Mission to Mars: Snickers Wins Twitter Victory

Morning, luv.

Today’s post is brought to you by some news from across the pond, so please feel free to read it with a spot of tea.

And a British accent.

(Doesn’t it make everyone sound just a wee bit nicer?)

Anywho, in another sign of our tweet-filled times, Mars, the maker of Snickers, just avoided getting into hot water with the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over a marketing campaign it launched on Twitter back in January. The campaign, featuring British stars such as model Katie Price and footballer (or, as us Yankees would say, professional soccer player) Rio Ferdinand, used a series of curious tweets from the celebs to play up the Snickers tagline “You’re not you when you’re hungry.”

Photo by Phil Guest. Some rights reserved.

For example, Katie Price, who apparently rose to fame after appearing as a topless model in a British tabloid, sent out a bunch of tweets on international finance to her 1.6 million followers. (Get it? Models don’t usually talk about big complicated things like economics, silly.):

“OMG!! Eurozone debt problems can only properly be solved by true fiscal union!!! #comeonguys”

Meanwhile, Mr. Ferdinand took to the Twitterverse to discuss his newfound love of knitting with his 2.3 million followers, which of course goes against his manly manly-man persona:

“Can’t wait 2 get home from training and finish that cardigan”

The campaign ran into problems, however, when folks began to complain about a lack of transparency with the tweets. Just like U.S. regulations, U.K. industry standards indicate that sponsored tweets—like the ones sent by Price and Ferdinand—need to disclose in some way that they’re ads. This is often achieved by including hashtags like #ad or #spon. In the case of Snickers, while the celebs sent out a series of five tweets within a short period of time (about 90 minutes), only the last tweet—which was accompanied by a photo of each star with a Snickers bar—indicated that it was part of a campaign:

“You’re not you when you’re hungry @snickersUk#hungry #spon…”

Photo by Tim Ellis. Some rights reserved.

Now, in its first Twitter-based ruling, the ASA has decided in favor of Mars, although it disagreed (rightly) with the company’s reasoning that the first four tweets were not marketing communications because they did not include any actual mention of the product.

Instead, the ASA declared that the earlier rounds of tweets were teasers that helped make up an “orchestrated advertising campaign.” But, since they appeared in quick succession, with the final tweet labeled appropriately, the organization found that consumers would be able to recognize that the tweets were, in fact, ads.

This ruling will likely help pave the way for future innovative campaigns in the social media sphere—a realm where, once again, the law is struggling to keep up with the lightning-fast pace of technology. I think it speaks volumes that the ASA was willing to view this issue with an open mind and avoid sticking to cut-and-dried regulations that will inevitably have to evolve with the times.

Of course, these situations aren’t without their hang-ups, as James Kirkham, managing director of Holler, a digital content and social media agency, noted in a piece in AdAge:

“Loyal followers might start to feel hoodwinked if their favorite Twitter user is regularly tricking them with tweets crafted by the brand or a PR agency,” he said. “Social media is reliant on transparency and honesty, so audiences will have limited patience when it comes to tweet tricks such as this.”

This is certainly a very real concern that brands cannot overlook as they trample over one another to blaze new trails in online media. But this ruling does give them some breathing room to continue blazing those trails, which is essential as companies face the ever-present challenge of changing business models in the digital era.

Meanwhile, this situation is also a reminder that in a world where consumers are increasingly open when it comes to their own lives online (as anyone who has had to read in-depth status updates on potty training and stomach viruses will tell you), those same people will expect their brands to be just as upfront about their practices, as well.

Innovation is one thing—deception is another.

For brands that discover how to strike this delicate balance—and do so with panache—the marketing possibilities are endless.

Is Gwyneth Paltrow Giving You Gas?

Have you gone gluten-free?

All the cool kids are doing it.

Seriously, it’s, like, so trendy right now. Just ask Gwyneth Paltrow. She is one of a slew of celebrities—from Zooey Deschanel to Oprah Winfrey—who tout the benefits of gluten-free living.

Photo by Briana (Breezy) Baldwin

Some celebs, like Ms. Deschanel, have celiac disease, which causes sufferers to experience debilitating symptoms—from bloating to vomiting to seizures—when they consume gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye). In these types of cases, going gluten-free falls more into the “my life depends on it” category rather than your garden-variety “just for kicks” group.

On the flip side, we have A-listers like Gwyneth Paltrow, who rave about going gluten-free as a way to achieve a healthier lifestyle, but have no actual problems with tolerating gluten.

Now, you may think to yourself, What’s the big problem with that? Wouldn’t we all be better off with less gluten? Isn’t it bad for me, just like processed foods, saturated fats, and believing George Clooney is the marrying kind?

Well, if you have celiac disease, sure.

But, according to a newly published editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine (and covered in layman’s terms in this recent Huffington Post article), if you don’t suffer from this condition, well—Gwyneth Paltrow might be giving you gas.

You see, doctors are a little concerned that with the gluten-free lifestyle receiving so much mainstream promotion from the likes of celebrity endorsers and the food industry, some people are starting to experience and self-diagnose health problems that may not actually exist. These folks often fall into a category of people who are currently deemed as having “non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” meaning they have tested negative for celiac disease but still experience uncomfortable symptoms after eating food with gluten.

Now, this isn’t to say that such a condition doesn’t exist (in fact, the docs think it quite possibly does), but there haven’t been a lot of scientific studies that can really back up a diagnosis yet. There is a possibility that some sufferers might be experiencing “nocebo” effects (the opposite of positive “placebo” effects), which is something that has been documented before in people who believe they have a food sensitivity. Meanwhile, the prevalence of the condition seems to be reaching some rather unbelievable heights, with the editorial’s authors cautioning that the current “gluten preoccupation” could turn into a widespread belief that gluten is toxic for most people—which is not true.

“We must,” they say, “prevent a possible health problem from becoming a social health problem.”

Photo by Richard Yaussi

This brings us back to Ms. Paltrow and the other public faces of “healthy” gluten-free living. For starters, gluten-free is not synonymous with “healthy.” People who assume that removing gluten means removing carbs are sadly mistaken. A Time magazine article entitled “Bad-Mouthing Gluten” points out that many people with celiac disease actually see an increase in their body mass indexes when they go gluten-free, because the foods they are allowed to eat are higher in “surrogate” carbs and low in fiber.

But when folks see slender Gwyneth Paltrow making her rounds on the talk show circuit after praising gluten-free bakeries and cleanses on her blog, GOOP, this is certainly not the message they’re getting. They are more likely to be sitting there, mentally taking stock of their refrigerator, and thinking, “Wow, I feel like such a fat cow for all of the big, heaping piles of gluten I’ve been eating!”

Even celebrity nutritionist and gluten-free chef Christine Avanti admitted in a 2010 Daily Beast article, “People have come into my office and they say, ‘I don’t even have [gluten intolerance], but I want to do a gluten-free diet because certain celebrities do it and it makes them really thin.’”

There is also some backlash from people in the celiac community who feel that celebrities who make gluten-free living sound like the hip diet-du-jour—however good their intentions may be—actually diminish the overall perception of a serious disease, as blogger Gluten Dude notes in his post, “Dear Gwyneth…please shut up.”

So, to recap: Popular culture might be making us sick. Celebrities are not medical professionals. Gluten-free isn’t chic.

(And for a real-world take on living a gluten-free life—when it’s not just for kicks—you should check out Me Against the Wheat, another StratComm blogging production.)

The Celebrity Weight-Loss Wars

With each new year comes a flurry of weight-loss ads, usually featuring a celebrity who has shed the pounds thanks to Jenny Craig/Weight Watchers/Nutrisystem/the Cookie Diet/Low-Cal Lard, etc.

The message of these campaigns tends to echo the following sentiment:

“You may think that as a rich and famous person, I truly have it all. But I’m just like you—I struggle with my weight. This makes me human. But, I’m also a super-human, because, as you know, I’m rich and famous. Therefore, if this weight-loss program works for me, it can work for you too, sister friend.”

Of course, this is largely presented through subtext.

With 2012 well underway, we have all had a chance to marinate in the personal journeys of several celebrities who are eager to show off their new bods. Mariah Carey is drawing oohs and aahs for her post-pregnancy figure, courtesy of Jenny Craig. Charles Barkley is showing the boys that Weight Watchers isn’t just for chicks. Kim Kardashian is taking a pill that…God, I just don’t have any more brain cells to devote to her right now.

While it seems like one big metabolic media blitz out there, two campaigns have managed to cut through all the noise and grab my attention. Neither of these spokespeople is new to the game, but as their latest round of ads started filtering into my view, something struck me.

Photo by Adam Bielawski

First up, we have Jennifer Hudson. From day one of her career, the Oscar-winner and former American Idol contestant was known as “plus-sized,” and her struggles with weight were anything but personal. When she debuted a dramatic new look courtesy of Weight Watchers back in 2010, one couldn’t help but salute her with a hearty,           “You go, girl!”

There’s something about Jennifer Hudson that makes her relatable as an everywoman. She rose to fame in a talent competition (one that she lost), and her success is the perfect mixture of luck and undeniable talent—not Hollywood connections and deep pockets. She suffered a family tragedy, but found joy again in motherhood. She put on baby weight like everyone else.

When Jennifer, in her newest spot for Weight Watchers, sings, “I am you, you are me,” it resonates in a way that simply can’t be duplicated by the likes of, say, Carrie Fisher.

Or Marie Osmond.

Marie has been on Nutrisystem’s payroll for quite a while now, getting the word out to middle-aged women everywhere that the brand’s meal-based program is the answer to their weight-loss prayers. For a while, it actually seemed like a good fit. For women who grew up with Marie—many of whom were struggling with the same stresses of family life, work life, and slower metabolisms—Donny’s kid sister served as a reminder that growing older didn’t mean becoming any less fabulous. She looked great! They could, too!

And then came her latest commercial.

It starts off innocently enough. She’s just chilling at home in her bare feet, curled up in her favorite chair. (Note that we don’t see the size of her celebrity home—just a non-threatening corner.) She starts to say something about New Year’s resolutions and—

Oh my God, what happened to her face?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUu6Exj2lr8

Unfortunately, this is where the whole down-to-earth-celebrity-just-trying-to-diet-like-the-rest-of-us thing falls flat on its arse—right alongside any notion of beauty through health. It’s immediately apparent that Marie has drastically altered her visage. And with this move, she erases any credibility she had as the “I’m just like you” celebrity diet spokesperson.

As Marie casually tells her audience how Nutrisystem’s features let them live a normal life, they are reminded that Marie Osmond is not normal. They can see plain as the nose on her face that even though the program helped Marie look and feel better about herself, it couldn’t quite get her all the way there—she needed to drop thousands of dollars to do that. The average 40-something mother of two will never be able to afford to feel as fabulous as she does.

That’s kiiiind of a bad message, no?

Nutrisystem has recently begun a new deal with Janet Jackson, and not a moment too soon. She may not be an everywoman, but so far her campaign manages to mix the superstar with the human in a way that still makes her relatable. Maybe it’s her soft voice, her quiet admission of weight struggles, or knowing that even though she has money and fame, her life has been anything but perfect.

Regardless, it’s far better than Marie’s plastic-surgery parade. Janet—and Jennifer—you go, girl!

Felicity Huffman’s Romaine Revolution

A few weeks ago, I found myself feeling a little…blue. At first, I figured it was the cold(ish) weather or the lack of sunlight. Maybe I was in a post-holiday funk—the kind that settles in after the tree has been put away and you’ve eaten the last of your stocking stuffers (the edible ones, anyway).

After I really stopped to think about it, though, it dawned on me that I had it all wrong. I wasn’t upset about the weather or the season or the lack of chocolate-covered marshmallow Santas. The truth was:

My salad was not living up to its potential.

That’s why I was beside myself with relief when I learned that Dole was rolling out a new salad campaign this month starring Felicity Huffman.  And let me tell you, Felicity is pumped about salads. I mean, she’s literally giggling over her leafy greens like a school girl in love. And do you know why?

Because they have “Salad’tude.”

You see, Dole’s campaign isn’t just about balanced diets and bags of lettuce—it’s about joining in the “salad celebration.” It’s about “themes of wholesome pampering and togetherness.” It’s about “pizzazz.”

And salad parties.

Yes, Felicity wants us all to have salad parties (presumably to foster wholesome pampering and togetherness). Although, I have to say, I don’t know how much fun Felicity’s friends are having at her party, because they can’t seem to get a word in edgewise.

You know, I bet she doesn’t even know those people. I bet they’re merely pawns in her salad agenda.

Aside from that, I actually like Dole’s Salad’tude idea. I think using my next birthday party as a vehicle for friendship, lettuce, and laughter is a bit of a stretch, but I’m down with the whole salad-as-culinary-inspiration angle. I always feel a little bit healthier when I can make a meal out of my salad (until I drench it in blue cheese dressing, of course, but I digress).

Dole’s salad website is actually pretty nifty, as far as salad goes, with recipes, a salad circle community (foster the love, people), and an interactive guide that lets you discover your ideal Dole salad blend.

Best of all, you can enter to win a trip to Monterey, CA, where you and four friends will dine with Felicity Huffman. And eat salad.

Lots and lots of salad.

If she brings William H. Macy along, I just might consider it.

P.S. My new autobiography, Friendship, Lettuce, and Laughter: My Life After Scurvy, will be available as an e-book this October.

Just for the Taste of It: Remembering Whitney Houston

I miss Whitney.

Like so many fellow children of the 1980s, I raced to YouTube after learning of Whitney Houston’s passing on Saturday to relive the moments from her glory days. That soaring voice. That giant hair. The colors. The clothes. The pop.

The fun.

I miss when Whitney was on top of the world—a powerhouse with raw talent untarnished by years of drug abuse and erratic public behavior.

I miss the Whitney that came before Being Bobby Brown and “crack is whack.”

You know those chills you get when you watch someone perform in their element—when you know they are exactly where they’re supposed to be? Call it destiny, if you like. Fate. The aligning of the planets. A divine plan.

Whatever it was, Whitney had it. So it’s no surprise that Diet Coke tapped the songstress to promote its brand back in 1986. The soft drink, which debuted in 1982, was still relatively young, as was Whitney’s superstar career. Her unparalleled vocals and fresh—and safe—image were a perfect match for Coca-Cola’s hit product. Here was a woman with confidence, beauty, and fame singing about and drinking a beverage that would help her keep her celebrity figure (No sugar! Less than one calorie!)—but that didn’t even matter, because she was drinking it just for the TASTE of it! It was that cool! Just like her.

Whitney appeared in a few Diet Coke ads over the next few years, as well as spots for AT&T and Sanyo, but she hadn’t appeared in endorsements in well over a decade. While there are certainly any number of reasons for this absence, it’s unlikely her increasingly troubled persona would have been considered anything but a liability to brands. (Given her public struggles with drugs, a Whitney Houston “Coke” endorsement in her later years would have been inappropriate, to say the least.)

And so, as we reflect on the untimely passing of another entertainment icon, I choose to remember the Whitney of Diet Coke. The Whitney of MTV’s up-and-coming years. The Whitney with a giant bow in her hair, gleefully asking a funhouse full of questionable dancers, “How will I know?” (Love can be deceiving, Whitney.)

Thanks for the memories, Ms. Houston. Rest in peace.