Virtual Wheaties Box: The New Era of Social Media Marketing

Sep 03, 2015

The idea of using celebrities as a means to promote a product isn't anything new. Remember the Wheaties box? Thirty years ago, getting on the Wheaties box was the pinnacle of celebrity endorsements. I still remember sitting at the kitchen table when I was eight or nine years old, eating my cereal and staring at a cardboard box with Michael Jordan's picture staring back at me. Later, when I was a teenager, the celebrity "Got Milk" ads became my favorite part of flipping through any teen magazine. Do you remember the Backstreet Boys milk ad? I do, and so do thousands of other digital natives. From TV, to radio, to print, celebrities ruled the marketing world. 

But now, with the rise of social media, celebrities don't even need a photo shoot or TV commercial to become a company's new spokesperson. All they need is an Instagram (or YouTube) account, free product samples, and a dab of creativity. If you don't have the money to launch a big advertising initiative, it's no problem. For companies that are looking to reach a certain user base, there are plenty of famous Instagrammers out there who will tweet a picture and an endorsement for a few bucks. They get to build their brand name and you get to dip a toe into the world of celebrity spokespeople. Not a bad deal, right?

In the last couple of months, though, it's become clear that not all celebrities are savvy advertisers. While sometimes the product pushes are innocuous enough, recently one "celebrity" posted a poorly vetted endorsement that caused quite a bit of fall out. A few weeks back, a pregnant Kim Kardashian posted an Instagram photo of herself and a bottle of prescription morning sickness pills from Duchesnay USA. She raved about the drug and urged her followers to talk to their doctors about using it. The problem was she failed to mention the half-dozen side effects of the pills-a faux pas that wasn't only misleading, but against the law. Thankfully, the Food and Drug Administration took notice and demanded she remove the post.

While Kardashian removed the post quickly, her actions initiated a hot debate across the web, leading many to wonder who should be responsible for monitoring product endorsements on social media sites. Should the FDA be scrolling through hundreds of thousands of posts looking for offenders, or should the social media site itself be responsible for censoring such content?

A few months back, I wrote a column that focused on social media censorship. At that time, I argued that social media sites were responsible for policing the content published on their site. I still stand by this. When it comes to celebrity endorsements, though, I don't believe that social media sites or the FDA should be responsible for making sure products that are promoted are done so honestly and legally. Who should be in charge of making sure everything is kosher in a social media endorsement? The company paying for the endorsement.

See, the number of social media users is still rising. According to Pew Research, "almost all of the major social media platforms that are consistently tracked in Pew Research surveys have seen a significant increase in the proportion of U.S. adults who use them." But, interestingly enough, while Facebook is still the most widely used social media platform, visually-based sites like Instagram and Pinterest, two sites that are made up primarily of images and videos, saw their numbers double. "Today 31% of online adults use Pinterest, up from 15% in 2012. Likewise, 28% of online adults use Instagram, a 15-point increase from the 13% of internet users who did so in 2012."

Why does any of this matter? Because numbers like these show that the social media landscape is becoming increasingly visual. We've gone from Facebook posts with unlimited text, to tweets with 140 characters or less, to just a picture and a hashtag. I wouldn't be surprised if social media users don't even bother to read captions on these photos or videos any more. Now, when a user sees Kim Kardashian holding a bottle of pills on their Instagram feed, there's a decent chance that they will literally take the photo at face value. There is no context-not even a fine print disclaimer. And just for the record, Kardashian has almost 45 million followers on Instagram. That's a lot of people. I can hear it now: "but doctor, Kim Kardashian says the pills are safe, see?"

This is a terrifying prospect, especially for media companies who spend so much time and effort trying to engage consumers and build honest relationships. How do we avoid this? In my opinion, we just have to stay the course. Go back to the basics. Publish quality content that you are proud of and choose your promotional advertising carefully. Exploring new avenues to reach a user base can payoff big, but can also cause some major problems.