Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Are social media advertisements ethical?

By: Chris Roling

The popularity of Twitter has introduced companies to a new way of reaching potential customers. Many users of the social networking site follow the official accounts of their favorite celebrities, and many companies know this. The problem is, do most Twitter users understand when their favorite actor or athlete is pitching them a product because the company has paid them to do so?

The above Tweet comes from comedian Michael Ian Black. Celebrities such as Black can earn up to $10,000 per sponsored tweet. Black however, says he would never Tweet something he objected to, even if the company was paying him to do so.

A company leading the way in sponsored Tweets is Ad.ly.With over 20,000 sponsored Tweets a year, the company is having no problem moving the majority of its advertising online through celebrities, actors and athletes.

The ethical issue presented by this new form of advertising is if Twitter users actually realize they are reading a sponsored post. The Federal Trade Commission requires each online ad to be labeled as such, but there is no way to gauge if users understand the labels. Ad.ly was recenlty banned from using Facebook as a way to advertise because of questionalble practices, but will other sites follow?

Companies such as Ad.ly are becoming very proficient at fooling consumers. A television, magazine or print ad featuring a celebrity is obviously a paid advertisement. An advertisement on Twitter blurs the line because the ad still speaks in the fashion typical to the celebrity that is posting the ad.

Many users will see a post like the one from Snoop Dogg and not realize it is an ad, leading them to think the star actually like Toyota brands. In reality, Snoop may have no preference in cars, or hate Toyotas, but because they gave him a check, he Tweets it to his 3.5 million followers. Is that ethical?

The short answer is no. If a celebrity is Tweeting ads consistently they will receive a vicious backlash from their followers. Twitter is a level of human interaction many have never had with the stars before. If their favorite celebrities forgo this interaction to make money off of their followers, it will only lead to angry fans.

Social media is just that, media. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that corporations are attempting to take advantage of the new platform. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise when there is a backlash by the users because they want an ad-free platform to interact with others, including their favorite actors and celebrities. The majority of users want all advertising out of social media, whether their wish is granted remains to be seen.

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