Big brands are increasingly realising the power of social media and are looking to cash in. Ciara Fitzgerald examines the use of online celebrity endorsements as a means of spreading the word in an instant.
No matter where you are today, whether it be on a busy shopping street or sitting at a bus stop, you are more than likely going to come across an annoyingly perfect version of a celebrity’s smiling face attempting to sell you something. For decades companies have used celebrities to promote their products to the public in the hopes of effectively reaching their target demographic and increasing their profits. While research into the subject is divided on whether or not these celebrity endorsements actually work, big brands have continued to see them as a lucrative business strategy worth the millions required to secure the use of a well-known face. Examples include Justin Timberlake signing a deal with McDonalds in 2003 for $6 million, while more recently in 2012 Beyoncé agreed to a 10-year partnership with Pepsi that will secure her $50 million in total. These expensive enterprises however seem to be becoming a thing of the past as more and more consumers shy away from overt, flashy advertisements.
This presents a problem for brands as to how they can continue to use celebrity status to promote their products, but in a more subtle way. The answer seems to have been found online through social media. Today’s top stars have a huge online fan base and can easily rack up millions of followers from all over the world across various platforms. In order to reap the benefits of this golden opportunity, brands make use of a form of native advertising. This is a concept whereby the consumer is not presented with an obvious ad, but rather one disguised to fit in with the platform’s usual content. In layman’s terms what this means is that today’s ads blend in with all numerous other posts we rapidly scroll through every day, while today’s celebrity endorsement deals consist of sponsored tweets and Instagram posts from their personal accounts raving about a particular something they can’t live without. This seemingly continues to be beneficial for both parties, with the company receiving worldwide exposure at half the cost, while the celebrity is still able to collect a sizable pay cheque.
Anyone who follows a major celebrity online has come across one of these ads, which are usually quite easy to pick out if you know to look for them. They are particularly prolific on Instagram, where the most commonly endorsed products lately have been teeth whiteners and detox teas. CocoWhite, describe as “a 100 per cent all natural alternative to the chemical fuelled teeth whitening craze,” has been prominently featured in smiling selfies uploaded by Lindsey Lohan, Kylie Jenner and Katie Price. Meanwhile Bootea, described as “the boost you need to get back on track with your healthy eating and active lifestyle”, has also made an appearance in another photo on each of these women’s pages, along with those belonging to Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale and many others. Although we are now accustomed to seeing these kinds of posts, many are still not aware that these celebrities are paid for the publicity, which can lead to a whole host of problems given the health and image-orientated nature of what is being advertised, as well as their young target audience.
the majority of these posts do not include any mention of them being part of an endorsement deal
Like all other forms of advertisement then, this relatively new approach does have to be regulated. Both the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the USA’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have their own standards to which both celebrities and brands are supposed to adhere. These are no different from other rudimentary everyday advertising regulations designed to protect the consumer. The generally accepted practise is to include “#ad” or “#spon” in every sponsored post so that followers are aware of what exactly they are looking at. Their rules also state that these type of ads are not allowed to be misleading or provide false information. Unfortunately though these are neither widely implemented nor enforced. In fact the majority of these posts (including those listed above) do not include any mention of them being part of an endorsement deal and sometimes provide information on benefits that cannot be independently verified.
Yet in the last few years there have only been two high profile cases surrounding false advertising on social media. In 2012, Wayne Rooney and Nike were initially criticised by the ASA for his tweet promoting their ‘Make It Count’ campaign because it was not “identifiable as marketing communications,” and the tweet in question was taken down. On further investigation however, both Rooney and Nike were subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing because of the difference in language between Rooney’s regular tweets and the Nike-sponsored one.
while we are now accustomed to seeing these sort of posts, many are still not aware that these celebrities are paid for the publicity
The other case occurred last August after Kim Kardashian posted a photo to her Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts of herself holding a bottle of the morning sickness drug Diclegis, along with a lengthy caption filled with glowing praise. This came to the attention of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which issued a warning letter to the company and the reality star stating they had broken federal laws as “the social media post is misleading because it presents various efficacy claims for Diclegis, but fails to communicate any risk information.” As a result, the post was subsequently removed (but not before it received over 450,000 likes), and Kardashian later re-posted it along with a new caption which included all the necessary health risk information, thereby abiding by the FDA’s demands.
Both of these incidents indicate a lack of strict penalties when these celebrity endorsements ignore regulations. The situation will only get worse if the authorities do not take steps to protect consumers and discourage brands from flaunting the rules. Similarly consumers need to be informed and thereby able to recognise these ads for what they are: a paid sponsorship deal which often has nothing to do with the person’s own preferences. In order for there to be greater enforcement both the public and the celebrities themselves have to want to take control of how we are subjected to advertisements online. Celebrity voices have a definite power on social media, but they need to be careful about how they use them and for what.