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Opinion Exhaustion: Skittles, President Obama, and the Assault of Everyone

Something new is happening on Skittles.com. The company isn’t putting its real estate to work as a marketing platform–singing the vast and socially beneficial aspects of Skittles. Instead, they have turned their homepage over to their Twitter feed. On some days, Skittles turns their homepage over to their Wikipedia entry, and to their Facebook page. That means that they’re willing to live with anything that anybody might have to say about Skittles–laudatory, or lambasting them as evil purveyors of chemical sugar drops.

Something new is happening on Skittles.com. The company isn’t putting its real estate to work as a marketing platform–singing the vast and socially beneficial aspects of Skittles.

Instead, they have turned their homepage over to their Twitter feed. On some days, Skittles turns their homepage over to their Wikipedia entry, and to their Facebook page.

That means that they’re willing to live with
anything that anybody might have to say about Skittles–laudatory, or
lambasting them as evil purveyors of chemical sugar drops.

Depending on your perspective, you’ll describe it as a signal of surrender, of resignation, or of enlightenment.

It’s a kind of new media theater, and perhaps the ultimate statement that UGC (user-generated content, to the non-wonk) is the
most important and valuable conversation going on in America.

President Obama seems to Agree.

Last week, at the Radio and TV
Correspondents Dinner, President Obama joined the mock-the-mainstream-media
brigades, saying:

“It is great to be here with so
much talent from the world of TV and radio. Despite the flood of new media, I
think your programming is more relevant than ever before. At least, that’s the
impression I get when I read the blogs every day.”

Later in the speech, he piled on
again:

“As you know, we’ve been
working around the clock to repair our major financial institutions and our
auto companies. But you probably wouldn’t understand the concept of troubled
industries, working as you do in the radio and television.”

It is clear that mainstream media,
bloodied by the combination of the Great Recession crushing their revenue
stream, and the muscular emergence of UGC — from Huffington Post to Yelp —
is perhaps on the extinction walk. (Although, as I Twittered the other day,
when a reporter from the Huffington Post get kidnapped by the Taliban, then The
New York Times
needs to call in the movers.)

But I’m not at all convinced that
the desire for what reporting has always done–to bestow perspective, to
construct a thoughtful narrative, to establish the shifting frames of context
— is completely old-school.

I am convinced, though, that
we will soon grow exhausted by the current wave upon wave of democratic
blathering. Clay Shirky’s book calls it “Here Comes Everyone”, but I
increasingly see it as “The Assault of Everyone.”

An example of the
counter-reformation appeared this week with a new travel site called Oyster Hotel Reviews.
(Disclosure: they are a client of ours.) We are highly selective about the
start-ups we choose to get involved with. But their business model was so
intuitive and blazingly contrarian that we signed on.

Oyster is a travel Web site. On the
surface, you’d cynically say “Yeah, that’s what the world needs.”
Well, actually, it’s exactly what the world needs. You see, despite the
apparent glut of travel information, virtually all of it falls into two
categories. The first is the vast acreage of personal opinion, like you’ll find
on Trip Advisor, which is theoretically valuable but practically unworkable.
You have no idea who’s writing what, both in terms of their legitimacy, their
vendetta-quotient and their relative sophistication and experience.

The second content area is the
thousands of hotel websites, and they are masters of propaganda, pushing out
misleading information, doctored photos, and other marketing mendacity.

Oyster, by contrast, has hired real reporters
(yes, someone is actually hiring reporters these days) with journalistic
training and travel sophistication. They spend actual time in the actual
hotels, and then write a detailed review that synthesizes their experience with
discipline and fairness.

They also take hundreds of photos,
so travelers can see what the hotel is really like, not what Photoshop says the
hotel is really like.

You can’t do this on Trip Advisor,
Travelocity or the website of the Mondrian in South Beach.

I am convinced that other
business will emerge to fill the many needs that the cascade of UGC simply
cannot satisfy. And the need is also evolutionary. After all, the way we
survived, the reason we’re here, is not because we listened to everyone. It’s
because we were able to ascertain who should be listened to. And who should be
ignored.

Even millions of years ago, on the
Savannahs of Africa, all opinions weren’t created equal.

About the author

Adam is a brand strategist--he runs Hanft Projects, a NYC-based firm--and is a frequently-published marketing authority and cultural critic. He sits on the Board of Scotts Miracle-Gro, and has consulted for companies that include Microsoft, McKinsey, Fidelity and Match.com, as well as many early and mid-stage digital companies.

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