From the latest in bizarre consumer lawsuits, nine women are now threatening to sue the record label for American Idol star Clay Aiken after reading in a tabloid that the star is gay. An official complaint filed by the ladies to the Federal Trade Commission stated:
This is tantamount to a manufacturer concealing information about a defective product … As consumers, we feel ripped off. It is obvious now that the private Clay is very different from the manufactured packaged public Clay that was marketed to us.
The chances are this will get thrown out with the rest of the garbage threats attempted every year by people with nothing better to do than read the tabloids where the revelation originally came from, but it should sound warning signals to anyone involved in the Reality TV phenomenon. This is not the first scandal to erupt over the ethical practices of such TV shows’ marketing tactics. For the past year there has been no end of skepticism over the dubiousness of the whole package, from the selection and voting process to the treatment of the contestants who apply to achieve popular music fame like Aiken’s.
The problem comes from the degree to which such programmes involve the consumers to whom they are selling. Whereas traditional products and services necessarily kept a degree of distance from the consumer, and as such allowed the consumer to keep a certain level of perspective over the concept’s marketing practices, all aspects of the ‘reality’ phenomenon involve the customer in ways that no other business model has previously been able to do. On the one hand, this is certainly what gives them their competitive edge: a unique, interactive experience, and out of that the sort of brand relationships that marketers twenty years ago only dreamt of. But just as for many a business model before them, the creators of these shows may find that their key leverage ends up bringing them down if they are not careful.
The more any business model relies on its customers’ involvement as a means to its success, the more customers expect to be treated fairly with regard to disclosure. Customers want to be notified of anything they deem worthy. Ultimately, this means just about everything – what customer, after all, likes not to know – and the results can end up being virtually unmanageable.
What many reality TV producers haven’t yet cottoned to is the degree to which their viewers don’t just regard the shows as light entertainment – as they might have done so with traditional shows – but actually as something of their own. Coca-Cola made this same mistake in the 1980′s when it decided to put the traditional Coca-Cola to bed and release New Coke instead. To the horror of senior executives, the world demonstrated accusations of anything but murder over their favourite brand. Whereas Coke executives were looking at the sugar pop as just a drink lost in an ocean of marketing demographics, consumers saw the sugar water as very much a part of their lives.
The difficulty with reality TV programmes is that they are, in some cases, genuine lifestyle brands. At the same time as being amateur social experiments, they rely upon the heightened volatility of the emotions of the participants. This dual interactive manipulation of feelings, while enthralling, might just turn out to be a little too engaging for some.