Adam Levine tweeted from an iPhone mere days after promoting Samsung's Galaxy Note 4. Except, he probably didn't. While we laugh at the hypocrisy of Levine selling one phone and using another, we miss the larger hypocrisy: that the person running @adamlevine probably isn't Adam Levine, but his iPhone-using assistant.
In the past couple years, some celebrities have parlayed their fame and social media accounts into micro-media companies. Their handles are self-contained streams of self-promotion, brand management, and empty aphorisms. Like most media companies, they're designed to court advertisers and business partners. They're designed to make money.
Of course, the actual celebrities are too rich, too busy, or too indifferent to bother with the work of running a media company, so the task is often farmed out to management companies, personal assistants, and interns. You can spot these accounts by their 2:1 ratio of ad speak and tween slang, like their author's sprinkling salt on bland food.
The next round of #PieceOfMe tickets are up NOW!! Which shows are y'all coming to?? ❤️ http://t.co/y4Yk75uy41 pic.twitter.com/7Us9M4wNQ6— Britney Spears (@britneyspears) May 16, 2014
Unlike other companies that use social media for self-promotion, celebrities' promotional power stems from the illusion that they're doing the endorsing, not some skilled social media team. Celebrities must maintain the appearance that they're not merely brands. Some do so better than others.
Britney's tweet is a dry promotional message that would live comfortably in a press release, but the casual use of "y'all" and heart emoticon is meant to convince us this really is Britney. It's not.
In 2009, Chris Romero, the director of 50 Cent's web presence, said this about his employer to the New York Times:
"He doesn't actually use Twitter," Mr. Romero said of 50 Cent, whose real name is Curtis Jackson III, "but the energy of it is all him."
Today, even the energy of a celebrity seems tough for those behind the scenes to muster. At the moment, the top 6 posts on @rihanna are advertisements for MAC make-up. They read like the early works of robot that's been programmed to write copy in hashtags.
My new @maccosmetics #VivaGlam is avail NOW in North America http://bit.ly/vgriri2 & globally later this month. Sales go to @macaidsfund
Stay ahead of the trend this fall season with the new MACxRiRi collaboration #VivaGlamRihanna2 http://MACcosmetics.com pic.twitter.com/rHNWFQ2L1Q
#VivaGlamRihanna behind the scenes
My second #VIVAGLAMRihanna installation is released TODAY!!! Get it as soon as we're LIVE online at http://MACcosmetics.com #MACgirlMONDAY
Gaffes like these keep making headlines in the tech community. Before Levine, it was Oprah — read: Oprah's people — tweeting about Surface from an iPad. They're funny because they reveal two levels of obfuscation at play: one, that Oprah is actually tweeting as Oprah, and two, that Oprah actually cares about a product she's been paid to promote. Who knows, maybe Oprah really does love Surface, but her assistant might not and it's her assistant that's tweeting these shallow promotional messages in the guise of Oprah.
We're at this uncomfortable moment in which social media companies masquerade as living, breathing humans. People are companies. Companies are people. And both combine in the most boring Twitter accounts on the internet.
There needs to be transparency about who operates social media accounts. The FTC's updated Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising has this to say about how people endorse brands:
"Assume that instead of speaking about the clinic in a television interview, the tennis player
touts the results of her surgery – mentioning the clinic by name – on a social networking
site that allows her fans to read in real time what is happening in her life. Given the nature
of the medium in which her endorsement is disseminated, consumers might not realize that
she is a paid endorser. Because that information might affect the weight consumers give to
her endorsement, her relationship with the clinic should be disclosed."
But we should expect as much disclosure about the actual endorsee. Those being advertised to deserve to know who is actually pitching to them from behind the Twitter avatar.
It's a shame. In celeb Twitter, we hope for a direct line to the humans behind the glitz and glam. In reality, when we follow says Oprah Winfrey or Justin Timberlake we are subscribing to the same thing we get from their interviews, television commercials and paid appearances: what their team of publicists, managers, agents, assistants and brand partners have to sell us.
Until celebrities are required to be transparent about their social media teams, we must appreciate the few celebs who dare to remain genuine. I never thought I'd say this, but Hollywood has a lot to learn from Jaden Smith.