Topic 4

Topic 4: Social Media Ethics – The Power of Online Endorsements

The term ethics refers to moral principles that govern behaviour (Oxford Dictionary, 2017). In the context of social media and business, ethics can refer to a company’s duty to engage with online consumers in a way that is appropriate, honest and morally sound (Drushal & German, 2011). Due to my interest marketing, I have chosen to focus on the ethics of social media endorsements.

Figure 1. Introduction to social media endorsements (self-produced via PowToon)

Social Media Endorsements

Research shows that electronic word-of-mouth communications are used by consumers to assess the reputation of brands (Amblee & Bui, 2014). To support this, a survey found that 83% of web users use recommendations to guide purchasing behaviour (Neilsen, 2015). The moral dilemma here? Whether businesses are unlawfully using online endorsements to exploit consumer trust.

Social media endorsements infographic
Figure 2. Social media endorsements infographic (self-produced via Piktochart)
Ethical Issues

The ethical issue here lies in whether consumers should be made aware of sponsored endorsements on social media. Paid-for endorsements that are not obvious to the public can be considered manipulative (Gillingham, 2011). It is arguably immoral for an influencer to promote something as their own opinion, and consequently sway a consumer’s purchasing behaviour, when in fact they are being paid to promote this opinion (Wilkinson, 2015).

These ethical issues are particularly concerning for ‘result-driven’ products such as detox teas, weight-loss supplements and teeth whiteners (Campbell, 2015). These products, often endorsed by popular social influencers, convince young people that they too can achieve ‘beauty’ or ‘health’ if they purchase the product. If the product fails to meet expectations, this can have a damaging impact on a young person’s self-esteem, in addition to the compromising physical and psychological effects of the product itself (Campbell, 2015).

Figure 3. Examples of undisclosed endorsements (self-produced via Google Slides)

Combating the Issue

There has been a recent crackdown on undisclosed endorsements. In the USA, the FTC requires explicit disclosure of an endorsement that informs the public it is paid-for. In the UK, this is governed by the ASA. These rules protect the reputation of both the brand and the influencer and prevent consumers from being misled. A win-win situation, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not so simple, as endorsement guidelines are susceptible to misinterpretation and difficult to enforce (Schwab, 2016). Also, from a personal perspective, if I see ‘#ad’ or ‘#spon’ attached to an endorsement for a brand, this immediately raises questions about the brand’s credibility. So, whilst disclosed endorsements allow consumers to make more informed decisions, a perceived lack of authenticity can reduce the advertising impact of the endorsement.

It is worth noting that ethics, particularly within social media, are subjective in nature and often have no clear right or wrong answers. Thus, the question here remains, can a compromise of transparent but effective social media marketing be achieved?

(413 words)

References

Advertising Standards Authority (2017). UK code of non-broadcast advertising and direct & promotional marketing.

Amblee, N., & Bui, T. (2014). Harnessing the influence of social proof in online shopping: The effect of electronic word of mouth on sales of digital microproducts. International Journal of Electronic Commerce, 16(2), 91-114.

Campbell, L. (2015). Current laws and social responsibility around social media product endorsements. The Huffington Post.

Drushal, B., German, K. (2011). The ethics of emerging media: Information, social norms, and the new media technology. New York, NY: Continuum.

Federal Trade Commission (2017). Guides concerning use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising.

Gillingham, E. (2011). The ethics of celebrity endorsement via social media sites.

Langford, L. (2014). Celebrity endorsement on social media. Campaign.

Oxford Dictionary (2017). Definition of ethics.

Schwab, D. (2016). No, you don’t need to write #ad in your promoted tweet. Forbes.

The Neilsen Company (2015). Global Trust in Advertising Report.

Wilkinson, O. (2015). Celebrity endorsements on social media. Knapton Wright Social Media Marketing.

Figure References

Figure 1: Self-produced using PowToon.

Figure 2: Self-produced using Piktochart and this source.

Figure 3: Self-produced using Google Slides and sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

Featured image

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16 thoughts on “Topic 4: Social Media Ethics – The Power of Online Endorsements

  1. Hi Patricia!
    Really enjoyed reading your post this week. I too mentioned the ethical implications of online endorsements and sponsored posts, specifically those made by Kim Kardashian and her family. So, it was really interesting to read a full length post about this topic. As you mentioned, now after recent rules and regulation crackdowns, endorsements have to be disclosed, but this often makes consumers take the product, and what’s been said about the product, less seriously – seriously hampering the consumers’ interest in the product. Do you think this cost may outweigh the benefits of having public persons (or celebrities) sponsor/endorse a product online? In more high profile cases, there’s ‘the vampire effect’ (Dholakia, 2015) where celebrities can ‘drain’ the life and character out of a product, and people remember it for the celebrity spokesperson, and not for its actual success or use, and there’s also cases when online ads and campaigns by certain spokespeople can damage the reputation of the brand, e.g. Nike’s affiliation with Lance Armstrong (Williams, 2012).

    Thanks! looking forward to hearing your thoughts 🙂
    Madeleine

    (word count: 179)

    References:

    – Dholakia, U. (2015). Can a Celebrity Endorsement Hurt the Brand?. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-science-behind-behavior/201511/can-celebrity-endorsement-hurt-the-brand [Accessed 7 Apr. 2017].

    – Williams, M. (2012). Nike drops deal with Lance Armstrong after he ‘misled us for a decade. The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2012/oct/17/nike-lance-armstrong-misled-decade [Accessed 7 Apr. 2017].

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    1. Hi Madeleine,

      Thank you for your kind comment! I also enjoyed reading your post this week and I particularly like how you distinguished between integrity risk, marketing/advertising and recruitment practices within social media ethics.

      To answer your question, whilst I believe that endorsement disclosure may result in consumers taking the brand less seriously, I think that the benefits largely outweigh the costs. For example, this article highlights several studies supporting the fact that consumers, particularly those within a younger age category, hold more positive evaluations of brands when they are endorsed, even when this endorsement is obvious.

      I found the article you shared about ‘the vampire effect’ very interesting, particularly from a psychological perspective. With regards to celebrities damaging brand reputation, I think this is an issue that brands should be worried about, more so than whether explicit disclosures are reducing advertising impact or not. For example, this article highlights that around 25% of people would stop or have stopped buying a product due to an endorser’s controversial behaviour.

      Looking forward, whilst celebrity endorsements will remain popular, I think that we are set to see a rise in endorsements by online influencers, such as bloggers and YouTube stars. Do you think that using online influencers is just as effective as using celebrities? And does this bring the same pros/cons as celebrity endorsements? I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

      Thanks,
      Patricia

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Patricia,

        Great response! I agree with a lot of what you said and I’m glad you found the article interesting 🙂 Also a great question I might add… I do believe that using online influencers like bloggers and YouTube stars is just as effective as using celebrities. Many of these online ‘stars’ can actually be considered celebrities in their own rights, as people are exposed to them just as much, if not more considering the digital age we’re living in today. I for one actually follow a few bloggers and see them endorsing many clothing and beauty ranges, and many of them began as ‘reviewers’, e.g. Zoella… so I’d actually say there may be a higher level of trust within these people, rather than other celebrities. It could also be said that there may be more pros to using these online stars than celebrities, as their domains typically lie behind a computer/smartphone screen. Thus, if they were to act in a way that jeopardises a particular brands’ image, it may not be as visible as if it were a well known singer or model etc. who features in magazines and newspapers on a regular basis – although, these people would probably reach a wider, larger audience. Overall, I reckon ‘online stars’ would be a safer, more unique bet if a brand was looking to target a younger audience, but, if a broader audience was the target, perhaps a more well-known star would be more appropriate.

        I know a lot more can be said on this topic but I hope that’s given you some food for thought 🙂

        Thanks,
        Madeleine

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        1. Hi Madeleine,

          Thank you for your thoughtful response!

          I certainly agree that online influencers are just as effective, if not more effective than celebrities in terms of social media endorsements and advertising. You make a really good point about online influencers being celebrities in their own right, particularly in the digital age. The fact that online influencers frequently and actively engage in social media makes it even more personal to the consumer, as social media offers an element of interaction that traditional media does not. Furthermore, where many online influencers like Zoella gained their following simply by blogging from their bedroom, this enhances authenticity. As we’ve discovered throughout the course of this module, authenticity is key to gaining interest and trust, therefore consumers are more likely to be listen and take action from endorsements made by these influencers.

          Another benefit I can see from using online influencers is the fact that smaller brands, who may not be able to afford celebrity endorsements, can still benefit from this type of marketing. If you are interested, this article highlights the shift away from celebrity endorsements and outlines why influencer marketing is absolutely crucial for brands. It goes into detail about some of the points we have discussed, such as the fear of putting consumers off when endorsements are disclosed.

          Thanks again,
          Patricia

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Patricia,
    Ethical issues around online endorsements were outlined effectively, highlighting how disclosure seems to underpin endorsements ethicality. The references beyond key sources, like Amblee and Bui, were insightful: expanding debates by linking word-of-mouth to consumer and business perspectives on endorsement http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2753/JEC1086-4415160205. I found empirical examples provided in the self-produced Google Slides complimentary to the argument made around undisclosed endorsements unethicality.
    You mentioned a ‘crackdown’ in the USA towards undisclosed endorsements, but Roy and Bagdare highlight regional variances, in arguing brand celebrity endorsements can influence consumer attitudes by country of origin (COO) http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08911762.2015.1073413?src=recsys. In line with COO variation research, do you think businesses can vary endorsements across countries, or do social media platforms restrict variety, a possible drawback? Related to endorsement benefits explored in your PowToon, and drawbacks partially explored in discussing ‘costs’ in comments with Madeleine, I wondered whether you think there are any other endorsement drawbacks?
    Cheers,
    Wil

    Like

    1. Hi Wil,

      Thank you for your comment! I’m glad that my use of resources and visuals this week contributed to your understanding of the topic.

      The research you shared on country of origin was very interesting and revealed some aspects of endorsements that I hadn’t considered before. In terms of how COO variations affect social media channels, I think there are several ways to view this. The very nature of social media as a global networking tool suggests that endorsements can in fact be targeted by country, to improve advertising effectiveness. For example, many global brands (e.g., McDonald’s, Coca-Cola) have different social media profiles for different countries, and thus marketing strategies could aim to vary influencers and celebrities in order to match the countries. However, in terms of celebrities endorsing brands on their own social media profiles, due to such a wide and global following of users, it is clearly very difficult for brands to target these endorsements to specific countries. As you mention, this inability to directly target countries with specific endorsements is a potential drawback of using social media as a platform for endorsements.

      As for further possible drawbacks, I found these quite difficult to pinpoint, despite the number of ethical issues involved in this topic. As touched upon in my conversation with Madeleine, celebrity transgression (i.e., celebrity misconduct damaging a brand’s reputation) is a significant risk that can have a major impact on advertising effectiveness. I think it’s also worth highlighting that this can occur both ways. For example, Pepsi’s recent advertising flop had a negative influence on their celebrity endorser, Kendall Jenner, who received a great deal of backlash as a result. If you are interested in reading further, this literature review highlights some of the effects, both positive and negative, of celebrity endorsements in terms of persuasion and sales etc. Can you think of any other possible endorsement drawbacks?

      Many thanks,
      Patricia

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Patricia,

        Thank you for your reply and for answering the questions,

        You mentioned brands experience difficulty targeting endorsements to specific countries, and how brands vary profiles across countries, such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola. Do global brands benefit from having multiple social media profiles across countries, or does this create disparate communication strategies, undermining unified approaches to identity and ethics, in your view?

        You explored celebrities endorsing brands on their own profiles. Could multiple profiles on the same platform work for celebrities, or would this present unauthentic identity? I think this would fragment identity somewhat, but allow celebrities and agents managing profiles to vary content, reflected in recent BBC article documenting some celebrities Tweets being vetted prior to sending: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-39743552

        You mentioned endorsement drawbacks working both ways, reflecting other stakeholders beyond endorsers and business that can be impacted by ethical quandaries raised in endorsement:

        If endorsements ‘flop’, such as the Pepsi case you suggested, this can impact stakeholders connected to business endorsement. A recent case illustrating this was the Fyre Festival due to be held in the Bahamas, http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/39743303/luxury-fyre-festival-is-cancelled-with-ticket-holders-still-stranded-in-bahamas where the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, Blink-182 and other stakeholders offered statements owing to withdrawal and cancellation of the event on social media. Endorsement impact can spread to other partners and stakeholders connected to endorsements, reflecting a drawback: distributed fragmentation risk to other stakeholders and relationships.

        Endorsements can result in changing positive perceptions prior to endorsement to negative ones. Callahan (2016) argues, during Hillary Clinton’s political campaign, endorsements hindered Clintons’ bid for presidency: http://pagesix.com/2016/11/12/why-celebrity-endorsements-didnt-help-hillary-at-all/ linking to political endorsement, which the literature the review you linked to suggested as an addendum to McCracken’s endorsement definition (p.644) http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02650487.2015.1137537

        Ibrahim outlines perception changes additionally: customers can become cynical if endorsements are sudden and separate to the identity conveyed by endorsers beforehand. (2016) http://blogs.brighton.ac.uk/ai63/2016/05/05/the-advantages-and-disadvantages-of-celebrity-endorsement-via-social-media/ and raises other drawbacks, like costs and expense, and the possibility for ‘overshadowing’. I think this hinges on popularity depending customer segments targeted: what do you think?

        Thank you for the literature review link highlighting endorsement effects. I wondered, from the six key research areas listed, which are the most striking to you? It mentions future research in the area, factors leading to increased celebrity endorsements: what factors do you think lead to increases?

        I hope I have addressed points in your reply, and would provide further elaboration, should you be interested?

        Cheers,

        Wil

        Like

        1. Hi Wil,

          Thank you for your detailed response!

          With regards to whether global brands benefit from having multiple social media profiles for different audiences, I think that in some cases it can be beneficial. This is a question of centralised vs. localised social media presences, which is discussed in further detail here. For example, a pro of a localised approach would be that global brands can send messages that are relevant to specific audiences, which is likely to lead to more engagement. However, as you say, this approach can reduce the consistent and unified image of the brand. Also, not only is it more complex to manage, but can potentially confuse audiences and lead to a perception of inauthenticity.

          Thank you for sharing the BBC article on celebrity Twitter profiles. I think the greatest issue for celebrities on social media is this personal/professional divide. Whilst you and I may be able to successfully separate our personal and professional identities online, this is a luxury that celebrities cannot always adopt successfully. Furthermore, as you state, perhaps celebrities having multiple online identities would do more damage than good, because of the perception of a fragmented identity.

          It’s interesting that you mention the role of stakeholders in this debate as I previously only considered the commercial relationship between brands and endorsers. The example of Fyre Festival you mention is quite shocking, and it illustrates how the power of endorsements can have a knock-on effect to all those involved in the business. It’s also interesting to learn about celebrity endorsements from a political perspective, as illustrated with the example of Hilary Clinton. As you say, the term endorsement clearly extends beyond consumer goods and covers a much wider range than could be defined by McCracken.

          Thank you for sharing the blog post outlining some of the pros and cons of celebrity endorsements. I think that even with strategic planning there is always an element of risk involved when brands collaborate with endorsers. I also agree that these effects are largely influenced by popularity and the type of customer segment targeted.

          Finally, for me the most striking finding from the literature review is that on celebrity persuasion. Whilst I expected celebrity expertise and attractiveness to increase persuasion, I am surprised that trustworthiness has no effect on persuasion. This makes me question the idea of authenticity in advertising, and whether it is really necessary for endorsement effectiveness. Which research area did you find to be the most striking?

          I hope my responses have addressed your questions and elaborated upon your ideas. This is a very interesting area of research that appears to have many facets!

          Many thanks,
          Patricia

          Like

  3. Hi Patricia,

    Really enjoyed your post this week! I though you presented a clear argument to show the issues of social media endorsements, while stressing the challenges faced in combating the problem. I certainly agree that unethical product endorsements are a growing concern, However, do you feel that social media endorsements are any more unethical than those seen using traditional forms of advertising? For example, television advertisements often feature celebrities to improve the potential selling power of goods, while products are understandably presented in the best light, despite not always living up to their reputation. Much like social media supported products, the consumer is often unaware of certain endorsements, such as those seen via product placements in films and television programmes. Is it therefore the responsibility of the consumer to attempt to recognise such manipulations and not to be drawn to product too easily? Or do you feel that the methods of social media endorsements are more deceptive than other advertising forms?

    Thanks, David

    word count: 164

    Thanjs, David

    Like

    1. Hi David,

      Thank you for your comment!

      That’s a great question. To help answer this, I think it’s important to distinguish the differences between traditional media and social media. In my view, traditional media is more of a one-way operation. For example, endorsements are presented to consumers via TV, but consumers do not have the power to respond to these endorsements through the same medium. On the other hand, social media presents a more equal playing field, where brands, influencers and consumers are all on the same level and can interact through the same medium of social networking sites. Because of this, I think consumers are likely to be more critical of endorsements via traditional media, but more accepting of those via social media. This also brings in the concept of authenticity because, as discussed earlier with Madeleine, consumers are more likely to trust sources they believe to be authentic.

      To back up this idea, this article outlines how and why social media endorsements may be more effective than traditional media endorsements. Putting this back into the context of ethics, because social media endorsements are more effective than traditional endorsements, this may suggest that consumers are more likely to be deceived into trusting brands via social media, which clearly raises some ethical concerns. To answer your question, I do think that social media endorsements present more ethical issues, purely because of the interactive nature of the medium that enhances the appearance of authenticity and is therefore perhaps more deceptive. What are your thoughts on this view?

      Regarding whose responsibility it is to reduce the ethical issues surrounding social media endorsements, I feel that this question is a bit more difficult to answer. Whilst I think that brands have a responsibility to disclose endorsements, I think that consumers would also benefit from being more aware of the deceptions and manipulations taking place. What is your take on this issue?

      Many thanks,
      Patricia

      Like

      1. Hi Patricia,
        Sorry for the late reply and thanks for your great response, it really shows a lot of depth and insight into my question. Having read the article that you linked, I agree that social media endorsements do present a more ethical issue than traditional media advertising for two main reason. Firstly, as you said, the interactive nature of social media permits a more level playing field for users to behave deceptively. Secondly, I feel that social media endorsements may more accurately mislead consumers through emotive means. By this, I mean social media advertising is more targeted to the user based on other accounts that they follow, often endorsed by celebrities that they are very familiar with. As a result, social media users may feel a greater desire or need to purchase the offered product, whereas, since traditional advertising is appealing to mass-markets, interest is likely to be wide-spread. While I also agree that the public should be made more readily aware of the deceptions of social media endorsements, I feel that it would be difficult to enforce. Therefore, the consumer should take some responsibility over their social media endorsed purchases in order to avoid disappointment, such as via online reviews from other impartial buyers.
        Thanks, David

        Like

        1. Hi David,

          Thank you for your response!

          You raise a great point about the differences between a mass media audience and a targeted social media audience. Being able to target specific consumers with specific endorsements is certainly a strategy that improves advertising effectiveness, despite it raising a number of ethical issues.

          It’s also interesting that you mention the emotional side of endorsements, and I think this is particularly important with the rise of online influencers such as bloggers and YouTube stars, as mentioned in this article. I think that many consumers, particularly those of a younger generation, are emotionally invested in online influencers (i.e., they’ve watched their YouTube videos for a long time or they regularly comment/interact with them), and this emotional investment makes them more inclined to take on board their endorsements and act upon them.

          I agree that in terms of responsibility, the brand, endorser and the consumer each have a responsibility to ensure that these endorsements function in the way they are supposed to, and not used deceptively.

          This has been a very interesting and enjoyable issue to discuss. I look forward to exploring further issues in Topic 5!

          Many thanks,
          Patricia

          Like

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