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A Magazine for Sheffield

Ghosts: The non-committal spectres of social media

I don't consider myself superstitious, but I do believe there are invisible forces that pervade our domestic life - preternatural manifestations of the long dead which by day work as social media advertising agents trapped on this earthly plane until they can optimise the ‘reach’ and ‘consumer engagement’ figures of their brand and achieve eternal rest. Social media has allowed businesses and their associated advertising campaigns to play a more active role in our daily lives, whether we want them to or not. Sponsored posts on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere mean that a new product launch will be seen by us even when we just want to check our private messages. Opaque algorithms place brand messages next to significant life events. Nothing takes the glamour off a new baby or engagement announcement than it occupying the same monitor space as “NEW UKIP FLAVOURED YOGHURT - 20% OFF!” If these brands were part of my network now, I thought if nothing else that would entitle me to communicate with them, so I would regularly send off “please be quiet” to promoted posts and the occasional “shut up” if it had been a particularly bad day. But I didn't feel happy with blurting out moody kneejerks, so instead I began posting more abstruse responses. “When I read your post I dropped my dinner all over the floor. Who is going to pay for this?” I added this to the promoted post of a taxi firm that operates exclusively in London. No response from the company, but positive responses from other people clearly annoyed by the ad. What I needed was for the company to respond. “Are ghosts real?” It seems like such a simple question which, once they responded to it, I could use to lead them up the garden path. I would never have predicted what actually resulted. Like politicians dodging questions on unusual expenses claims, time and time again supermarkets, bakeries, consumer electronics goods stores, confectioners and beverage corporations all did their best to ‘engage with their audience’ while being very careful to neither confirm nor deny the existence of spectral manifestations of the departed. Repeatedly, brand managers would be incredibly cagey, responding to the simple question in oblique ways and never saying anything that could be construed as a ‘stance’. I quickly became obsessed. It seemed all I would get was “We don't know. What do you think?” or grindingly tedious ghost puns. I soon stopped contacting companies that make spirits altogether. Some responses were bizarre, especially the one from McVitie's, who decided to pretend they thought I said 'goat'. But there were a small minority of brands who didn't think openly proclaiming a belief in ghosts would be a problem at all, including The Sun, Poundland, Adidas, Tescos and Coors Lite, as well as minor celebrities like The Hairy Bikers and some cast members from Made In Chelsea. #GhostCampaign began to pick up slightly and I soon got people asking questions on my behalf to increase the coverage. But for the vast majority of the hundreds of questions I sent out, the staff behind the social media pages seemed genuinely worried that saying anything one way or the other might negatively impact on their brand or their career. This culminated in the most fantastic response from a Sainsbury's PR guy, who said something to the tune of, “I don't believe in ghosts but I don't want to speak on behalf of the company”. Presumably just in case Sainsbury's is planning to announce a belief in a corporeal afterlife in the coming months. No matter what brands try to do to have a human face they are always bound by the desire to be neutral and ambiguous on almost all things because it is the safest option. In the process of trying to grow #GhostCampaign I was repeatedly asked whether I myself believed in ghosts. To date I've not said anything decisive one way or the other. )

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