How Ad Companies Can Ruin Selfies For Everyone

Boston Red Sox player David “Big Papi” Ortiz takes a selfie with President Barack Obama during a April 1, 2014 ceremony honoring the World Series champions. CREDIT: AP — CAROLYN KASTER
Boston Red Sox player David “Big Papi” Ortiz takes a selfie with President Barack Obama during a April 1, 2014 ceremony honoring the World Series champions. CREDIT: AP — CAROLYN KASTER

The White House suggested it may ban selfies with President Obama after Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz took one that turned out to be a Samsung promotion. The uproar over the presidential selfie could mark the beginning of a backlash against companies looking to make money through unauthorized, spur-of-the-moment selfies.

“Well, [Obama] obviously didn’t know anything about Samsung’s connection to this,” top White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer said on CBS’ Face the Nation Sunday. “And perhaps maybe this will be the end of all selfies. But in general, whenever someone tries to use the president’s likeness to promote a product, that’s a problem with the White House.”

Samsung hired Ortiz to be a “social media insider” and gave him a Galaxy Note 3 that he used to tweet out a selfie with Obama at the April 1 ceremony celebrating the Red Sox’s World Series victory. The photo was retweeted over 40,000 times and Samsung ended up promoting it on its Twitter page.

Even though the White House has no official plans to ban selfies, Pfeiffer’s comment illustrates how the public’s access to politicians and celebrities could suffer as these kinds of non-traditional ads gain popularity. Social media has become an essential and easy way for public figures to connect with the public. And because these unplanned ads capitalize on the intimacy social media creates between celebrities and fans, their use could strain that relationship.


Ortiz maintains that the April 1 photo op was impromptu and wasn’t part of a planned Samsung promotion. But moments like the Ortiz-Obama selfie are becoming ingrained companies’, like Samsung, overall marketing strategy. As part of endorsement deals, it has become status quo for companies to require athletes to log social media activity and use products whenever they can, Ben Sturner, CEO of sports marketing firm Leverage Agency told Mashable. The key is to keep those moments from being overly planned at the risk of losing their “authenticity.”

Selfies are essentially photos where the subject has complete control over the resulting image — from facial expressions to lighting to who else is in the frame. And that image is ultimately a reflection of who the person taking the picture wants the world to see.

“Social media provides an efficient way for celebs to self-franchise a content channel,” Jon Fahrner, CEO of social engagement platform, Bumebox, told Medium’s Macala Wright. “Even if they are under the banner of a corporate entity when they socially speak, over the long term it is smart for celebrities to focus on building a personal social franchise. A social following is becoming a major factor when businesses are looking for endorsers.”

There’s been an uptick in marketers looking to create advertisements that feel organic and are poised to go viral. Samsung, which started sponsoring Ortiz in late March, was also behind the Ellen DeGeneres’ infamous group selfie at this year’s Oscars, which reached a record 3 million retweets within 48 hours. The move solidified a new marketing trend: the accidental ad, where companies can put their products at the center of impromptu moments by letting the celebrity create an opportunity.

Similar to the Oscar selfie, Samsung “helped” Ortiz seize the moment with the president: “When we heard about the visit to the White House, we worked with David and the team on how to share images with fans. We didn’t know if or what he would be able to capture using his Note 3 device,” the company said in a statement.


Though a company is putting all the elements together behind the scenes, the apparent spontaneity of a moment is an important part of what makes these ads go viral. Wren Studio, a Los Angeles-based womenswear company, launched a clothing ad last month featuring 20 strangers kissing for the first time, that went viral online. But soon after amassing 4 million views, it was discovered that the video was not capturing the awkwardness of romance in real-time, but had been staged with models and actors. Many viewers felt betrayed or duped for buying into the ad.

But the end result could be that requests for selfies could be treated more like paparazzi instead of harmless self portraits. “There will be a balance struck in terms of what is acceptable and what is not for promotional selfies, “ Jacob Groshek, assistant professor in emerging media at Boston University told ThinkProgress.

“The fact that a portion [of these moments] are contrived endorsements stand to potentially make consumers more cynical and critical in how they perceive such advertising,” Groshek said. “Many consumers will respond by treating celebrity selfies that feature products more explicitly as false or not genuine. An already critical and savvy population of consumers will likely become more so as they engage with more and more of this type of advertising.”