Blogs & Comment

Will tweet for money

Celebrities are being paid to tweet product endorsements. For the time being, there are several problems with this advertising strategy.

Was it a publicity stunt, practical joke or Twitter faux pas? That’s the question Twitter users were asking after Rainn Wilson, star of NBC’s The Office, posted three bizarre tweets on Tuesday, all open to interpretation.

Wilson first sent a message, addressed to his assistant, telling her that he’d advertise restaurant chain Del Taco for a US$12,000 fee, but used an expletive to describe their food. The second tweet asked readers to disregard the first since it was personal—something Twitter users have undoubtedly seen from people who mistakenly thought they were sending a private message. The final tweet: “Loving the new @DelTaco Macho Bellgrande Burrito! It’s Beeftacular(tm)!”

Forgetting that Wilson is a comedic actor, The Next Web initially reported this series of tweets as a major social media gaffe. Mashable, on the other hand, wasn’t sure what to what to make of it. Earlier today, Wilson cleared up any lingering confusion—at Mashable’s expense (read from bottom to top):

Wilson’s Del Taco tweets are a joke, but many celebrities with massive Twitter followings are legitimately advertising products for pay. There are plenty of social media advertising companies, such as MyLikes and Sponsored Tweets, which link clients with influential Twitter users. Some of the companies and products being advertised are obscure, though big names like McDonald’s are getting in on the action.

There are, however, some hurdles ahead for Twitter-based celebrity promos. The first is communication between social media ad firms and their clients.

Earlier this month, Michael Vick, quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, tweeted an endorsement of McDonald’s with the word “spon” in his message (“spon” being short for “sponsored content”). Darren Rovell, the host of CNBC’s Sports Biz, asked McDonald’s about the plug, but they were unclear about any affiliation between them and Vick. Rovell later found out that McDonald’s was a client of MyLikes, who arranged the plug on Vick’s Twitter account.

This apparent confusion between company and client is troublesome. It could also lead to a second problem: the endorser not being a good fit for the client. And Vick is a good case study for this second hurdle.

Vick served time in a federal penitentiary for his role in unlawful dog fighting activities that were held at his home in Virginia. Some companies—and potentially those with a wholesome, family-oriented image like McDonald’s—might be uncomfortable with Vick shilling their products.

That also leads to a third problem, which for some companies will be a lack of viable endorsers. Sponsored Tweets, for example, has a big roster of celebrities, many with millions of Twitter followers. But a good portion of that roster is famous for boozing, fighting and flirting on reality TV shows. That might work for some companies—those that could benefit from even a small clickthrough rate to their site, or those whose brand aligns with reality TV stars—but it won’t be for everyone.

For Twitter users that are confused by what’s an ad and what isn’t—like in the Wilson situation—promotional tweets should be somewhat obvious and easy to ignore. Twitter requires its users, under Federal Trade Commission regulations, to label endorsements, which is why many use the hashtag #ad. Just consider these tweets the pop-up windows of the social media age.

Or better yet, you can always “unfollow” any serial endorsers.