Will consumers force brands to behave more ethically in this digital age?

Digital advocates have a dream – that the Internet will enable us to act collectively – to bring together groups of like-minded individuals and turn our consumer behaviour into a force for good.

Protesters and charitable organizations have done their best to exploit these capabilities – protests against BP, for example, have attracted more than 800,000 members to a "Boycott BP" Facebook site.

There are also examples of commercial collective bargaining power in the digital space such as CauseWorld – where Kraft and P&G have enabled consumers to do good simply by walking into a store and checking in. The successful Pepsi Refresh campaign uses a similar model to get consumers to vote for the good works they want the drinks giant to fund.

I would have included Groupon in this list but its recent Super Bowl ad was criticized for appearing to trivialize the issue of Tibet – a hot topic for collectivists – and thus its "force-for-good" credentials have been downgraded.

However, consumers are much more likely to be encouraged to act as individuals by digital communications via one to one deals from brands that ask them to make private rather than collective decisions.

Of course, not everyone behaves this way but ask yourself this question: Are you more likely to buy a product if:

a) You get another one free which is more tailored to your needs at a time of your choosing

b) The manufacturer offers to help someone less fortunate – but obviously only in a small way

c) The manufacturer will plant a tree

What is your choice? – and will the answer change depending on whether you are on your own or with a friend?

The majority of brands believe that most of us would take the first option and that the digital opportunities of collective communication are far outweighed by the potential of one-to-one messages, especially if this conversation can grow into a "relationship" with the brand.

As a result, digital shoppers are encouraged to have a growing number of one-to-one conversations with advertisers – through special offers and rewards. At the same time services such as ShopSavvy. which lets consumers scan a barcode and get price comparison info instantly, and Shopkick, an app that provides location-based offers from the likes of Best Buy and Macy's in the US, will reinforce this behaviour.

Expect to see a tidal wave of offers arriving in your in-box soon, powered by the data that brands hold on consumer behaviour.

As the digital age progresses, there is clear evidence that some people are getting left behind, especially people who are heavily dependent on actual, rather than virtual, communities for their interaction and services.

However rather than using digital channels to put pressure on government and retailers to maintain their physical presence in support of their fellow citizens, those who are fortunate enough to be connected are more likely to be chasing the cut-price offers they find in their in-boxes.

So, the irony is that just when social media is supposed to be connecting us, the most powerful impact of the digital infrastructure may be to privatize our personal spending decisions.

Ultimately our retail habits and costs may become more of a one to one issue. And the power of collective bargaining or collective positive action could be relegated to niche groups or used mainly to attract positive PR.

But as a final word of warning, advertisers need to be very careful here as well. On the outside, Groupon, like CauseWorld, would qualify as a commercial collective for the greater good but it needs to act like this in their communications. Their Super Bowl ad has little to do with the digital advocates' dream as the fall-out from Sunday proves.

Mick Mernagh is Chief Insight Officer at MediaCom Worldwide. He can be reached at Mick.Mernagh@mediacom.com.

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