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London Calling: How Marketers Taught Rioters to Form Flash Mobs

Blackberry and Levi's are the first marketing victims of the London riots, with Research in Motion (RIMM) vowing to help police probe use of "untraceable" Blackberry messages used by some rioters and Levi's postponing its "Go Forth" campaign, which shows yoof setting fires, dancing in smoke-filled streets and confronting the police (pictured).

Even Facebook's name was tarnished as the social network was used to rally rioters. Twitter, by contrast, appears to have escaped blame for the conflagration because rioters avoided using it, knowing how easily identifiable its users are.

Blackberry suffered a double black eye because it also produced an ad for the Indian market, "We're the Blackberry Boys," which shows a mob of ordinary folks gathering to celebrate their use of cheap text messaging, to the annoyance of a handful of men in suits. Much of the rioting has enveloped Asian immigrant neighborhoods:

That ad seems tangential compared to the Levi's ad, whose images are doppelgangers for photos of the riots in the U.K.:

For years, marketers have used social media -- Twitter, Facebook, text messaging and so on -- to stage elaborate flash mob performances, such as this one by ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi promoting T-Mobile at London's Liverpool Street Station:

Social media, and its ability to gather a crowd quickly around an event or a promotion via Facebook Deals or Groupon Now has become a routine tactic for many advertisers, such as The Gap.

Those tactics have now been turned against retailers, as rioters used Blackberry messages to gather packs of looters to steal from stores in the same way marketers previously used them to gather packs of shoppers to buy from them. The rioting has been as much about consumption and brands as it has been about the police shooting death of Mark Duggan in a traffic stop -- the ostensible spark that fired the unrest.

It started with a message on a Duggan memorial Facebook page, celebrating the riots (click to enlarge):

Facebook, obviously, is highly traceable -- but many users believe Blackberry Messengers (BBMs) are not. That's why the United Arab Emirates tried to ban their use. (Although it's not entirely clear that BBMs are completely protected from third parties.)

RIM is cooperating with police to figure out how extensively BBMs were used by rioters, and some lawmakers have called for a ban on anonymous, untraceable text messaging

In the meantime, the British might want to ask themselves why an ostensibly political protest against police violence spiraled so quickly into a looting festival. As you can see from this comments thread on a map by the Guardian that compares riot locations to poverty levels, many people have a hard time believing that someone might be poor if they also own a mobile phone.