Mark Ritson: Where mass communication exists, parasitic marketing won’t be far behind

I was signed up to write a branding column in the early noughties by an editor who did two very smart things.

Ritson featured image

First, he got me smashed. Second, he hinted that a weekly column would invariably attract a whole new level of consulting work (this turned out to be bollocks), all kinds of PR perks (also bollocks) and would occasionally result in propositions from beautiful women at conferences and airports (absolute bollocks).

That last broken promise was particularly depressing given the abject lack of dating during my early columnist years. My ex-girlfriend once joked that I should rename my column ‘No Sex in the City’.

Over recent weeks, however, I started to think that the columnist thing might be working for me after all. Barely an hour has passed without a very attractive professional woman sending me a quick email via LinkedIn to tell me how awesome my profile looks and how much she wants to work with me. I’ve got Karolin from Interactive Brokers begging for my phone number, Jessica from Goldman Sachs telling me how “impressive” I am, and I can’t even start to tell you what Jane Smith recently proposed.

LinkedIn scrapper

Alas, your humble columnist has not become an irresistible marketing guru to a legion of photogenic women. Apparently, I have been ‘scraped’, which happens when a company unscrupulously uses the details of some of the 250 million genuine LinkedIn members to create hundreds of fake profiles and uses this invented army to sell dodgy financial deals. LinkedIn is increasingly concerned by scraping because, according to its lawyers, it believes it “undermines the integrity and effectiveness of LinkedIn’s professional network by polluting it with thousands of fake profiles”.

LinkedIn is merely the latest in a long line of social networks stung by fake users who abuse the system for their own personal gain. Last month, Tinder endured a celebrated case of hacking to promote a new film. A few months earlier, we had the ‘Instagram Rapture’ in which the beleaguered network removed millions of fake accounts and left genuine users, who had thought they were communicating with hundreds of people, with the uncomfortable realisation that most of their messages were being read by their mum and the creepy guy from accounts. Go a little further back and there were dark mutterings about Facebook ‘click farms’ and the even darker accounts of fading celebrities and unscrupulous branding columnists buying fake followers on Twitter. Smoke, mirrors and subterfuge followed social media at every turn it seemed.

But it would be unfair to point the fake finger only at social media. Long before Facebook was even a twinkle in Zuckerberg’s eye, older readers will recall the constant stream of email correspondence that alerted them to the fact that they were overweight, had a small penis and had won the Nigerian lottery. It got so bad that spam and the filters that removed it became the single biggest factor in selecting email software in the mid-nineties.

Before that it was direct marketing that was up to no good. Unscrupulous marketers worked out that people opened letters personally addressed to them and developed sophisticated databases and printing systems to replicate these. When Joe Public cottoned on to this and stopped opening anything other than utility bills, the same marketers started sending direct mail that looked like bills. Things got so bad that genuine utility firms resorted to sending their monthly bills in envelopes that essentially said ‘For fuck’s sake this really is a bill, don’t throw it away’. You can guess what happened next.

In fact, when you look at anything from soap operas to product placement to public relations to content marketing it becomes clear that marketing has always operated parasitically on and around genuine forms of mass communication. Jane Smith and her glamorous, fictional colleagues are simply the latest manifestation of a game as old as marketing itself. The world embraces a new form of mass communication and about 20 minutes later an idiot in a marketing department starts bastardising the fuck out of it to advance their own nefarious ends.

Welcome to the phoney pantheon LinkedIn, where imitation has always been the highest form of marketing flattery.



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  1. MarketingRocket 13 Apr 2015

    Dear Mark, I’m no gorgeous woman + I already have a great boyfriend, but I genuinely enjoy reading your weekly column; I find your comments and analysis generally extremely relevant (OK, sometimes a bit disturbing) but to me you’re The Marketing Guru – I said it in my latest job interview, quoting you as an example of my Marketing icons, and they gave me the job, so surely I’m not the only one thinking you’re great 😉 Keep up the good work!

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