If you were a conspiracy theorist the “selfie” would be starting to look like a pretty blatant illuminati signal. Last year we had three world leaders taking one, and now Ellen DeGeneres has pulled stars of the silver screen into the world’s most retweeted tweet. What purpose do these smartphone shots serve?
One thing’s for sure – PR orthodoxy is now seriously in favour of them. Want to look cheeky and relatable? Snap a selfie. It’s not totally flawed, either. Ellen’s effort on Sunday night earned her 1.7m retweets in less than an hour – a new world record. Ever since astronaut Luca Parmitano snapped himself drifting in deep space last year, selfies have become a shorthand for a sort of ironic normality. They are a way, for those pinned up among the literal or metaphorical stars, to show the rest of us their ordinary side. “Look!” says the photo, hastily beamed out via Instagram or Twitter. “I’m as goofy as you!”
This orthodoxy is clearly what was going through the mind of some brand director at Samsung, who sponsored the awards ceremony. I’m not saying Ellen’s star-studded snap was in any way orchestrated (perish the thought) but it was taken with her Samsung Galaxy Note 3, which got approximately as much airtime during the televised awards as Leonardo DiCaprio’s grinning mug.
Throughout the entertainment and media worlds, brands and ads are wriggling through the gaps in their pre-designated spaces and intruding on the creative side. In digital print media, for example, “native advertising” sees brands exerting more and more influence over editorial content.
Why is this happening? Well, the public are determinedly resisting most traditional revenue streams in these content industries. According to the-numbers.com, 2013 saw the lowest number of movie tickets sold in the US since their records began in 1995. Netflix et al are going to take a while to fill the gap. These industries increasingly need to turn to corporations to bail them out.
Maybe more worryingly, that corporate safety net might not always be there. This isn’t just a story about creative industries giving brands more and more leeway – brands are having to demand more because their traditional means of communicating with consumers aren’t working. As Ray DeVito put it in a tweet during the ceremony: “Ellen DeGeneres turning the Oscar into a 4-hour Samsung infomercial is our fault for hitting ‘skip-ad’ every time we watch a YouTube video.” If the public no longer absorb conventional ads, brands need to be more subtle about getting to us.
Samsung’s Oscar deal has been hailed as a success, largely as a result of the selfie itself. But to me, this looks more like a sugar rush than true nourishment for the brand. This sort of lowest common denominator celebrity obsession is only sustained by an iconic strength which the film industry itself is fast losing. Those who hated being sold a phone during an awards ceremony can take comfort in the fact that they probably won’t have to put up with similar plugs for much longer, as brands realise such deals’ long term value is limited. The question is where that will leave a movie industry increasingly desperate for cash?