In the past companies had to pay a celebrity to endorse their product. Now they can receive at least an implied endorsement if another famous person leverages a relationship with -- or even just proximity to -- another star in order to take a selfie.
In these pictures the person taking them knows the goal of the picture is marketing a brand or product, not preserving a moment or having an image to share with fans. The other person or people in the shot don't and are being exploited
My colleague Jake Mann disagrees.
This guerrilla marketing tactic hidden under the idea of being a good sport first gained widespread notoriety when Ellen Degeneres snapped a selfie with an army of stars during the Oscars. The shot, which was so popular it briefly crashed Twitter (NYSE: TWTR), was taken on a Samsung (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF) phone, something that was clearly planned as Samsung was an Oscars sponsor. Degeneres, the host of the program, knew the bit was a planned product tie-in, while the many other stars who crowded around her and Bradley Cooper likely did not.
None of those stars complained about having their images co-opted for a commercial, but when Boston Red Sox DH David Ortiz pulled the same stunt on President Barack Obama, the leader of the free world was not as quiet.
"He [President Obama] obviously didn't know anything about Samsung's connection to this.... And perhaps maybe this will be the end of all selfies," White House Senior Advisor Dan Pfeiffer said on CBS's Face the Nation Sunday.
Everyone denies responsibility
The key to marketing a promotional selfie is denying that the intent was ever to be promotional in the first place.
"ABC said Samsung did not pay specifically for use of the camera in DeGeneres' selfie segment and the company wasn't explicitly named on the air as the stunt unfolded," the Associated Press reported.
That's threading a needle -- Samsung was an Oscar sponsor and had a very visible presence during the telecast. It also seems very likely Degeneres knew exactly what she was doing as photos of her backstage posted on Twitter clearly show her personal phone of choice is an Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPhone.
In the Obama-Ortiz photo, the beloved Boston slugger says the shot was spontaneous ... but he has a paid endorsement relationship with Samsung. "It had nothing to do with" any sponsorship, Ortiz told The Boston Globe, and in the moment it may not have. But once the picture is shared on social media it's no longer a souvenir, it's a commercial.
And as my colleague Mr. Mann pointed out in his piece, Samsung hired Ortiz earlier this year to be its Major League Baseball social media insider. Terms of that deal have not disclosed, Ortiz made over $4 million in endorsements, according to SportsBusiness Daily, while wearing baseball's most popular jersey, so the terms of his agreement probably aren't cheap.
Where is the ethical line?
The prevalence of connected cameras now makes pictures possible that were not in the past, blurring the line between legitimate commercialism and spontaneous fun. Ortiz likely was excited to meet the president and he probably did not set out to create a marketing moment -- that's just a byproduct of the spur-of-the-moment picture.
Holding Degeneres at fault for her actions is easy because they appear to have been calculated as a marketing opportunity for Samsung. If people -- especially stars who get paid for their endorsements -- are going to be co-opted for a commercial, they have a right to know about it.
Ortiz's actions fall much more into a gray area. It's easy to believe the slugger did not stalk the president to create a moment for Samsung and that he shared the photo with the best of intentions. Still, once a celebrity has a paid endorsement relationship with a product, it's hard to see any action as completely devoid of financial motivation.
Selfie marketing works, but to what end?
The Obama-Ortiz selfie has over 42,000 retweets worth almost $1 million in social media exposure, given SumAll's estimation of a retweet's value, Mr. Mann reported. Ellen DeGeneres' Oscars selfie, by comparison, was worth nearly 70 times that.
Exploitative selfies, however, may be a problem that solves itself as the bar for going viral and the public distrust of these shots will rise. If we now know Ortiz shoots selfies at least partially due to an endorsement deal, it casts doubt about every picture he takes going forward. Is he really excited to be at whatever restaurant he might be sharing a picture from or did they comp his meal in exchange for a little publicity?
The President of the United States should not be used as a commercial prop nor should anyone be unwittingly drafted into an ad without their consent. We're headed to a time where the celebrity selfie becomes as calculated as when the Pillsbury Doughboy started rapping. The public however -- with the help of the president -- has seen through the curtain however and there's no going back to the days when an innocent picture could be taken as just that.