Unanticipated Consequences

by Charles Hofacker


Examining the Unanticipated Consequences of Interactive Marketing, Special issue of the Journal of Interactive Marketing; Deadline 1 Sep 2020


Author: Charles Hofacker

[My apologies – the notice went out with the wrong deadline. The correct deadline is 1 Sep 2020ch]

Examining the Unanticipated Consequences of Interactive Marketing

An increasingly digital world economy has become stunningly unpredictable. We can only hope, as Merton put it in his classic essay on the unanticipated consequences of purposeful social action, that “undesired effects are not always undesirable effects” (1936, p. 895). In 2009, Deighton and Kornfeld published an optimistic article in the Journal of Interactive Marketing® about consumer empowerment as a positive unanticipated consequence of interactivity. Ten years later, in 2020, it is time to take another look and re-examine unanticipated consequences of interactive marketing.

In today’s world of rapid technological innovation, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things, the potential for unanticipated consequences of interactive marketing is higher than ever. Unanticipated consequences are often an outcome of the type (and lack) of knowledge necessary to predict possible scenarios and a singular focus on the original intended effect of the action to the detriment of thinking about unintended effects (e.g., Facebook’s “move fast and break things” motto) (Merton 1936). Marketing academics are particularly well placed to discover and draw attention to these unanticipated consequences, and to provide thought leadership as to how consumers, firms, and/or policy makers should respond.

Here are just some examples of headline-grabbing unintended effects of interactive platforms and interactive marketing, desirable and otherwise:

  • Social networks that bring us together also create echo chambers and facilitate the spreading of fake news, potentially threatening public health (e.g., antivaxxers) and even democracy.
  • Social media metrics developed by platforms to increase, measure and monetize engagement become addictive for consumers increasingly craving instant gratification.
  • Moral outrage spreads through rapid social media firestorms that engulf brands and individuals who crossed an (in)visible line, damaging brands and ending careers.
  • User-unfriendly T&Cs, the promise of increased personalisation, and network effects make consumers give up their own data and even their friends’ data, eroding the possibility of privacy.
  • Charity campaigns like ALS’ famous Ice Bucket Challenge go viral and raise huge amounts of awareness and money while many others complain about consumers’ slacktivism.
  • Annoying ads lead to rapid adoption of ad blockers, threatening the entire digital content ecosystem.
  • Algorithms meant to be neutral and unbiased nevertheless produce biased outcomes.
  • Product review platforms create opportunities for fake reviews while some ‘influencers’ buy armies of robot followers to monetize this fake influence.
  • Pokémon Go’s augmented reality game creates a huge commercial success but also leads to so much immersion that some players experienced serious accidents.
  • Using self-tracking devices does not always produce the desired outcome, e.g., wearing a fitness tracker makes some people move less and lose less weight than not wearing one.
  • Clever use of block chain logic created Bitcoin, which now burns as much energy as the Republic of Ireland.
  • Platforms like Amazon and Google are accused of sucking the life out of entire sectors of the economy (e.g., main street retailers, local news organisations) in a winner-takes-all fashion.

And the list goes on.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that only some of these topics have received academic research attention to date, leaving in doubt the evidence for the causal effects interactive marketing has been implicated in.

As interactive marketing researchers, we do not often pause to question and challenge the potential unintended effects of digital marketing – whether they may be positive or negative.

Thus, with this special issue and conference theme, we challenge you to examine your research from the perspective of unexpected effects, to make them the object of your research, and to think about their implications.

Welcome to a world of unanticipated consequences. Welcome to the Special Issue.

Full information is available here