Monday, 19 March 2012

Lady Gaga leads the way

Lady Gaga has become the first Twitter user ever to have more than 20 million followers. On 17 March, the unconventional US singer reached the social media milestone when the 20th million follower joined her online community at @LadyGaga. 

The eccentric performer, famous for her extravagant outfits and extraordinary hats, is leading a group of celebrities who have discovered the power of social media. With more followers than the populations of Holland, Libya or Australia, celebrities have started to realise the commercial opportunities, and advertisers also seem more than willing to cash in; the sky is the limit! 

The concept of marketing via social media accounts, however, is not entirely new. The UK Office of Fair Trading (OFT) announced at the end of 2010 that it would start cracking down on Twitter users who endorse products and brands without clarifying whether they have been paid for their online remarks. The OFT said in a statement on 13 December 2010: 'Online advertising and marketing practices that do not disclose they include paid-for promotions are deceptive under fair trading laws. This includes comments on blogs such as Twitter.' The announcement followed a July 2010 OFT investigation into whether the public relations firm Handpicked Media had paid bloggers to write exclusively about the firm's clients. Under the OFT's rules, paid blogs can be regarded as an unfair commercial practice. After the Handpicked Media case, the OFT said that brands need to make clear when promotions have been paid for, otherwise there is a real risk of enforcement action by the regulator. 

Since then, the UK advertising regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), has adopted the US Federal Trade Commission’s ‘social media regime’. In the US, the FTC demands that paid posts and tweets contain the words 'ad(vertisement)' or 'spon(sored)'. However, it was not until this month that commercial Tweets have really been put to the test. 

‘You are not you when you’re hungry.’

Rio Ferdinand
On 7 March, the ASA ruled that a campaign by Snickers - paying glamour model Katie Price and footballer Rio Ferdinand to tweet about the chocolate bar – did not break UK advertising rules. Mars, the parent company of Snickers, had paid the celebrities to post five messages each on Twitter. On the face of it, the first four ‘tweets’ were innocent messages about the stars’ daily lives. The final tweet contained a picture of the celebrities each holding a Snickers bar and the byline ‘You are not you when you’re hungry’, accompanied by the #spon suffix. 

The ASA ruled that all five tweets should be considered to be part of an ‘orchestrated’ advertising campaign and all tweets should have been considered as sponsored material, but this only became clear after the last tweet was posted. Nevertheless, the ASA said that the final tweet was clearly marked as ‘sponsored’ and that it was not likely to cause confusion among consumers. It was the first ruling by the ad watchdog involving marketing on Twitter.  

With the ASA decision that no further action is needed and tweets such as these are legitimate ads, the door is fully open for online marketing on Twitter and other social networking websites. Advertisers have embraced ASA’s ruling: it paves the way for many more paid-for tweets. Although all eyes are on Twitter now (will they step in to get a share of the pie?), Lady Gaga can count her blessings. As long as you have a huge following, tweeting has never been so lucrative.

Michiel Willems © 2012 CP Publishing Ltd. London, UK. Pictures: