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Samsung dupes Obama: Why “selfie advertising” needs to stop

Fri, 04/04/2014 - 2:05pm
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

What do President Obama, Brad Pitt, and Jennifer Lawrence have in common? They’ve all become unwitting props in a viral Samsung advertising campaign that relies on spontaneity, selfies, and tricking people — including the most powerful man in the world — into becoming brand ambassadors. And it needs to stop.

You’ve probably seen the viral Oscars selfie by now — comedian Ellen Degeneres corralled up a bunch of A-list celebrities — including Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, and Kevin Spacey — into taking an “impromptu” selfie, which was later retweeted 2 million times, shutting down Twitter and breaking the previous record held by Barack Obama as the most retweeted pic of all time.

The Tweet spread across the Internet faster than you can say “product placement”, and before long, the sad truth spilled out — the whole thing was a marketing stunt planned by Samsung (a major sponsor of the Academy Awards). Sure enough, a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 is clearly visible in the foreground of the picture of the celebs taking the selfie.

... which makes Ellen, not to mention Samsung, appear ... less than sincere.

Samsung had paid for the Galaxy Note to be integrated into the live broadcast — not as a traditional ad, but as inconspicuous product placement. And some analysts feel this type of advertising is more effective than the traditional sort which brands itself an ad.

"It was a great plug for the Samsung brand," Allen Adamson, managing director at Landor Associates, a branding firm owned by WPP PLC told the Wall Street Journal. "Ellen's selfie is going to be more impactful than their commercials. You can't buy that magic of going viral."

Of course, product placement is nothing new — any Hollywood blockbuster worth its salt rakes in extra cash from strategic placement of name-brand products.

But, as US Weekly points out, product placement — i.e., advertising that you can’t fast-forward — has become more relevant in the age of Tivo and DVRs.

And this time, not everyone is in on the joke.

Did the throng of Hollywood stars know they were pawns in a premeditated viral ad campaign? Probably not — other than Ellen, of course, who received training from Samsung reps on capturing the magic moment.

One person who definitely wasn’t clued in — President Barack Obama.

Last week, the World Series champion Boston Red Sox visited the White House for the traditional meet-and-greet with the President. The lasting image of the event was a playful selfie — featuring Red Sox slugger David Ortiz and the Chief Executive, himself. And just like that, Obama became an unwitting spokesman for Samsung Electronics. The Korean electronics conglomerate has a sponsorship deal with Ortiz, and the selfie wasn’t exactly “spontaneous.”

And the White House wasn’t amused.

"I can say that as a rule, the White House objects to attempts to use the president's likeness for commercial purposes," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday. "And we certainly object in this case."

For his part, Ortiz plead his innocence. And while not specifically denying any nefarious intentions, he insisted that the selfie, itself, wasn’t planned.

"I wasn't trying to do anything," Ortiz told the Boston Globe. "It just happened in that moment. It was a fun thing. I signed that deal with Samsung a few months ago. They didn't know what would happen. Nobody did."

I have a real problem with this. Far be it for me to tell multinational corporations how to spend their ad dollars, but hooking “spokespeople” without their knowledge — or consent — seems sneaky and underhanded. And if Obama wasn’t a public figure — the public figure — we’d probably be discussing lawsuits, rather than a mild rebuke.

I’d rather know an advertiser’s intentions upfront. Label your wares an ad, and I’ll consider it on its merits, instead of fooling me with fake sincerity and cynical product placement.

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