Snickers, Twitter, And The Problem Of Compliance

The following is a guest post by Senior Research Associate James McDavid:

When tweets from Katie Price (aka Jordan, a British glamour model) talking about the recently released Chinese GDP figures and the potential effects of large-scale quantitative easing on the liquidity of the bond markets began appearing in my Twitter stream early this week I was a little surprised. Not entirely shocked (I "accidentally" read her autobiography and she’s undoubtedly a smart cookie and a successful businesswoman) but certainly a little confused. Had her account been hacked, had she decided that what the UK really needed was a new Iron Lady and that she was up for it? A few tweets later all was revealed when Katie tweeted a picture of herself holding a chocolate bar as part of the Snickers campaign, "You’re not you when you’re hungry."

Ignoring the questionable exploitation of the British public’s perception of Katie as not being intelligent enough to tackle the global economic meltdown via Twitter, this campaign struck me as being a fairly well-executed case of a brand using a celebrity’s profile within Twitter. I can certainly understand the resentment felt by some users when they realized this was part of a marketing campaign, but from the perspective of an interactive marketer (IM) it felt pretty effective. I don’t follow Katie but her tweets appeared in my timeline via multiple sources -- friends, media bloggers, Internet loudmouths, and later more mainstream news organizations -- often prefaced with far too many exclamation and question marks, but still people stayed engaged, retweeting, and commenting on her subsequent tweets. Whether I’m going to buy a Snickers bar based on Katie's recommendation is unlikely but that chocolate bar is now in my thoughts, somewhere it hadn’t been for a while.

Since then Snickers have run into trouble with the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over the campaign. While the final "reveal" tweet included the "#spon" hashtag, the ASA is investigating whether Snickers and its agency Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO breached the UK’s advertising code by not including "#spon" in their original tweets to indicate that the tweets were marketing communications. We’re in a period where the compliance requirements for marketers in Europe are becoming ever more complicated and now IMs and their agency partners are increasingly being asked to consider the legal implications of their strategic and creative decisions while in the planning and execution stages of campaigns.

When a campaign like this is delivered through Twitter it doesn’t seem clear whether you should consider each individual tweet as a marketing message or whether you can define the message as delivered over a series of tweets, and when brands and their agencies are trying to be innovative, unclear regulations simply cause more headaches. The regulations exist for a reason but when an individual tweet doesn’t actually deliver a marketing message, only a setup for the punchline, then should it be regulated so tightly? In a global, fast-moving channel like Twitter when the legal requirements for marketers are somewhat disjointed and murky, would you let a great, if sneaky, campaign be ruined by giving the game away from the off?