#HashtagURLs and Ethical Advertising
by marmalade.skies on April 7, 2015 - 4:17pm
#HashtagURLs are a new form of advertising, used by all types of companies on a wide variety of social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. A regular hashtag is a clickable link that takes the user to a discussion page, which were initially “designed to create content categories that people can follow” (Chaney, 2013). Generally, these links send users to another page on the same social media platform in which content with the same hashtag is viewable. Users can hone in on things that they like or are interested in. Recently however, companies have begun to see the marketing potential of this new phenomenon and have therefore created a new breed of hash tag, the #hashtagURL (Chaney, 2013). Unlike the first version, these links will take users to a product page on which they can purchase from that particular company, rather than a discussion or information based page.
This trend ties completely into the concept of native advertising; “material designed to blend in so that the viewer doesn’t immediately realize that he or she is looking at an ad” (Waurechen, 2015). This marketing tool is much more effective than others because users are not only more likely to click on links that don’t appear to be ads, but they also tend to be fairly good at avoiding more obvious online advertisements. Due to the increased online traffic it provides, these hashtags have become one of the most popular ways to market products or services on the Internet. It can be a very positive tool since it has the ability to successfully share product information with potential consumers (Waurechen, 2015). Hashtag URLs have therefore become one of the easiest and most successful ways for companies to market themselves on the increasingly popular social media platforms used by their target demographics. However, it also can be a deceptive and controlling form of advertising that is not obvious to consumers.
After understanding the issue at hand, one must now ask; how does morality or ethics tie into this phenomenon? Let us start off with the more positive aspects of #hashtagURLs. Like with all advertising, these links are used to increase a company’s profit, and they do quite a good job at that. More clicks means more traffic to the product page, and thus more purchases. However, their economic benefits are not the only good side to this form of marketing. In fact, these hash tags get the information about companies out more effectively than other forms of marketing online. This is additionally useful in cases when the company behind the link has a charitable, informative, or awareness raising component. Users will be taken to pages where they can learn about important causes, global issues, or how they can help those in need. Furthermore, unlike regular banner ads, these links create much more traffic to the websites and have the potential to create much more knowledge and discussion of the products or services themselves. This plethora of information and discussion is seen as highly important in terms of ethics, because it increases individual’s knowledge of not only themselves but also the things accessible to them.
However, like with all forms of advertisement, these native ads face moral dilemmas as well. Firstly, the discreet placement of the hashtags on web pages has the potential to miss inform the consumer. Particularly, those who are not ‘media literate’ will have a very difficult time distinguishing between what is advertisement and what is the real content of the web page. Secondly, due to their profit making success, this form of marketing has taken to web pages like online newspapers. It’s one thing to have a #hashtagURL on a companies social media platform, and it is another to include them in a news story or informative article. Viewers and users of these pages are often dissatisfied when they discover the true purpose these hashtags have because they feel that it will discredit the source.
Overall, I believe that #hashtagURLs are not unethical in nature and I have no problem with them being incorporated into my social media feeds. However, I am fairly media literate, and am able to distinguish these hash tags from others almost immediately. I also recognize the frustration some may have with regards to this form of marketing if they are not as media literate as myself, predominantly when this marketing comes from sources that individual deems credible. From a utilitarian perspective, the summum bonum of the hashtag URL outweighs some of the costs it may have; the summum bonum, or greatest good for the greatest number, being that individuals are exposed to the most information about the products, services, or charitable activities available to them. Although they may mislead certain individuals, their purpose is not ethically unsound. The intention behind these hashtags is to create more discussion and spread more information to consumers, instead of intending to confuse or trick consumers into unwilling purchases. Moreover, “the combination of native advertising and hashtag URLs is all about the value it brings to an audience” (Kakoti, 2014). In fact, using a hash tag URL does not mean one is immediately purchasing a product, it simply means that one is taken to a product page instead of being taken to a discussion page on the social media site in question.
Rather than blaming the marketers for doing their job, by attracting more clicks to a page and spreading information, we should focus on teaching media literacy. Whether it be implemented in part of the schooling curriculum, or be made more easily understandable through online tutorials or pamphlets, the real issue in this situation is not that these links exist, but it is that some people are simply not aware of these advertisements.
Chaney, P. (2013). Using Hashtags for Ecommerce. Retrieved from: http://www.practicalecommerce.com/articles/59511-Using-Hashtags-for-Ecom...
Kakoti, P. (2014). Native Advertising with Hashtag URLs. Retrieved from: https://blogs4bytes.wordpress.com/2014/01/28/native-advertising-with-has...
Waurechen, S. (2015). The Ethical Limits of Advertising [PowerPoint Slides]. Retrieved from Omnivox (Marianopolis’s online portal).