Back in the day, The Studio System controlled entertainment. Hollywood was the proprietor of movies and therefore stood as the filter between the big screen & consumers. It wasn’t long until commercial companies realized the value in these movies in the form of product placement. They could set up the heroes in a WWI film to carry along a Hershey’s bar in their arsenal of freedom-fighting tools if they wanted to which is exactly what happened in the first-ever film to win the Oscar for Best Picture in 1927.
Hollywood hasn’t been the only advocate for product placement, however. Although the Hershey’s bar was the first significant example of this kind of placement, it doesn’t stand as the last. Entertainment and media content are not created purely by major companies anymore. It’s become apparent with the integration of the internet into daily life that anyone can create a piece of content and broadcast it to the entire world. The first hint came with the explosion of YouTube and leaked into all other corners of the internet that have only become more polished with time. An unique platform that has been affected by this form of advertising is social media.
The first dive into social media looks at Kylie Jenner of the Kardashian family. She stands as the fifth most followed person on the platform with a whopping 201 million followers spreading across the globe. Just in that numerical development of ethos, anything she decides to post to hundreds of millions of people can influence a follower's daily choices — both intentionally or subliminally.
Kylie posted an advertisement for Alfred Coffee on June 11th, 2020. The post’s power can be seen in the spike in the follower graph for Alfred Coffee around the June/July timeline.
The gain begs another question, however: Are there factors outside of the pure number of followers that could’ve contributed to this influence? A case study on influencer Lucie Fink answered this question, and, “found that social media influencers’ success does not rely solely on their follower count, but their ability to influence followers through authenticity, confidence, and interactivity to create a connection between the follow and the brand” (Glucksman, 80).
For the Hollywood studio system, the only information advertisers had about consumers was the type of they were seeing and presumably enjoyed, which led to riskier investments. The growth of social media has brought out the idea of choice, specifically referring to who you decide to follow. Personality, aesthetics, and various other factors connect influencers to their respective audiences. Behind every advertised Instagram post, there’s a personalized caption from the poster to strengthen the validity of the influencer-advertiser connection that’s broadcasted to so many followers. With Instagram, there’s a person behind the advertising as opposed to a corporation which in turn transforms the entire value of intentionally placed ads.
On the flip side, the significance of evaluating intentional advertising has grown with the expanding use of social media landscapes. With a limitation like a TV ad, there are only so many seconds that could be used to persuade readers to purchase something. Wasting time meant wasting money. Explicit intention was a byproduct of persuasion that couldn’t exist without the other. With Instagram often capturing a glimpse of a person’s life at a given moment, the notion that unintended advertisements could influence consumers is not a strange concept anymore. In Kylie Jenner’s post featuring designer clothing as the centerpiece, it’s clear that the absence of tagging the company correlates with a genuine connection between influencer and product. That perceived honesty might hold more value than someone posting a product they aren’t invested in. An interested follower could find the company that makes the dress in a matter of one google search and escalates the idea that influence happens beyond clear advertising intention. The technology is different, the media is different, and every piece of visual information counts.
The social media landscape lends itself to much more than advertising the content of others. In the early days of joint film & advertising, the idea that a company could advertise itself through its own frame didn’t exist. Take Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, for example, a professional wrestler-turned-A-list celebrity who became more well known through the Fast & Furious movie series for his size and strength. More importantly than his accomplishments, he’s known for his charitableness. The actor has built his social media personality around advice, aesthetic, and love for helping others.
The photos and media he reposted show off his tequila brand while adding in pieces of his personality. At this point, another question arises: What makes Dwayne Johnson’s tequila stand out to be better than other tequilas? Does his product even need to stand out? Does that even matter?
A study titled “The Impact of Social Media Influencers on Purchase Intention and the Mediation Effect of Customer Attitude” looked into similar questions and found that, “… source credibility of social media influencers was found to have an insignificant relationship with attitude and purchase intention” (Lim, et al.). However, the study instead alluded that, “This research exemplified that respondents were more likely to accept meanings from brands endorsed by social media influencers, with whom they perceived as a resemblance to themselves or whom they admired.” (Lim, et al.) can give some explanation to the value of Dwayne Johnson’s success in self-promoting advertising. The most prominent shift in product-placement advertising from the big screen to social media occurs at this exact point, which is that consumers value the relayer of the message more than the message itself. Slogans, mottos, brand images, and mascots serve to keep a company name in the back of your head when you eventually end up shopping for a particular product. They attempt to create the most valuable and meaningful connection between the company and consumer, which can be boiled down into a personality pushing for a product. In this instance, Dwayne Johnson has posted for years and accumulated a following that cares about what he has to say. Whatever product he decides to endorse is not a reflection of its quality, but rather Dwayne’s values that are likely common across his followers. The mere existence of a platform that shows users an extension of an influencer's personality is a testament to shifting mediums.
Taking a step back and looking at the broader scope of the social media medium, content reach must be accounted for in collaboration with the role of influencers. Let’s say a company is looking for means to advertise in a pre-internet world. The mediums to choose from that reach the greatest amount of people consist of television ads, magazine ads, and billboards. Limiting factors here for consumers include the need to purchase a cable subscription, have access to a car that is maintained, and magazine subscriptions/purchases. Not only that, but each venue is decentralized. Social media and particularly Twitter’s ‘mentions’ have broken the barrier for what can be accomplished in a single content post, ultimately causing a shift in content production since a viral piece of content can reach millions of people overnight.
A case study on social media & viral advertising through a Heineken ‘Worlds Apart’ youtube ad found that the ad-distribution process specifically on Twitter operates on three levels of influencers. The highest level consists of highly retweeted users, the next being highly-mentioned users, and the lowest being users who posted the link to Twitter. Individually the content reaches certain sets of followers, but together it becomes viral and influential (Himelboim, et al.).
One takeaway from the research is that engagement between different media platforms is essential to getting a message or product to reach as many people as possible. The integration between Youtube and Twitter in this example surpass what was expected of platforms in the past — a magazine is created with the intent of being seen in a physical, non-moving form while a TV ad features video, acting and that was that. With integration in mind, advertisers must transform their product endorsement to fit the medium to make sure it’s not only digestible by the masses, but by the influencers that stand with the highest following.
Another takeaway is understanding that advertising is no longer a one-way street. It’s not sufficient anymore to make a TV ad that speaks to a voiceless consumer. Now that nearly every internet platform has a section for comments, the engagement between advertiser and consumer is a priceless factor to account for with influencers being the key to unlocking the door leading to a mass audience.
As technology has grown, advertising has had to trail right alongside it. Tradition challenges change, and ads born out of the shifting needs of consumers are no stranger to adversity. Social media is only the newest iteration for landscaping product endorsements and will one day appear the same way that magazine ads are today: relics of the past. Influencers stand essential to product growth today, but how long will that last? Only time will tell.
Glucksman, Morgan. “The Rise of Social Media Influencer Marketing on Lifestyle Branding: A Case Study of Lucie Fink.” Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications, vol. 8, no. 2, 2017.
Himelboim, Itai, and Guy J. Golan. “A Social Networks Approach to Viral Advertising: The Role of Primary, Contextual, and Low Influencers.” Social Media + Society, vol. 5, no. 3, 2019, p. 205630511984751., doi:10.1177/2056305119847516.
Lim, Xin Jean, et al. “The Impact of Social Media Influencers on Purchase Intention and the Mediation Effect of Customer Attitude.” Asian Journal of Business Research, vol. 7, no. 2, 2017, doi:10.14707/ajbr.170035.
Schnurr, Samantha. “Dwayne Johnson Makes ‘Dream Come True’ For Young Fans of Children’s Charities.” NBC New York, NBC New York, 28 Dec. 2018, www.nbcnewyork.com/news/national-international/dwayne-the-rock-johnson-surprises-young-fans/2069975/.