There was once a time when the Pope was happy to declare himself a coked-up drunk. Yes, believe it or not, in the late 1800's, Pope Leo XIII's smiling face graced the ads for Vin Mariani, a popular French wine laced with cocaine. Not only did Leo XIII endorse the drink through advertising, he actually went as far as awarding it a Vatican gold medal.
He wasn't the only celebrity of his day to sing the praises of Vin Mariani. Celebrated balloonist Alberto Santos Dumont, actress Sarah Bernhardt, author Jules Verne, and even Thomas Edison publically declared their love for the wine in the ads of the day.
Obviously, celebrity product endorsements aren't new. From the Pope's endorsement of Vin Mariani to Ronald Reagan's ads for Chesterfield cigarettes to the non-stop endorsements of just about every product today, using celebrity to sell has been going on for a long time. And it probably isn't going to stop any time soon. Why should it? It works.
By associating with well-known, loved, and respected celebrities, products are able to transfer a little bit of shine from the celebrity to themselves. Once the brand of the celebrity becomes linked to the brand of the product, claims made about the product become more believable. If a celebrity we trust says something's great, then heck...it is great!
Before the Web came along, celebrity endorsements were clearly a mass-media affair. Big celebrities became linked with big products on a national level, and sometimes minor local celebrities became linked with local products. Overall, the idea was to transfer trust and luster from the person to the product.
But there's always been another level to endorsements: the word-of-mouth endorsement from a friend. After all, if your buddy recommends a product you're going to believe them because you know them and trust them. It's the same principle as the celebrity endorsement, but much more reliable.
Social media (especially blogging) has taken word-of-mouth endorsements to an entirely new level. We tend to like the bloggers we read, and the personal nature of blogging along, with the back-and-forth conversation that happens in comments, means that the virtual relationships we form with favorite bloggers can become fairly personal...even on a well-trafficked blog. In fact, the line between friend and celebrity can become blurred when it comes to blogging.
Twitter has taken this to a whole new level, especially with the advent of celebrity tweeters. The stream-of-consciousness, know-what-they're-doing nature of Twitter means that even a celebrity can start to blur the line into a semblance of "friend." It's a powerful marketing tool (as evidenced by this list of top Twitter celebrities) because the immediacy and personal connection that comes with receiving tweets from someone we admire or idolize means that we feel like we're forming a personal connection.
The personal nature of endorsements coming from Twitter users and bloggers hasn't been lost on marketers. There are a number of companies that pay bloggers or Tweeters to endorse products on their blogs or in their Twitter feeds. These endorsements are incredibly powerful because of that personal connection we form with publishers in the social media space -- it's like having a friend give you the inside scoop on cool new products. Endorsers don't even have to be celebrities to make some coin by endorsing products: services like Ad.ly will pay anyone to send out one tweet every other day for seven days. Now anyone can become a celebrity endorser!
Unfortunately for those trying to monetize their blogs, Facebook accounts, or Twitter feeds, the Federal Trade Commission is about to ruin the party. Beginning December 1, bloggers who endorse products have to reveal whether or not they're being paid to do so. And while the new rules have been widely touted as being aimed at bloggers, other social networking tools seem to be included in the regulations.
While some have decried these new rules by calling the FTC "Big Blogger" and have cried over the unenforceability and unfairness of these rules, I think they're a fantastic idea that we, as marketers, should be celebrating.
Why? Because if there's one thing that social media (and the Web in general) has taught us, it's that dishonesty doesn't pay. While you might be able to pull off surreptitious endorsements for a while, examples such as fallout from the infamous "Wal-Mart Blogger" debacle a few years ago have shown that people can react pretty strongly when they figure out they've been had. While Wal-Mart's tactics were seen as pretty heavy handed, they're really no different than Mommy Bloggers endorsing products for pay on the sly.
For a company concerned about its brand (and who isn't?), the pay-for-endorsement rules aren't going to put a damper on your marketing -- they'll actually make it more effective. Online reputations can be broken faster than they're built and if you're going to maintain an effective brand online you have to maintain trust. That's always been true, but now, with the interconnectedness of companies and consumers brought about by social media, trust, and transparency is vital. There's no place for sneaky companies to hide.
Today it's time that we faced the fact that no matter how much we want things to be different, brands are collaborations. We no longer have full control over our brand. No matter what we say, no matter how many press releases we issue, no matter how crafty our marketing, the public perception of our brand is formed by a combination of what we say and what our customers say about us. The lines between companies, their marketing, their products, and the consumers who buy them, have become irrevocably blurred. Only by maintaining an open and honest relationship with consumers, can we have a chance of maintaining a positive brand.
The FTC's just going to give us all a little help. We should welcome it.
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Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.
December 12, 2013
1:00pm ET / 10:00am PT