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Facebook’s ‘look back’ is marketing in disguise

Are you one of the thousands of people around the world who recently created a “look back” Facebook movie? Did it make you cry? Or maybe laugh at your wacky life? The videos are a new feature available…

A trip down memory lane or normalising Facebook as part of everyday life? Facebook

Are you one of the thousands of people around the world who recently created a “look back” Facebook movie? Did it make you cry? Or maybe laugh at your wacky life?

The videos are a new feature available to Facebook users, developed to celebrate the social network’s 10th anniversary. The program uses photos and activity from your Facebook feed to create a one-minute movie, accompanied by music that gets you emotionally involved.

But this wasn’t just for fun. The movies are examples of a clever contemporary technique used by marketers to build loyalty for declining brands.

Marketing scholars call this particular promotional tool “co-creation”, and it’s part of a bigger toolbox of significantly more subtle techniques used by marketers to get you to buy their products and support their brands.

But more importantly, this new tactic is designed to normalise the idea that consuming their products is just the way things are; a part of everyday life.

As the world of media has become increasingly fragmented, marketers have developed a number of tactics and channels that blur the lines between editorial content and advertising, information and entertainment.

Most of us don’t notice when we’re being marketed to

People of all backgrounds – despite the belief that they are in control of their decision-making – are unlikely to know when they are exposed to marketing material, and therefore, less likely to be in a position to defend themselves against subtle marketing tactics.

Co-creation is a useful technique where companies engage consumers in a variety of fun, engaging and creative opportunities, such as making a movie, designing a song, coming up with a name or logo or even the creation of new products.

Similarly, the use of multiple marketing channels or “touch points”, such as online media, product placement, in-game advertising, and sponsorship of “grass-roots” sporting events, all coordinated in an integrated way, have been widely adopted.

These subtle tactics all depend on forms of “cultural camouflage” for their success, by normalising what is essentially commercial activity. And the reality, despite your protestations, is that most of us don’t notice when we are being marketing to. Indeed, these subtle marketing tactics would defeat their own purpose if they exposed their intent or called overt attention to their presence.

The best marketing, from a marketer’s point of view, is marketing that isn’t noticed, but has an effect on consumer behaviour.

But subtle marketing tactics suggest a power imbalance where one party (the marketer) knows the motive of the promotional activity, while the other (the consumer) may not.

The resources required by companies to research, develop and embed subtle marketing tactics – not only financial and informational resources, but understanding and accessing the processes of cultural production – further highlights this imbalance.

So, whether it’s Facebook, Coca-Cola, Nutri-Grain or even Freddo Frog, these techniques have just become part of the broader cultural landscape, or what Chris Preston from Queen Margaret University in the UK refers to as “cultural wallpaper”.

As a consequence, we voluntarily and unintentionally submit to this messaging, and accept the new landscape as normal, common sense, and ultimately unquestioned.

Giving power back to consumers

So, what can we do about it? Of course, people should be responsible for their decisions. But when the balance of power is ridiculously tilted towards industry – with significant resources at their disposal to influence behaviour without us really being aware of it – arguments around personal responsibility tend to be naïve and lacking any sense of the actuality of the modern world.

Indeed, when programs are developed to provide people with even a small degree of power in the equation, such as giving consumers access to comprehensible and easy to understand information, it seems that “industry impacts” take precedence over consumer benefits and protection.

A more sensible approach should simply deal with both the reality and the evidence. Recognition from all sectors – industry, government and advocates – that these techniques are used and effective is a first step. A second step would be to consider the consequences of these marketing techniques at a whole of society level.

These “under the radar” techniques, the nature of the products involved and the broader sociocultural conditions that support marketing and its role in society present unique implications for our well-being.

A better understanding of the expressions and processes used for these marketing tactics will help advocates in the consumer (and public health) space and policy makers more effectively address marketing’s role in our culture.

Join the conversation

23 Comments sorted by

  1. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    'The balance of power is ridiculously tilted towards industry'

    Are we really such victims? We get to use a great application - Facebook - for free.

    The system gives us a range of products and services at little or no cost, and in return we're cleverly marketed to. That seems a reasonable exchange. Can anyone think of a better alternative?

    1. Caitlin Fitzsimmons

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to James Jenkin

      I would pay for a Facebook devoid of advertising and marketing and creepy data collection as long as it had a critical mass of my friends using it. I did actually pay for as an alternative to Twitter but don't use it because all the people I want to reach in that format are already on Twitter.

    2. Colin MacGillivray

      Architect, retired, Sarawak

      In reply to Caitlin Fitzsimmons

      Caitlin your first sentence encapsulates the conundrum. To attract a critical mass of one's friends the service probably has to be free in the first place. Like newspapers. Then the service can try to charge a fee without losing the critical mass- newspapers again.
      It's easy to skim through the column in the middle from friends and ignore the stuff on the edges. But now of course there are adverts in the middle.
      My vote is for free services with advertising (which I can ignore).

    3. Jerry Cornelius

      logged in via email

      In reply to James Jenkin

      '...a great application.'

      Really? Great?

      I think it's junk. It's one of the clunkiest pieces of rubbish it's ever been my displeasure to encounter.

    4. Iain Wicking


      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Don't agree with that observation given that many people are online and familiar with the Internet. Was probably more the case years ago when the Internet started to offer consumer services.

      Facebook has a simplistic business model that they will never monetise effectively. All they will do is capture more and more of YOUR information and on sell it, map it with other data, etc. It will get more and more intrusive.

      We need an application that actually works with us, complements our lives, provides value add services and where we are in control of OUR data and information.

      I can tell you that the current generation of Social Media hardly taps into the true potential of the Internet.

    5. Jay Wulf

      Digerati at

      In reply to James Jenkin

      @James - "We get to use a great application - Facebook - for free. "

      If you are not paying for service, you are the product.

      The cows in the beef industry get free board and roof over their head for life!

  2. Caitlin Fitzsimmons

    logged in via Facebook

    I'm not sure it is really marketing in disguise. It's marketing but it's not really in disguise. We all know what it is.

    It's also not really an act of co-creation - the user can't customise the video in any way, beyond watching it or not, and posting it or not.

    1. Stephen Rowley

      Lecturer in Urban Planning at RMIT University

      In reply to Caitlin Fitzsimmons

      I agree with your basic point - I think people are pretty savvy and see these videos quite clearly for what they are - but there is actually some limited ability to customise the videos.

    2. Paul Harrison

      Senior lecturer, Graduate School of Business at Deakin University

      In reply to Caitlin Fitzsimmons

      Hi Caitlin. Facebook allows the user to decide what photos are used, but standardises the layout. A bit like a "Build your own" burger. Co-creation can be a spectrum, from standardise formats, through to complete creative control.

  3. John Zuill

    logged in via email

    We need many more examples for this article.

    1. Paul Harrison

      Senior lecturer, Graduate School of Business at Deakin University

      In reply to John Zuill

      Hi John. Our original submission to The Conversation had many examples, and also expanded our argument. Unfortunately, much of it was edited to fit the 800 word limit. We also asked to have a link through to our journal article that examined this more thoroughly.

  4. George Michaelson


    Since almost none of us as individuals are paying for Facebook, I think the adage "if you aren't buying the service, then you are the product" applies.

  5. Grace Jenkins


    A trip down memory lane or normalising Facebook as part of everyday life?
    Unforetunately, it's gone from rhetoric to reality. Facebook has become a cultural phenomenon, with all the information Facebook is capable of accessing, its more powerful then money. Life, events have changed because of social media. I mean even this website is using marketing funnily enough. I guess life is culture, and it's just latched on to the internet.

    1. Paul Harrison

      Senior lecturer, Graduate School of Business at Deakin University

      In reply to Grace Jenkins

      Hi Grace. Again, this is pretty much what we argued in our original submission. Take a look at our piece in Critical Public Health. It expands on marketing as culture.

  6. Lucie Rychetnik


    Thanks for thought provoking article. I have a feeling it's not lack of awareness though... I think many people know full well it is marketing, but just don't think that is a big deal - or the product is worth it. Market society and all. I resisted the temptation but prob cos I'm more of a curmudgeon about such things than any more aware of marketing than others who went along with it.

  7. John Pickard

    Eclectic naturalist

    Ho hum, Facebook rears its ugly head yet again!

    You ask "So, what can we do about it? " Easy, get off Facebook! Or even better, don't go anywhere near it. Facebook is totally toxic, always was, always will be. And yet millions of people gladly give their personal details to Mark Zuckerberg for free so he can sell the info to marketing companies. What a brilliant scam, I wish I'd thought of it! (BTW: I have a slightly used Opera House to sell. Contact me with your credit card details and bank account numbers, and I'll send you more information on this deal of a lifetime)

    When will people realise that if the so-called product (Facebook) is free, the YOU are the product.

  8. Ian Saffin

    logged in via Facebook

    Caitlin, you don't have to pay. I use Adblock, it's free & blocks all ads. Works fine with FB, gmail & Twitter.

  9. Iain Wicking


    Have a read of these articles. I have never used it and I use software to block it. The only social media I use and that has la declining utility. The 'bait and switch tactic is in full swing'.

    Will be interesting to see what happens to their market cap if their revenues start to stall.

  10. Austin Adams

    some-time academic

    I'm a sucker for taking surveys, having taught the art in the past. I've noticed that many of the recent ones I've submitted myself to have been marketing exercises in disguise. As soon as I come across a question that says, "Did you know that we offer xxx ?" I bail out. Another giveaway is a variant along the lines of, "Which of our products (listing some you know about but other new or obscure ones" do you prefer?" Inane contests, too, are another marketing ploy.

  11. Stephen S Holden

    Associate Professor, Marketing at Bond University

    I rather wonder sometimes if marketers are deluded by their own importance. Sure marketing is a component of our culture - but I dispute that it is the most important. For instance, take food, alcohol, drug consumption - best predictors are parental behaviours followed by peers, etc. Marketing is a long way down the line.

    Then the authors take a tilt at marketers as nefarious and underhanded in their efforts to influence others:"the best marketing ... is marketing that isn't noticed but has an…

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