Towards the end of 2015, Twitter briefly trended the phrase ‘Everyone’s doing the Banana Bum junket.’ Admittedly, it was only for a few minutes, but it happened. Why? Why would a phrase so utterly meaningless be shared by over 11,000 people in a matter of minutes?
It was simple. I bought ten thousand ‘likes’ from a dodgy Malaysian company and watched them pour in. I was tempted to buy 250,000 (I was offered a special deal) but advertising trade magazines don’t pay for articles so, you know, fuck it.
(Amusingly, about 1000 real people retweeted the phrase, presumably because they thought they were getting in early on some new internet meme.)
The tweet’s still there at @ImaBigGorilla. He’s a Twitter character I created who spent weeks tweeting about Bananas. I thought he’d go viral. He didn’t, but a few zoos seemed to like him.
After chatting to the enthusiastic Malaysians for a few days I attempted to make one of my Facebook posts ‘This post will be very famous in a few hours!’ trend by buying 50,000 likes for it. Unfortunately Facebook was apparently cracking down and the post drifted ever downwards on the feeds of my Facebook friends who thought the post was some sort of cry for help.
Buying clicks is easy if you know where to look. A Ukrainian company I talked to last week have a server farm on a tanker outside US waters and will click banners for you. I would have tested them but I didn’t have a banner to click or even the slightest idea of how to make a banner.
A cursory search will find countless sites across the world who’ll buy you followers, likes, clicks and engagements. After all, it’s a big business. A numbers game. And a few million hits for a few hundred bucks isn’t a bad investment if you’ve been paid a few thousand to make an ad and the results look awesome. In China, click farms in warehouses pay people to walk up and down endless lines of cheap mobiles giving apps five star reviews. Quality doesn’t matter. Getting into the top ten does.
When creativity becomes a simple numbers game, it can be very tempting to game the system. After all, results must mean the campaign’s doing great. Digital is a shiny, exciting world for marketers where advertising can be quantified and analysed in literally minutes. It’s no longer art. It’s science and numbers don’t lie.
But unfortunately, they do. One of the companies I spoke to reeled off names of extremely famous companies who use their services to pump up their digital output. Of course, I have only their word to go on, but I did it for a tweet about bum bananas for very little money and they’re in charge of digital campaigns with a budget.
And then there’s politicians. At least two major players in the recent Australian election had at least 30% ‘low quality’ followers (ie, bought and paid for.) To the average voter, these vast numbers of followers show that their message is resonating. Could website click companies influence an election? We’ll never know.
The world of digital is the new bright and shiny frontier. It’s where the big money’s going and a few fake numbers here and there make it seem all the more attractive – which is why platforms are seemingly reticent to do much about it.
Real persuasion can’t be faked. It can’t be bought and sold. It’s a skill honed by decades of practice on channels with absolutely proven success. Unfortunately, its vast and lucrative effects can’t be quantified immediately. It’s a slow burn. Unfortunately, those quick numbers and colourful engagement reports are like a hit of cocaine to marketers. But just like cocaine, you never really know what your dealer’s cut it with.
Because everyone’s doing the banana bum junket.
Andy Flemming is Group Creative Director of M&C Saatchi, Sydney.