Is this a charming story of young romance... or an advert for gum?

@squidslippers

What does a viral tweet about Extra teach us about trust, influencers, and the internet?

Every day for the last few months, Jake has asked his classmate for a piece of gum. Every day, she has obliged. In its beginning and middle, this is not a particularly unusual story – but that all changes at the end. On the last day of class, Jake’s classmate gave him an entire pack of gum. On each stick, she’d written a digit from her phone number.

Over 60,000 people have shared Jake’s story on Twitter, with over a quarter of a million more liking it on the site. “OMG THIS IS ACTUALLY SO CUTE,” effuses the top reply. Some people, however, are more sceptical. “Definitely an ad,” says a tweet with 142 likes; “This is fake,” reads one with 28; “Is this… a sponsored post,” questions another.

Jake’s love story is somewhat dampened by his use of the official social media slogan of Extra gum – #GiveExtraGetExtra. One eagle-eyed viewer also noticed that the “girl’s” handwriting on the pack of gum was similar to Jake’s own in another (now deleted) tweet. What’s more, Jake previously went viral after telling a similar story about how his professor helped him get a date with a girl (this story even made it onto Mail Online).

So is this all a cunningly disguised online ad?

Over the last few years, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has been enforcing its rules (introduced in 2014) that adverts by internet influencers must be hashtagged with the word “#ad”. Celebrities have violated these rules with Instagram posts about detox teas, while authors have created fake Twitter accounts, posing as teenagers, to sing the praises of their books. It certainly wouldn’t be unusual for a gum company to pay someone with 16,000 Twitter followers to post a cute story about their product.

Except, well, they didn’t. “The tweet you’re referencing from @squidslippers was not a paid promotion with Extra Gum,” says a spokesperson for the brand.

Yet just because the tweet isn’t an ad, it doesn’t mean it isn’t faked. There is no definitive answer on this – Jake originally agreed to answer some questions over email for this piece, but didn’t reply before this article's publication. Even if not faked, however, Jake has sent follow up tweets trying to get Extra Gum’s attention and asking them to reimburse the girl for her gum.

In this way, then, online advertising is constantly evolving. People with a high number of Twitter followers might create “advertisements” for brands without actually being paid for it or speaking with the brand – all in the hopes the same brand will pay attention to them later on. Once again, there is no way of knowing if this was Jake’s intention – but his viral tweet does showcase the current complexity of online advertising. Even if it wasn’t faked, the sheer number of people who thought it was shows there is a huge trust issue when it comes to influencers and adverts.

Guy Parker, the chief executive of the ASA, says the organisation is undertaking a project in the New Year which will “give greater clarity to influencers about how and when the ad rules apply.” This, he says, “ultimately will help promote trust with their followers.”

It is clear that, over the years, trust has been eroded to some extent. Celebrities like Khloe Kardashian burying #ad in the sentence “This is more than just an #ad because I truly love these delicious, soft, chewy vitamins” show that many influencers are constantly attempting to get around the rules. Similarly, the social media marketing agency the Social Chain created an advert in July for “Pina Colada Day”. Although it was clear their tweets were promotions (they featured #ad) it wasn't actually clear what they were promoting (Pina Colada Day was invented by the rum drink, Malibu, which wasn't mentioned in any way in the tweets). 

Even though Jake’s tweet wasn’t an advert paid for by Extra, its existence has highlighted the cynical environment that has been borne out of shady influencer advertising over the last few years. 

UPDATE:

After this article was published, Jake got back in touch and answered the questions in the initial email. He maintains that the events in the tweet did happen. "I only used the hashtag in hopes of getting some free gum out of it, because I thought that would be funny if I did,” the 22-year-old explains.  "A LOT of people have commented that it's fake or that it never happened or that it's an ad. I can't really blame them, honestly, because it was really bizarre if you weren't there.”

When I asked if he sent the tweet with the intent of getting Extra's attention, or whether he would like to work with Extra if they offered, he said: "Probably not. I really just enjoy saying dumb things on Twitter, that's all. But then again, maybe I would work with them, just because it would be a great story to tell."

@squidslippers
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