Opinion: Suspicious of Samsung smartphone selfie success

By Declan Gooch

Lists about ridiculous things people do on social media are so prevalent on the web that they could be classified as a whole sector of the media by themselves.

In fact, you can substitute ‘ridiculous’ with ‘hilarious,’ ‘heartwarming,’ or ‘funniest,’ and people with ‘celebrities’ and ‘brands’ and right there are another five industries in their own right.

But the reason there are so many lists out there is that both minor missteps and complete and utter failures of human communication are very common on social media – particularly on Twitter, where brands strive to attain that holy grail of performance indicators, ‘user engagement.’

Engagement can be easy. Everyone likes cat photos, right? But sometimes, the idea is taken to such a ridiculous extreme that it starts to look a bit malicious.

The supposedly-spontaneous selfie taken by Ellen DeGeneres at this year’s Oscars ceremony is a good example.

The photograph, which captured a crowd of celebrities including Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence, went as viral as it’s possible to go on Twitter, knocking the site out of action for at least a few minutes and clocking 100,000 retweets in the first five minutes of it being posted.

Why? It isn’t clear. Would it have achieved the same fame if it had been taken by somebody who wasn’t also standing in the photo? Or does the fact that it’s a selfie really mean that much? How many other people do you have to have in a selfie before we have to start calling it something else anyway?

Engagement can be easy. Everyone likes cat photos, right? But sometimes, the idea is taken to such a ridiculous extreme that it starts to look a bit malicious.

Nobody at Samsung was asking these questions. They didn’t have to care about anything, other than the fact that a photo taken with one of their smartphones – not the iPhone that Ellen DeGeneres usually snapped photos with during the rest of the ceremony – became the most retweeted tweet in Twitter history.

It was probably a stunt engineered by Samsung. As soon as it emerged that it may not have been as spontaneous as it’s possible for a group of 12 A-list stars appearing in the same photo to be, there was talk that the stunt had ‘backfired’ – that somehow, while we’d been misled by Samsung, at least we’d outsmarted them in the end.

But realistically, it would have been a total failure of a campaign if nobody had even noticed the photo was taken by a Samsung phone. What would Samsung gain out of a few hours of selfie madness on Twitter if we hadn’t connected the dots?

Still, they shouldn’t have pushed their luck. They tried it again at the end of March, this time featuring US president Barack Obama, with the requisite extended arm and – you guessed it – a Samsung smartphone, lent by baseball star David Ortiz.

After it became clear Samsung was behind this selfie as well, the president’s media wranglers were not amused. They came down with an iron fist. There was talk of banning any and all selfies with the president. And once again, there was public cynicism.

Selfies featuring famous people like Obama are so popular and attract so much attention online because they allow us to feel like Obama is a nice lighthearted sort of guy – just like we think we are. They allow us to think that Ellen DeGeneres and her entourage of A-listers are happy, spontaneous people that aren’t above taking part in the same social media rituals that so many of us take part in today. They’re not that different, are they?

Well, yes they are. Most of us don’t get paid take our selfies. And most of us aren’t going to be taking selfies that anyone we don’t know would ever want to see, because we don’t have access to the sort of rich and famous people that give these viral photos their crazy reach.

The problem isn’t with Samsung, because they’ve obviously found a massively effective way to promote their smartphones (arguably helped along by pieces like this one, for absolutely nothing). It would be strange if they didn’t pursue it as much as they could.

What would Samsung gain out of a few hours of selfie madness on Twitter if we hadn’t connected the dots?

The problem is that celebrities are taking the money, taking their share of public adoration and appearing relatable, but not accountable for their photos being commercially exploited.

Some people might argue they don’t need to be accountable. But in both the examples above, some pretty significant things happened. Ellen DeGeneres’s selfie effectively broadcast an ad for Samsung to the entire Internet-connected western world, which is advertising on a scale rarely, if ever, seen. And it was advertising disguised as something else.

David Ortiz’s photo with Obama took this huge-scale advertising-masquerading-as-something-else and included the President, netting the ultimate celebrity endorsement, and the celebrity in question didn’t know a thing about it.

For my money, it’s an underhanded, insidious technique that prominent people should keep away from for the sake of a healthy separation between advertising, and everything else.

Unfortunately, this article only proves the point. I think I can hear Samsung’s engagement numbers ticking higher and higher.

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