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

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."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.