, together, we can champion a more ethical and humane approach to digital marketing because I have not arrived at the answer yet. But I want to.

In summary, social media, like smoking, has its dopamine hits and its dangers.

As ethical marketers, we must be aware of the impact our practices have on our audiences and society at large.

By developing strategies incorporating some of the insights outlined above, we can engage with our audiences in a responsible and ethical manner.

Let's work together to create a healthier digital environment, where the well-being of our audiences is a priority.

Your feedback and thoughts on this important issue are welcome. And I'm happy to address this with you during a mentoring session, if you're interested.

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