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Do You Let Brands Use You for Advertising?

From one of my social media accounts a few days ago, I responded to an article in Psychology Today. First of all, the article is a good read that discusses the relationship between money and happiness, and a recent study that disagrees with some of the more publicized studies from the past few years. It’s worth a note in a future article. I responded to a minor detail at the top of the article with a personal anecdote.

I noted to my followers on Twitter how as a child, I used to read through our family’s World Book Encyclopedia set often. I wanted to soak up as much information as I could, learning as much about as many topics as I could handle. I was interested in just about everything. Thirty or so years later, I don’t remember specific things I may have learned from reading the entries, but I am sure that the topics that most interested me went on to inform my interests as I grew up.

By sharing my experience with this particular product with my thousands of followers on Twitter, I didn’t mean to promote encyclopedias in general or the World Book Encyclopedia as a product above some of its competitors, like Encyclopædia Brittanica, Funk & Wagnalls, or, well, the internet. But it wasn’t long before World Book’s own social media representative noticed the comment about my dorky, encyclopedia-perusing nature, and broadcast a copy of my message to the company’s 393 followers.

Is my message now an endorsement of the brand? By World Book’s sharing of my thoughts about its product — or about my former use of the product — did I just take part in an advertising campaign? If so, where’s my check? When does the seemingly innocuous sharing of personal thoughts become something more than personal?

A conversation on Twitter is, in most cases, not enough to be worthy of an advertising campaign. Commercials on television reach millions of people. In most cases, unless you’re a celebrity, your mentions on Twitter are worth much less due to the limited audience.

We’d like to think that the barrier between sharing a personal message on social media and taking part in an advertising campaign is wide, but that’s not the case. People and companies get paid for mentioning products, and though the Federal Trade Commission is not happy about this, there’s very little disclosure as to which messages are paid endorsements with positive mentions — or “Pos-Mens” — and which are in casual conversations, not procured by the company being mentioned. Given that Twitter offers advertisers specific options for advertising and promotion, and more and more users are selling their audience’s eyeballs and mindshare to the highest bidder, it’s worth a second thought before you mention a brand among your friends.

It wouldn’t be realistic to go through our entire lives without mentioning brand names, but if you’ve built up a brand for yourself — like many successful bloggers and writers have done — your endorsement might have a value. Obviously, World Book probably couldn’t care any less about whether I endorse their brand. Look at Suze Orman. She endorsed leasing a car from General Motors a few years ago, building up the association of Suze’s brand of smart finance with GM’s expensive products. Recently, Suze switched her endorsement to Acura.

It’s reasonable to expect these car companies have paid Suze for her endorsements — and paid her well, as they should. Suze has one of the biggest audiences of all the media-savvy financial experts, and her endorsement of a product, implicitly identifying the product as a smart financial choice, is a highly sought-after prize (available to the highest bidder). I bet she’s careful not to mention products from companies with whom she doesn’t have arrangements such as this, and that limitation keeps the value of her endorsement high. If she doesn’t endorse many products, the endorsements she actually selects are worth more.

There are not many people in the world who have the same power as Suze Orman. Our endorsements are worth much less because whether we have our own media outlets or just a bunch of friends following us on Twitter, our reach is much smaller and our personal brands are not nearly as well-known. That doesn’t make it acceptable to allow ourselves to be used by larger companies in their advertising campaigns without permission. Two popular types of television and radio commercials are the “celebrity endorsement” and the “man on the street endorsement.” Both the celebrities and the men (and women) on the street get paid when their appear in these commercials. A company’s retweet of a customer’s offhand comment can be seen as a man on the street endorsement with the added benefit of not costing the company a dime.

Do you have any problems with companies using you for the benefit of their advertising?


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