Betty White Is One Petition We Can Believe In

Facebook petitions are like email jokes. They may be novel and intriguing at first, but they get old quickly. E-petitions in general have always had a sketchy reputation. They’re easily faked, often misdirected, and frequently about causes that don’t hinge on public opinion. Some think they encourage “slacktivism” by lulling us into mindset that we’re doing something when we’re not.

But, now there’s Betty White, who may have restored our faith in social media’s power to effect change. I’m kidding, but only half. The unsinkable White will host “Saturday Night Live” this weekend. And as the world knows, the idea behind her Mother’s Day eve appearance was born in a Facebook petition that garnered over half a million supporters since last December. The momentum and publicity generated by “Betty White To Host SNL: please?” was apparently impressive enough to convince SNL to give her the host gig.

Pundits are calling it more proof of the power of social media. Yet, on reflection, it probably doesn’t prove much about those sites and pages that lobby for everything from gay marriage to Domino’s pizza deliveries in helicopters. It’s hard to find examples that really demonstrate the success of e-petitions. Facebook helps with fraud concerns, but the most compelling online petitions tap into a passionate cult following, a pop culture trend, or a serious social or political issue where many other influences are at work.

I loved how fans of the NBC show “Chuck” leveraged social media to save their hero, but the show was never actually cancelled in the first place. And despite websites that record e-petition successes, the examples are…well, random. Like the move to allow Jackson, Mississippi student Nathan Warmack to wear his kilt to a high school dance. Or the current petition to name William Shatner as Canada’s next Governor General. That’s got my vote.

The Betty White Facebook campaign is less a social media win than a statement about the power and popularity of Betty. Clearly, the 88 -year-old actress is having what Simon Cowell would call a Moment. It was actually kicked off by traditional media – the Snickers Super Bowl ad in which she and fellow octagenarian Abe Vigoda played football. (At the time, the Daily News cheered, “The New Orleans Saints might have won the game, but Betty White won the Super Bowl.”)

The campaign was then advanced on Facebook and shrewdly promoted by White’s PR team, who were busy last week worrying about overexposure and coyly refusing to do nudity. And, you have to hand it to NBC for seeing a Golden opportunity. In a demographic balancing act, it’s paired White with Jay-Z as musical guest.

So, the lesson of Betty White may be more about the message than the medium. But, like Conan O’Brien’s Twitter campaign, it’s a perfect marriage of brand personality, timing, and media mix. Should be a good show.