WestJet Should Have Used Viral Marketing for Good

12/16/2013 12:27 EST | Updated 02/16/2014 05:59 EST

"The medium is the message" and social media is the medium, but are we getting the proper "message"?

WestJet is by all accounts a wonderful airline, run in a light and care-free manner by like-minded employees. And the "Christmas Miracle" viral smash hit is just that.

The legend is growing just as its viral marketers had hoped and "the children are nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugarplums dance in their heads." But we saw something very telling in this video and the subsequent social media attention given to it about our society and where we are headed as a culture.

We start with the premise that a company or any organization has discretionary or surplus funds available to it. There is always a choice to be made -- for example, spend the funds on such things as "big-screen TVs" for fellow citizens who are at least well enough off to afford an airline ticket, or, spend the funds on 200 chickens for 200 poor families in developing countries so that they can have a supply of eggs (67,000+) for a year or more.

The organization decides in favour of the former. It doesn't even consider a compromise such as a 32" LED small-screen TV with built-in surround sound system and just 100 chickens, or perhaps a smaller "big screen" and 50 chickens.

Then traditional and social media begin to laud the efforts of this organization and the excitement starts to build around giving the traveller who requested it a "big TV," presumably for optimum viewing of sports events and people dancing with stars.

Remember, this spending by this organization is discretionary using presumably surplus funds, and this is how this organization chose to spend it -- superficially on TVs and tablets but more so on what the experts call "viral marketing." So far, there is nothing "wrong" with this picture -- a company has every right to spend its dollars however it and its shareholders see fit (many companies do support requisite charitable foundations).

Next, we all leap like lemmings to encourage each other to view the video that documents the excitement of it all, because the company promises to give a free flight to a needy family. As we blithely feast our neurons on this "must-see" viewing experience, we might fail to ask ourselves some rather pertinent questions.

Questions like is a free flight with all its additional costs what this needy family needs the most? Why must we watch this 200,000 times before they can board the plane? Is the free TV given to a random traveller the best way to spend $1,000 of available funds? Is this video really all about the "all about me" in all of us? Should I be buying a bigger TV for my uncle Louie than the one I just bought, like the one WestJet just gave away? Am I being subliminally recruited to fly on WestJet next Christmas or any time I fly? Thank goodness they didn't give someone something so lame as a Feed The Children gift of chickens. Then again, why didn't they give anything to Feed The Children or any other charitable organization? This is a rhetorical question of course -- no one asked for chickens or goats.

The Marketing 101 basic fact is that there's no "buzz" in telling a disembarking passenger that the company just donated chickens to needy families in a developing country, in their name. Unfortunately it does not have the viral "pop" or glam that the viral marketers are trying to sell.

Still, the true "buzz" is in the thousands of life-sustaining, nourishing eggs that could be consumed by needy women and children, if such gifts also were to appear on the baggage carousel. This is the reality of need, not the "virtual reality" of viral marketing.

Christmas is without a doubt all about giving, be it gifts or thanks or even just kind words of love for friends and family members. Companies and organizations are not families, so they have other priorities, especially companies, who are responsible to shareholders. But they have a great deal more money at their disposal than families, so their power to do good with discretionary funds is much greater.

A company with money to spare should consider combining the good of their "image" with the greater good in their viral marketing. In just the same way they might subliminally encourage a video viewer to fly on their airline, they might also subliminally encourage that same viewer to donate food or blankets or chickens or pencils or a goat or any number of other "tangible gifts" to others in need, using this same power of viral marketing.

Most significantly, as a society, perhaps we need to consider whether some forms of social media , especially when employed by companies, are turning us toward ideals that have less and less to do with caring and sharing, and more to do with whatever specific goals the viral marketers have in mind for us. Imploring us to watch a marketing video so that a needy family can fly somewhere is great marketing but is it any kind of building block for a great society?

Marshall McCluhan once said "the medium is the message." Is social media the vehicle for damaging subliminal messages that we should be aware of, but we're just not "getting"?

And as we plunge further and further into this new media "twitterverse", please let us pause to ask ourselves this -- are we truly following social media or are we being led into a cultural abyss where our attitudes are dictated by viral videos instead of common sense and a company's charitable donations are based on Youtube views instead of common good?

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