Social Media and Advertising
This unit introduces what social media are, how and when they emerged, and how and why they have become essential tools for advertising in a digital age. Since their advent and subsequent maturation after the turn of the millennium, social media have become a central way for advertisers to reach audiences, and to use consumers' social connections to sell, tell, and spread messages. A common logic underlies all social media advertising: by getting social media users to do the digital labor of selling and telling, via their influence on others and through word-of-mouth messaging, advertisers find it cheaper and easier to spread their messages widely.
[Editor's Note: This article is a part of ADText.]
Who do people trust more to buy a product? Friends and family who have used it? Or an anonymous actor touting its benefits in a 30-second television spot? The chance is that most people would listen to those whom they know well. Compared to a commercial interrupting a television show, one most likely will pay more attention to that same commercial message shared and posted on a colleague's, friend's, or family member's social media feed. We tend to trust people we know, which is why advertisers pay so much attention today to the personal connections we maintain through social media.
The world is saturated with digital media that move at a dizzying pace. A 2016 Nielsen audience study revealed that US American adults spend about ten-and-a-half hours per day consuming media, most of which is now done on a computer, mobile phone, or tablet screen, and through on-demand services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video.2 Between 2008 and 2017, the percentage of Americans who use social media climbed from 21% to 81%, and that rate is increasing to near-market saturation as younger, tech-savvy generations become the demographic majority.3 Common Sense Media, a non-profit foundation that researches children's media and technology use, reported in 2015 that Millennials, and the Gen Z children after them, are hooked on social media: teens in the United States spend about nine hours per day on social media, and that time allocation is only increasing each year.4 Therefore, most media consumption is done in a digitally social space these days, especially among young media consumers, and that leads to important questions about mediated social relations and how advertisers use these relations to reach their target audiences.
With most people being tethered to a computer or screen for most of the day, it would seem that members of society are increasingly isolated or distant from one another, or as one famous phrase from the early 2000s went, people are "bowling alone."5 However, the importance of social connectivity in the digital age has not been thrown out with the proverbial analog bathwater. Rather, social media platforms have allowed people to stay in touch more than ever. One telling example of increased social connections in a digital age is the ease of keeping up with classmates. In the past, most students may not see their peers until a class reunion many years after graduation. However, with much of the high school-and college-aged population joining social networking sites since the mid-2000s, many people can reconnect with old friends and colleagues through a speedy name search and a click of a friend request. As one blogger from The Huffington Post notes, "High school reunions used to take place ten years after you graduate, or twenty-five years after you graduate. Now, high school reunions take place every morning…"6
This unit introduces what social media are, how and when they emerged, and how and why they have become essential tools for advertising in a digital age. It will be shown that social media started off as a variety of hubs that allowed people to share data and information. However, since their advent and subsequent maturation after the turn of the millennium, social media have become a central place for advertisers to reach audiences and use their social connections to sell, tell, and spread messages.
Not all social media platforms are made equally, though. Each emerging platform has different functionalities, audiences, and users. Specific social media platforms may become outmoded or unpopular as technologies and tastes change. However, in the end, there is an underlying logic to advertising through all social media: social media users can do advertisers' labor of selling and telling through their influence on others they know through word-of-mouth messaging, which makes it much easier and cheaper for advertisers to spread their messages widely. Thus, this unit identifies and explains why and how social media are useful tools for advertisers as well as what potential benefits and limits present themselves for advertising in a socially mediated world.
2. A Brief History of the Rise of Social Media
Media have long served social ends—well before the rise of MySpace, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Reddit. Some scholars believe that the earliest form of social media was the delivery of hand-written letters. Others mark Samuel Morse's and others' contributions to the invention of the telegraph, which emerged in the 1830s and 1840s and allowed the quick spread of short messages across long distances. Eventually, the telephone would come to take over as the mode of personal communication after Alexander Graham Bell patented the long-distance voice-carrying technology in 1876. Gradual advances in telephony were made throughout the twentieth century making telephones cheaper and easier to use, especially the development of automatic phone exchanges in the 1960s and the American military's successful experiments in mobile communication technologies, which were eventually commercialized in the 1980s in the form of "cell phones." Early cell phones were very expensive compared to today because their costs were not initially mitigated by advertising revenues or cell phone service providers' plan subsidies.
A well-known researcher on social media is danah boyd, author of It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. For the book Participatory Culture in a Networked Era, boyd worked with leading digital media scholars Henry Jenkins and Mizuko Ito to examine how social media facilitate political and social expression.
Around the turn of the new millennium, computer processors and screens improved at an exponential pace and in increasingly smaller sizes, which allowed the smartphone to emerge in the mid-2000s as the Swiss Army knife of communication and entertainment. Not only could one make calls like a telephone and send text messages like a telegraph, people could take quick photographs like Polaroid instant cameras and connect with others and entertain themselves through visually-rich, television-like applications. In the smartphone, over 150 years of communication and media technologies converge in the palm of a person's hand. Individuals' connections with others and the broader world have accelerated at a rapid pace through pushbutton social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, which were fueled by the rise of the Internet as a hub of information, e-mail's becoming the dominant mode of sending asynchronous messages, and mobile phone networks' enhanced speeds and technologies facilitating increased movements of data.
Social media as we know them today, in the form of interactive websites, discussion forums, and push-button applications, did not emerge out of a vacuum. These platforms and technologies had important predecessors, which may seem rudimentary by current standards, but they were important in laying the groundwork for the instantaneous social connectivity afforded by the Internet and mobile devices today. Social media today are based on the blending of advanced mobile telephony and the emergence of the Internet, which has early roots in the 1950s with the development of electronic computers, the 1960s with university and military research on data packaging, and the 1970s with advances in information sharing networks. Once the first commercial use of the Internet began in the late 1980s, early forms of social media took off: discussion forums were popular in the early 1990s, instant messaging programs gained prominence in the mid/late 1990s (ICQ in 1996 and AOL Instant Messenger in 1997), and early forms of social media websites took off in the early 2000s (Friendster was founded in 2002 and MySpace launched in 2003). Advertising revenues helped support the development of some of these free digital technologies and services, often in the form of banner ads.
Although some of the early social media platforms have since fizzled, they were essential to social media's incremental development by serving as a central place to bring people together in virtual networks and communities. They also made people comfortable with, and used to, communicating through computers. Although advertisers were slow in their initial use of social media, as the potential of social media was realized as more users signed up in the mid-2000s, social media have become efficient, cost-effective avenues to sell and tell.
3. Types of Social Media
Social media are defined broadly as media technologies and programs that facilitate and build social connections and communication among people. Regardless of the type of platform that is involved, social media connect mostly physically isolated individuals through media in a variety of ways, often through a mutual interest they share. More particularly, social media facilitate sharing and communication between people using computer-mediated technologies. Although it is impossible to classify all types of social media—and, in fact, it is challenging to do so given how technologies change rapidly in response to users' and companies' tastes and needs—there are four general types of social media that have emerged since the late 1990s and early 2000s: social network sites (SNSs), user-generated content (UGC) platforms, trading and marketing sites (TMSs), and play and game sites (PGSs).14
Social networking sites (SNSs) "primarily promote interpersonal contact, whether between individuals or groups; they forge personal, professional, or geographical connections."15 Key examples of SNSs include Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+.16 All of these platforms allow users, including brands and companies advertising their products and services, to connect with and follow individuals' curation of their profiles, or online identities; they can also join groups that focus on common interests or activities.
Social media experts assert that SNSs encourage what are known as weak tie relationships, which are relationships with people one knows, but not with great depth or strength. A weak tie relationship might be an acquaintance about whom one knows little. It could be a friend of a friend (referred to on social media as a "FOAF"), a person met at a conference, or an old classmate. Although the use of the word weak makes such relationships seem unimportant, weak tie relationships are actually very important because they typically involve communication that uses more explicit and elaborated ways of presenting information about oneself. When one communicates with someone else with a strong tie, one can use inside jokes or shared, implicit ways of communicating; however, with weak ties, one usually needs to spend more time elaborating on and selecting the information to share with a casual acquaintance because one is trying to cultivate a consistently positive image and impression for that person. In other words, people may expend more effort in presenting themselves to acquaintances because they are concerned about their new judgment and evaluation of them.
Weak and strong ties are important concepts to advertisers because certain ads can be tailored and placed strategically depending on the strength of social media users' relationships. For example, in the case of weak ties, a social media user may take more deliberate actions to showcase her ownership or admiration for a particular brand that makes her feel more desirable in the eyes of acquaintances. For strong ties, in order to strengthen loyalty, brands may use tailored ads that use playful "insider" language that only dedicated customers with strong brand ties may understand or appreciate.
User-generated content (UGC) social media, such as sites like YouTube, Flickr, MySpace, SoundCloud, and Wikipedia, "support creativity, foreground cultural activity, and promote the exchange of amateur or professional content."20 UGC social media center around the creation and consumption of broadly defined content. UGC platforms may involve developing a mash-up music video, curating Wiki pages, or recording and sharing the experience of opening up a new product, using it, and reviewing it (also known as "unboxing"). UGC social media may promote weak tie relationships, but they may also facilitate strong tie relationships because they may bring individuals in touch regularly to collaborate and work together in their shared, vested interest in a given topic, activity, or brand.
Trading and marketing sites (TMSs), such as Amazon, eBay, Groupon, Craigslist, and Etsy, "principally aim at exchanging products or selling them."22 TMSs allow individuals to not only buy and sell products and services, but they can also exchange and share advice and information on products and services. eBay was innovative in its use of bidding software and messaging tools, which created communities of sellers and buyers. Amazon became well known for its in-depth consumer reviews and recommended product lists. Etsy brought together artists, craftspeople, and other creative types to share and sell their creations. Many TMSs created Internet-based opportunities for everyday individuals to start their own small businesses and cultivate professional relationships.
Another important form of social media is play and game sites (PGS), which develop social connections and communication among online and console video game users.24 Rather than having players enjoy their gaming in isolation, features within the games allow users to play games together, stay in touch about the game, and share strategies for success.
Ten broad categories of how social media are used for advertising are described by Hootsuite, software used by social media professionals.
It should be emphasized that social media and digital technologies change and adapt rapidly, so what may be common practice today may end up relegated to the history books in a year's time. Although four broad types of social media have been identified, it is important to remember that the types of social media may blend, and when it comes to advertising within these social media spaces, the key to success is using consumers' social connections to spread brand messages.
4. The Importance of Being Social in Selling and Telling
Social connections have always been central to the art of selling products and telling new ideas. Before John Wanamaker's perfection of the department store by the early 1900s, one would regularly encounter the peddler who carried his wares from town to town and relied on befriending people and earning their trust to sell and build a customer base in new communities. The same could be said of the local shopkeeper who scooped generic goods such as coffee beans out of barrels and earned the community's trust by offering product demonstrations, advice, and deals tailored to his clients' needs.
Face-to-face sociality's importance in early advertising and shopping is covered in ADText's Brief History of Advertising in America.
The important dynamic of social connections in the area of selling and spreading messages on a mass scale was not greatly studied, though, until the 1940s and 1950s. At this time, early American scholars of media and communication were concerned not only about how mass media's ideas spread through social systems, but they were also interested in how media's messages spread through people and word of mouth. Two important studies revealed social connections' significant place in selling and telling.
The first was a university study of 2,400 voters in Erie County, Ohio, to investigate what influenced voting in elections. Published in 1944 in the book The People's Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Election, the study's most significant finding was called the two-step flow of communication.31 According to the theory, opinion leaders, who are seen as community experts in a given topic, interpersonally pass along mass media messages to less politically active acquaintances who trust them.
Shortly after the success of The People's Choice, a second study was funded by Macfadden Publications, a prominent publisher of women's interest magazines, to study the social influence of advertising and mass media messages among women. Through a small army of research assistants, many of whom were women, the women of Decatur, Illinois, were interviewed about their consuming and entertainment habits as well as where and how they obtained information.
The social scientists analyzed the Decatur data and agreed with The People's Choice's findings, but it focused on consumer choices rather than voting and politics. They saw the two-step flow of information present in areas such as the latest and best fashions down at the department store, a good movie to watch in the theater, the most important news of the day to know, or maybe even the best food for a meal. Further, the researchers observed that opinion leaders, who are looked up to by followers for a variety of reasons such as expertise and social status, were an important conduit of media's and advertising's messages. The Decatur study confirmed the finding that important messages flowed from advertising and the media to opinion leaders, which would then spread to those family, friends, and colleagues listening to them.33 Although the theory has since been criticized for its simplicity, two-step flow was an important realization of the power of interpersonal relationships and connections in everyday life.34
After two-step flow, more advanced studies of the spread of mass mediated messages like advertising have emerged, including information diffusion (how quickly ideas and technologies are adopted across a population over time) and network theory (how information spreads and moves through various nodes and connections within networks).
In a sample lesson plan, Communication Professor Cynthia Meyers provides many examples of social media influencers who earn money from advertising. National Public Radio's 1A program covers social media influencers and their impact on advertising.
Two-step flow, information diffusion, and network theory are essential underlying tools for social media advertisers who focus on spreading messages from influential, well-connected people to those they know. Social media advertisers are concerned about how messages move through various platform networks and who should be targeted to maximize the spread of messages through those systems. Interestingly, within the industry today, advertisers implicitly use the language of two-step flow: they are concerned with enlisting social media influencers—popular, leading individuals on social media who are looked up to for their opinions—to spread brand messages and recommendations among their followers who often choose to "like" or "follow" them. A prominent example of a social media influencer is Kylie Jenner, a member of the celebrity Jenner-Kardashian Family who is regularly paid to showcase products on her social media feeds, especially Instagram where she has 95 million followers (as of June 2017) and Snapchat where she was cited as having the most viewed account in 2016.38
Bob Kealing's book Life of the Party: The Remarkable Story of How Brownie Wise Built, and Lost a Tupperware Party Empire details how Brownie Wise invented the Tupperware Party. Wise's story has been optioned by Sony Pictures to star Sandra Bullock.
Using opinion leaders and their social connections to sell products is not a new tactic, though. Tupperware, a plastic food storage and kitchenware brand founded in 1946, is one of the most well-known examples of a company that uses social connections to market and sell products. The brand became popular in the 1950s because of its adoption of a "party plan" system. Brownie Wise, the creator of the "Tupperware Party," argued that sales would increase if women would invite their family and friends over to their homes to have a social event while they demonstrated the benefits of Tupperware products. Wise was correct. The keys to Tupperware's success were taking advantage of customers' social relations and networks, the customers' trust in what their friends and family think, and the focus on socializing and fun rather than the peddling of products by unknown salespeople.
Since the advent of Tupperware, other companies like Mary Kay Cosmetics and Pampered Chef have followed this party-based method of spreading product awareness and selling brand messages through individuals and their social networks. Importantly, the party-and friend-based model does not make the company the direct seller. Rather, it transforms everyday consumers into advertisers and sellers of the product to their friends and family. Social media do not always involve a party, but advertisers have been keen to benefit from easy access to consumers' social connections and networks through social media. This approach can make a seemingly impersonal company more personal, and the process of selling easier, by making consumers everyday spokespeople for products and services—even if they are not social media influencers with many followers. Everyone can become an advertiser's spokesperson on social media with the ease of sharing a product recommendation, liking or following a brand or company, and posting pictures using products.
5. Cost Effectiveness through Social Media and Digital Audience Labor
Among advertisers, there has been growing concern about how to reach consumers when many people avoid advertising through ad blocker programs or the fast-forward button on a digital video recorder (DVR). As such, since the mid-2000s, the industry has focused on how to maximize advertising impressions by using consumers' social media connections in the increasingly converged world of digital media.
For a discussion of advertising's role in supporting media financially, read the ADText units on Media and Advertising and The Rise and Fall of the TV Commercial. Watch industry experts and university professors talk about digital advertising's history during a roundtable on digital advertising (Part I and Part II).
Traditionally, advertisers would focus on what are known as paid media, which involve the purchase of advertising space to reach target audiences in mass media that reach many people at one time. Examples of paid media include a 30-second spot on broadcast television, a commercial on radio, billboards on the side of the road, and print ads in magazines. In a world when one had to plan to watch a television show or listen to a radio program at a set time because that was the only time such programming was available, advertisers had to focus on placing ads in media at a specific time that could reach their target audiences. Today, as users watch media content when they want to, advertisers use technology and algorithms to place ads in digital and social media. Now, rather than using large broadcast advertising, online advertising exchanges are employed to serve up ads tailored to individuals in a variety of digital spaces, including social media feeds, based on the data trails they leave behind as they visit websites on their computers, mobile phones, and streaming devices.
Because digital tools have made self-publishing online easier, companies use owned media to reach consumers directly rather than going through a large-scale ad placement on television or radio. Owned media, such as websites, blogs, and company social media accounts, send messages and content that companies curate themselves. In other words, companies directly own and manage brand messaging content—sometimes through companies' in-house (internal) strategic communication and marketing teams, but more often through specialized paid services within ad agencies. Owned media have given companies more flexibility to craft and send their own messages in real-time, which has become necessary in the instantaneous environment of digital media and commerce.
The third type of media that is increasingly of interest to advertisers is what is called earned media, which largely involves the spread of brand and company messages through consumers themselves as they share and like brand images, videos, and links through social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, and Tumblr. Another form of earned media includes free publicity through news reports, which often occur when a brand's message catches the public's attention by being highly unique and innovative. Such attention happens when a brand's image goes "viral," that is, when a popular ad message or feature is circulated exponentially by consumers on social media within a short period of time.
Earned media are important to advertisers because they are not only cost effective in spreading messages (consumers are doing the distribution for them), but they are effective in terms of developing an authenticity to their messages. If a friend or family member shares a company's message on her social media feed, the impersonality of a large company may be stripped away. Like Tupperware parties, where friends become the sellers of plastic bowls and storage containers, when social media users spread and like companies' messages, they place an implicit stamp of approval on those messages, which may make their friends and family more attentive and open to such messages.
Digital audience labor is what some scholars call having consumers do the message spreading for advertisers and social media companies.49 Just as mass media audiences implicitly agreed to obtain "free" broadcast content by sitting through sponsored radio segments and 30-second television commercial interruptions, digital media users today pay for "free" digital services in exchange for needing to see banner ads, granting access to their data, and spreading advertisers' messages.
For a discussion of different types of branding, including emotional and viral branding, read the ADText unit on The Management of Brands.
One example of digital audience labor in action is a 2015 Purina Puppy Chow video on YouTube, which was produced and distributed in collaboration with BuzzFeed Videos. The video features a young man who decided to adopt a puppy as he walked down a sidewalk. The story starts off with him meeting the dog and subsequently bringing her home and trying to teach her valuable life lessons. As the video comes to a close, the man lays on the floor eating a bowl of cereal with the puppy chomping away at her Purina Puppy Chow next to him. The company's messages become clear after the story's end: buy Purina Puppy Chow and go to Purina's website to learn more about dogs, adopting dogs, and Purina's offers. There are secondary messages, too: adopt and take care of pets, and be sure to share the endearing video with others. The encouragement of sharing through the pull of emotional branding encourages audiences to do Purina's message distribution for them.
On the surface, this video has an endearing and heartwarming story that tugs on viewers' heartstrings. Within hours of being released, it had over 400,000 views.55 Below the surface, though, there is emotional and viral branding at work. As the video was viewed on YouTube, it was spread by social media users on the media-streaming site, as well as on Facebook and other social media platforms. There was the cost to produce and place the video, but the costs to distribute Purina's messages were minimized and implicitly placed onto social media users' labor of liking and sharing. Social media users were engaged with a telling, emotional story, which spread quickly through the easy and fun work of sharing among their virtual social networks.
6. Social Media: A Tool for Consumer and Democratic Empowerment?
Hashtagging refers to the use of the hashtag symbol (#) before a word or phrase that categorizes and collects a social media post's themes or content. Wired Magazine provides an oral history of the hashtag. Digital Marketing Philippines provides an infographic summarizing the history of the hashtag.
Social media seem like a convenient avenue for advertisers to reach audiences and their connections, but more immediate relationships with consumers mean that companies are more exposed to criticism and complaints. As much as love and fandom for a company can be shared easily through social media platform sharing functionalities and hashtagging, there are also opportunities for consumers and activists to spread complaints, point out troubling practices, and speak back to companies. In an instantaneous digital world, the expectation is that companies will and should respond in real-time. As such, advertisers and companies now need to be more vigilant in their handling of their messages, products, and services, and how the public sees and reacts to them.
Two notable examples come from Pepsi and United Airlines in April 2017. In the case of Pepsi, the company tried to present itself as a socially-conscious brand, especially among Millennials, by enlisting Kendall Jenner to showcase how Pepsi could bring people together despite many divisions within contemporary American society. The ad features Jenner going to a fashion photoshoot as a protest builds up outside. Jenner takes notice of the march, rips off her wig, smears off her make-up, joins the crowd, grabs a Pepsi, and works her way to stand between protesters and the police. As she approaches a police officer, she makes a peace offering by handing him a Pepsi. Subsequently, everyone cheers and hugs.
Although the intention of Pepsi's "Live Bolder, Live Louder, Live for Now" ad was to show how diverse groups of people and law enforcement could unite peacefully, the ad was criticized for treating social protest movements and recent clashes between protesters and police lightheartedly, especially in view of the Black Lives Matter Movement. The ad was also criticized for featuring a young, wealthy, White woman as the catalyst for social cohesion and the easing of tensions between police and protesters. Further, many critics felt that Pepsi was coopting the struggle of social protests by making it look like a party. Also, the ad seemed to reinforce a message that corporate entities and the consumption of goods could solve social ills and problems.
Pepsi faced a public relations nightmare, as social media were used by activists, politicians, and consumers to criticize the brand for its insensitive commercial. Pepsi pulled the ad within 24 hours, but not without much buzz and ridicule by news organizations, which relied heavily on reactions across a variety of social media to make their news reports. Just as advertisers can gain free news coverage (i.e. earned media) when an ad is loved by audiences, brands can face a swirl of controversy and negative publicity when an ad fails. Social media, thus, are not only a space to sell positive brand messages, but they are also places where consumers can speak back loudly.
Within five days of the Pepsi snafu, United Airlines faced problems, too, but one that questioned its branded image of being the "friendly" airline, as touted by its longstanding tagline born in the 1960s: "Come Fly the Friendly Skies." On April 9, 2017, Dr. David Dao was forcibly pulled from a plane in Chicago, Illinois, before taking off for Louisville, Kentucky, after he refused to give up a seat to allow United employees to take his seat on the overbooked plane. Fellow passengers caught the incident on their mobile phones and posted videos on social media, which created a massive public outcry against the violent and unfair treatment of airline passengers. The public was upset about United's and the Chicago aviation police's handling of the situation, United's treatment of ethnic minorities (the doctor was a Vietnamese immigrant to the United States), and the airline industry's regular practice of overbooking flights.
In less than a day, one of the fellow passengers' videos was shared nearly 90,000 times and viewed 6.8 million times.63 In response to the negative buzz swirling on social media and the press, United Airlines' stock price fluctuated, and many United Airlines' frequent fliers cut up their loyalty program cards, and then posted the photos on social media.64 The situation even caused international controversy among overseas fliers from China, where United Airlines has had a large market share of international fliers since the mid-1980s.65
The United case shows that a brand's positive image can flip overnight through the power of tweets, shares, and user-generated media content. In many ways, social media keep companies responsive to their clients and responsible for being ethical and true to the image they hope to build through their advertising, marketing, and delivery of their products and services.
The Pepsi and United Airlines cases show how advertisers and companies have less control over their images and messages in an age where everyday social media users can garner as much attention as seasoned public relations and advertising professionals. As such, advertisers need to be more cautious and responsive to public opinion and consumer needs. They also need to be more sensitive and thoughtful in the advertisements they produce, given that messages spread so quickly and need to be targeted to the audiences who resonate with, and can respond to, those messages in real time.
Social media, thus, are seen as tools to democratize media spaces and the public sphere. Consumers and citizens are empowered through the affordances of quickly shareable media that mostly are outside the control of companies and government. One significant example of social media's potential for democratization is the "Arab Spring," in late 2010 and 2011, when social media played an important role in the various protests against repressive regimes in parts of North Africa and the Middle East. Social media have been used recently to facilitate and draw attention to other important political and social movements: Green Movement protests against fixed election results in Iran (2009-10), protests against police brutality (2008) and government austerity in Greece (2010-11), anti-corporate sit-ins in New York City and around the United States through the Occupy Wall Street Movement (2011-12), Umbrella Movement youth protests against Beijing's consolidation of power in Hong Kong (2014), resistance to the Russian government's anti-gay propaganda laws (2013-14), and Black Lives Matter rallies and marches exposing structural violence and institutional discrimination against people of color in the United States (2013-present). It seems that social media have tipped the balance of power into the hands of ordinary citizens who can stand up against cultural, economic, political, and social injustice.
For a discussion of how social media can be used for destructive ends, Time magazine featured an article on "How Trolls Are Ruining the Internet."
Despite social media's potential for social and political change, there are troubling indications that social media can be used for violent and negative ends. In addition to social media being used for bullying and "trolling" (the act of harassing an individual online), some platforms have been used to showcase and share violent acts.
In the world of corporate and brand communication, consumers can speak back to brands in real time, but any negative publicity can be minimized and possibly removed by those organizations and individuals who have the means to control the content they post and what results appear in Internet search results. When negative comments appear, brand moderators can remove them quickly or pull shareable content through deletion. Similarly, if brands use advanced tactics of search engine optimization (SEO), any negative publicity or buzz can be buried deep into search results, or possibly removed entirely, by paying to have other search results come up first.
Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and the Mormon Church provide prominent examples of how an organization or brand can eliminate or minimize negative reactions to its messaging.76 In March 2015, Starbucks asked its servers to mark coffee cups with #racetogether to cue customers to the company's social media campaign that tried to encourage people to discuss race relations in the United States and how to improve them. Across social media, users exposed Starbuck's lack of diversity in its campaign images and the irony of having White individuals lead a conversation on race relations.
In January 2013, Coca-Cola released an anti-obesity campaign that featured an ad that intertwined individuals eating healthy foods, exercising, and consuming Coke products. Viewers were told to visit a website encouraging all Americans, regardless of their background, to come together to fight against obesity. Coca-Cola's campaign was criticized because it glossed over and downplayed its role in America's obesity crisis. As such, social media users pointed out the hypocrisy of a sugary beverage company telling consumers how to avoid sugar. In one case, a YouTube user modified the original Coca-Cola spot by having a more "honest" voice-over that emphasizes Coca-Cola's contributions to America's obesity crisis.
In 2011, the Mormon Church used its "I'm a Mormon" campaign to try to change the American public's perception of it being "'secretive,' 'sexist,' 'controlling,' 'pushy,' 'anti-gay.'"81 The church's ads featured individuals from many backgrounds self-identifying as Mormon along with statements about how they found the church to be inclusive. For some viewers of this ad campaign, especially many ex-Mormon Church members, the Church was trying to mask its exclusionary policies. Critics flipped the Church's campaign on its head by developing a counter-campaign that used the social media hashtag #imnotamormon. Steven Colbert even lampooned the campaign on his late-night talk show The Colbert Report.
As negative attention was drawn to their messages, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and the Mormon Church slowly and quietly made their campaigns disappear by turning off websites, killing weblinks, or diverting negative social media posts and hashtags through making other more brand-friendly posts more prominent and visible. In the case of the Mormon Church, significant money was spent on search engine optimization that made only positive messaging appear in Internet searches.
For a discussion of impression management and other ethical issues in advertising, read the ADText unit on Ethics and Advertising.
As the Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and Mormon Church examples illustrate, even though consumers can more directly speak to brands and advertisers on social media, the monitoring for, and possible removal of, negative publicity and comments place limits on consumer agency. Brands can divert attention away from angry consumers' "brand hijacking" by using digital means to continuously develop and maintain a positive image.84 Social media can bring democratic advantages for consumers to speak their mind directly with brands, but it is easy for brands to quickly eliminate or greatly minimize negativity to keep business running smoothly without controversy. Thus, two important questions remain: Do social media empower consumers and the general public? And/or do social media function as impression management tools for advertisers, with which they can control their messages and maintain a positive image?
7. An Advertised Social Media Future
The day of advertisers throwing pasta against the wall and hoping their messages stick among their captive audiences is gone. Messages sent to large groups of people in one swoop at a set time are no longer cost effective, as audiences are increasingly watching media content when they want to, through on-demand streaming and digital recordings. Thus, as consumers have increasingly avoided ads through their new media consumption habits, advertisers and social media sites have found a new way to reach audiences through social media. Advertisers have taken advantage of consumers' attention in social media spaces, and try to spread their messages in a cost-effective manner through consumers' trusted social connections.
As social media increasingly play a role in everyday life, it should be remembered that social media and digital technologies will change and adapt rapidly. What may be common practice today may end up relegated to the advertising and media history books in a year's time. However, it seems that advertisers' capitalization of consumers' trusted social connections will be heavily at work for many years to come.
Edward Timke is Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also Associate Editor of Advertising & Society Quarterly and a contributor to ADTextOnline.org. His work centers on understanding the role of media in international relations, and how different cultures understand and imagine each other. His current book manuscript focuses on representations of American and French women in popular French and American media. His research and teaching specialties include American and international media history, trans-Atlantic magazine history, women in the media, photojournalism and visual culture, the cultural history of advertising, and research methods.
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