Social media is changing marketing. Or so we’re told. But are marketers really just fooling themselves?

In an insightful AdAge piece, strategist Jonathan Salem Baskin argues that when it comes to marketing and social media, there’s nothing new under the sun.

Community isn’t new, he writes, nor are individuals socializing for the first time:

People have always had conversations about brands. Before the internet, there
were communities of geography, profession, education, religion and a host of
social groups that were perhaps less broad and bright than those available
online, but instead more deep and sustaining. Their activities were certainly
more literally hands-on and their outcomes more lifestyle-defining. Social
behavior isn’t unique to technology; it’s just that we have partial visibility
into some aspects of how people converse now, so we want to prompt or
participate in those activities. Marketers in the 1950s made the same pitches
for TV and print brand advertising that their progeny do for digital today, only
without the presumptions of direct influence.

According to Baskin, marketers are trying to do what many have often done in the past: distract. He argues that “a social campaign that does nothing but entertain is as artificially opaque as
the worst output of the bad old days of mass media
” and concludes that “it’s almost like we hope that we can keep consumers busy enough through online
engagement so they won’t notice that many of us are offering them generic
products and services.

Needless to say, Baskin won’t have a hard time finding detractors. By his own admission, he’s been called a ‘dinosaur‘ amongst other things. But is he?

Baskin may certainly be right that there’s nothing new under the sun. But that’s not the entire story. Even if communities and brand conversations aren’t new, looking at something that isn’t new from a new perspective is often the key to unlocking real value. The opportunity to look at your business, products and customers from a new perspective is what social media affords, and social media is clearly a positive thing to the extent that is has encouraged marketers to listen more closely to customers and consumers. There’s a lot to be gained from this, and the visibility social media gives us into consumer conversations shouldn’t be dismissed simply because those consumer conversations have existed prior to the internet.

Looking at social media in this fashion, it’s easy to think that Baskin is too dismissive of the phenomenon. But that might be over-reading the point I think he was trying to make: to the extent that social media has convinced marketers that it can directly influence consumers and turn them into puppets and shills, it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Consumers treat ‘advertising‘ like a four-letter word because marketers have often relied too much on smoke and mirrors to push products and services that don’t live up to their ads. Today, in many instances, social media is being used in a similar fashion for entertaining, hyping, distracting. In other words, it’s just another tool for creating the same smoke and mirrors.

For better or worse, Baskin just might be right here. Marketers have never been able to resist indulging in too much of a good thing, and sadly, for all of social media’s virtues, it is, for many marketers, just another channel to be overused and abused. But sad as it may be, that’s not entirely surprising. After all, there’s nothing new under the sun.

Knowing that, perhaps the best approach is to ignore the debate altogether and enjoy the fun while it lasts.

Photo credit: fdecomite via Flickr.