In a society that is increasingly granting greater and greater privilege, prestige, and credibility to people who have really done little more than become famous, it's interesting to examine how this has a trickle-down effect into our psyche and more importantly, into our spending habits. We're a society that is trained to consume smoke and mirrors more than substance, a tact which large companies spend millions on marketing development, but even a layman can employ with little to no effort or money. In the age of "reality TV" (known as unscripted drama or simply "cheap labour" in the entertainment industry) where everyone is brainwashed into believing anyone can be and deserves to be famous, we are being taught as retailers how to mimic the cheapest form of advertising known to man: being the biggest bullshitter on the block.
Like it or not, winning the proverbial popularity contest these days can, in fact, translate to money if the game is played well. While not everyone wants to drop a sex tape on the scene to kickstart their career as a famous person, it's certainly cheaper than paying for a marketer to whip up a proper campaign. The real question lies with whether you, as the person selling yourself, feel that your value to your clients has actually increased as a result of having the most likes on Facebook or if you're basically looking to get paid for being a Kardashian. Becoming buzzworthy has become the gold standard for turning a quick buck rather than striving to become a trusted brand. Our collective fascination with celebrity is unfortunate because it hinders our ability to recognize much less find responsible corporations who found their business on ethics, support fair trade, pride themselves on providing quality service, etc.
While every once in a while you might get screwed trying the restaurant that got voted the city's "best new dinner menu" it's actually pretty easy to tell if you're about to be hooped into the hype when you have the tools to read between the lines. I want you, the seller, to stop looking at your clients as cash-pots and practice viewing your sales pitch from your customer's perspective. I'm going to use Dove, a company that many women deem "trustworthy" due to their recent viral video successes for our case study, as it is a perfect example of how things are not always be what they seem when clever minds set out to
Dove has a long history of selling you something while claiming they are not selling what they are selling, beginning with calling their soap a cleansing bar, not soap, that moisturizes, not cleans. Dove has since become very successful with its "real women" campaigns, selling beauty products that shun the beauty industry. Between its humble beginning as the bar that creams while it cleans and the sketch artist bit it released on April 14th of this year, lots of women feel like these ads really resonate with them, but there's lots going on here. Let's watch a commercial from 1986.
"Marte" is not a celebrity. In fact, she's just some average everyday lady, like the other just some average everyday lady types, who were featured in these "why I use Dove" ads from the 80s. While many of them featured cute normal and boring stories from just some average everyday lady telling about why she uses Dove or the positive feedback she has received as a result, this one actually features a double-whammy - Marte's endorsement, backed up by a claim that "More dermatologists recommend Dove than any other soap."
The messages the viewer has very thoughtfully been given are: this is an average woman, a woman like me, who pushes around a shopping cart, who buys Dove and more dermatologists recommend it than any other soap... and it's not even soap, it's moisturizer... Pretty great, right? Whoa. Back the truck up. You've been lulled into trusting this brand. Before you start thinking how great Dove is, remember:
1) Actresses are paid, and even if this was from one of Dove's casting calls for "regular" ladies, she was not a random participant. She was paid somehow to say what she said.
2) "Recommended by more dermatologists than any other soap" is a fancy way of saying Dove is recommended 4% of the time and no other soap is recommended more than 3.99% of the time. The point they haven't bothered making is that 96% of the time anything else BUT Dove is recommended.
3) Dove is soap. It is soap sold to women. If you have boobs and are not built like a supermodel, you are their target market.
You could say the same about the current Dove sketch artist commercial. The participants responded to a casting call. They are not random participants. The sketch artist is the equivalent "expert" to the dermatologist. And Dove wants you, a woman, who isn't a supermodel, to buy their not-soap.
Now, I am not saying that Dove is a bad company or anything and frankly regardless of the motivation, I absolutely LOVE the messages they are putting out there for girls and women. But not for a second do I lose sight of the fact they are selling me stuff, period. And, they are but one small company in a larger conglomerate (Unilever) that also sells SlimFast and Axe body spray, and they will tell you (the target market) whatever you want to hear (in this case that guys will get laid more if they use Axe) to make you buy their products by exploiting exactly the type of hegemony they shun in the Dove commercials.
Sneaky, right? I know. Now that I've peaked your cynicism, let's move forward, shall we?
Obviously, as a photographer, you aren't subjecting your clients to *quite* this type of marketing, but some of you might have an inkling that something is off either when reviewing someone else's credentials or perhaps your own... and not quite be able to put your finger on why it feels "dishonest."
The Myth of a Membership
A lot of photographers like to slap the logos for different photography organizations they belong to up on their blogs and websites. Unlike a professional designation, which requires some sort of testing, anyone can become just your run of the mill paid member of any one of a number of "professional" organizations including the PPOC, WPPI, NAPCP, and more. Unless you've applied for and been granted certification, all the badge on your site says is that you paid your dues this year. Not sure about that? As a paid member who is currently registered as a "dogtographer" with a major international organization, I assure you they don't check applicants out before approving them.
Possessing a "People's Choice" award seems to lend a certain type of credibility but frankly it's bogus. When you put this on your website and call yourself "award-winning" you're right up over there with Barbara Walters telling the Kardashians they are famous for being famous. You'll often see things like, "Voted best new restaurant!"or "People's choice for best chiropractor!" and y'all gotta know it's a ruse - the people running enter themselves or are entered by a third party with a vested financial or personal interest. There is little if anything that is organic or authentic about it whatsoever.
If you're in the wedding industry, chances are good you've seen some of your friends begging for you to go vote for them at the Wedding Industry Experts site. Since you are only taken to their personal voting page which contains no relevant information, I've taken the liberty of digging around and bit. Here's the first thing you need to know: there is no pre-qualification and no verification of skills, background, or experience. They also don't look into the quality of service, products, or any of those other things that might actually lend themselves to determining any kind of expertise or credibility. Even the peer-reviewed "expert" designation is self-entry, not juried by other "experts" in the industry but endorsed by your other "friends" in the industry. Some of the entrants in some of the categories don't actually have anything to do with weddings but just wanted in the race - do you really think people should value a company advertising that it was voted "best wedding studio" when that company's focus is on boudoir? I actually suggested a newborn photographer I know should make up a new category called "Best Proof of Consummating a Marriage" so she wouldn't feel left out. Also, it doesn't factor out any entrants who are in categories with no competitors. What kind of hollow victory is THAT?
(Ditto for winning an award for photography when it is the result of you entering your image into a "vote for my photo" contest, by the way...)
(Ditto for winning an award for photography when it is the result of you entering your image into a "vote for my photo" contest, by the way...)
The Myth Behind Feature Articles
Let's just be honest here - except in extremely rare cases, telling people you have been invited to submit to an online magazine is a bit like telling people you've been invited to the grant opening of Target Canada.
In much the same way that a people's choice award isn't organic, getting published in wedding magazines isn't a random thing either. Wedding blogs include instructions on how to submit your images for publication and a large portion of the content is from "styled" shoots by vendors and suppliers who want to sell their shit to brides, not from actual weddings. Blogs like Pictage's The Photo Life accept unsolicited feature articles and editorials that they do not fact check (or spell-check or grammar check) but publish as-is and you, as the person submitting, will never know if they genuinely liked your work or article or if they just had a slow week and wanted some filler. The point is, there are no credentials granted after having an article accepted for publication beyond proving that you have succeeded in ruthless self-promotion.
None of these tactics are inherently or in and of themselves "bad" and it's not wrong to want to make enough money (enough is a different amount for everyone by the way). And if it's your true aspiration to be famous, play the game well enough and you, too, can be a rock star photographer. I'm not judging anyone's personal goals here. Hopefully, though, you have better understanding of how critical thinking can help you read between the lines of what advertisers are selling YOU, and more importantly realize that people are going to read between yours, too. If you are the type to say there are a tonne of people dumb enough to not care and all the better for me and my pocketbook, I say, knock yourself out - you will find plenty of people happy to pay for your fame. More likely, though, if you're like most people (even the ones who openly admit they *do* want money and kinda like the attention that comes with fame) you will probably say, "But I'd like my clients to see that I actually DO value them and take pride in my craft..."
My best advice? Let go of trying to give people the "appearance" of something, and adopt a policy of just being 100% transparent. Be the polished turd, if you will. It 's not a bad thing to have a people's choice badge or get featured in a magazine and the outpouring of love will probably feel pretty great, but once people get past the smoke and mirrors, you want to make sure you have some substance to offer. Below I've included some ways you can build credentials that extend well beyond popularity and luck.
1) NUMBER ONE... Numero UNO... first and foremost.... Provide superior knowledge and expertise, only deliver excellent products, and strive to provide top notch customer service. Shoot shoot and shoot some more. Become a master in your own right and let your work speak for itself. If you relied 100% on word-of-mouth referals and never advertised to a single person or gained a second much less 15 minutes of fame, this recipe would ensure that no one could knock your company. There are hundreds of successful entrepreneurs out there who fly completely under the radar because they don't have to advertise - business consistently comes to them because their positive reputation precedes them. You want to be THAT company.
and... if you want to flaunt it:
2) Enter reputable peer-juried competitions. Unlike "popularity" type contests where there is no formal process for granting merit to the quality of your work and quantity might easily mean you did a groupon and got 500 new clients, placing in a contest with a proper peer review process certainly says a lot more about you as an artist. And yes, some of these contests are going to appear to be rigged and it's all still subjective anyways, but generally speaking you stand a much greater chance of being awarded merit based on the quality of your work this way than when you win based strictly on the number of friends you have who were diligent in voting every day.
3) Consider professional designation. While many of us don't have formal schooling, you might want to consider something like working towards obtaining Master of Photographic Arts (MPA) through the PPOC, the only Canadian company that can get you credentials in Canada. There is a submission process requiring you to successfully meet industry standards for quality, clarity, etc. Again, while there is some level of subjectivity in the jury process, it will still hold a little more clout than bragging your new group got 500 likes on Facebook. (Of course your Grampa liking your FB page counts, just not in a credible way like if your Grampa is Ansel Adams...)
4) Avoid recruiting testimonials on your interactive pages. It's one thing to publish testimonials on your static webpage. It's something entirely different for a client to spontaneously tweet a love note or randomly rave about you on your Facebook page or put a lengthy compliment on your blog post. And to actively solicit or request them just look desperate. While testimonials might happen in clumps, especially after an event or function, suddenly having a substantially huge number of people all rave about you on the same day is going to look obvious. Every time I stumble across this, I cannot help but giggle. At least get people to wait a day or two between testimonials if it's not going to be organic...
5) Boast the workshops you've taken or taught. Education, whether formal or peer-to-peer, is professional development. Taking workshops and classes shows a dedication on your part to bettering yourself, which will in turn expand your skill set and give you more tools to serve your clients with. If you are teaching, this demonstrates that you have the level of expertise that others find appealing. Either way, incorporating a commitment to lifelong learning into your business model is smart and gives people confidence in your company to be dynamic and up to date.
I've said for years that I will never win any popularity contests. I simply lack desire to be judged on how well I am known, by how many I am known, or how well I am liked. The lucky thing about this refusal of a popularity-based system is that it's a two-way street. I am not a social climber and have no interest on stepping on you, nor do I have anything to offer you as a means of a stepping stone on your way past and above me. Though I have, on occasion, been more than happy to slingshot people past me and watch them soar, because as a pedagogue at heart I find that more rewarding than anything.
Obviously I could explore a million more avenues with this but I think I've made my point perfectly clear. Whether you are a buyer or seller in the current market place, understanding how things are encoded and expected to be decoded will grant you some insight on what's written between the lines. What you want customers to read between YOUR lines is up to you. Now, shut up and shoot.