Should hashtags be banned from TV ads?

Should hashtags be banned from TV ads?

Hashtags have been creeping in local TV ads lately. As I sit through these ads, I often find myself asking: “What do they expect me to do here? Jump on Twitter and spread the word on their brand new product? Why would I or anyone?”

The sudden appearance of hashtags in TV ads has been awkward at the best of times.  This made me wonder: were hashtags ever meant to be used in TV ads? And if they were, when do they work best?

American developer and UX designer Chris Messina is credited for the (brilliant) invention of the hashtag. His original intent was (in his own words) to improve “contextualization, content filtering and exploratory serendipity within Twitter”.

In other words, Messina wanted to make it easy for Tweeters to find, join or simply “eavesdrop” on social conversations. There is no evidence that his bigger plan at the time was for the pound sign to spill offline onto other media.

Yet, if you occasionally watch TV like me, you may have noticed that hashtags have started creeping in TV ads. And perhaps like me also, each time one shows up, you may wonder why anyone would want to start or join a conversation around the ad, or the product it promotes, using that particular hashtag.

More often than not, hashtags in local TV ads look like they were slapped on as an after-thought, with no to little context to what they mean or what their purpose is.

Brands and agencies are visibly hoping that viewers simply thrilled by what they have just seen will drop whatever they are doing at the time, and in a flash take to Twitter or Facebook to banter about it.

The most likely behavior however – as most instinctive and prevalent – is that they will take to Google to search for the brand or product name they have just seen – that is if they are interested and want to find out more about it. For most viewers however, a hashtag with no context or incentive will trigger little if any response at all.

A recent example of an ill-thought-out campaign hashtag is the one seen a few weeks ago in the TV ads for the launch of Magnum 5 Kisses, Unilever’s new Limited Edition ice cream. The various TV edits mention the #Magnum5kisses hashtag.

Twitter and Facebook are the natural destinations for social TV banter. With this in mind, I searched both networks for #Magnum5Kisses to see whether the campaign hashtag had caught on at all.

Results were underwhelming to say the least and, probably fair to say, not what Unilever had hoped for.

Twitter returned just under 20 tweets and not all tweets were from consumers… Facebook returned no results due the lack of recent posts… In a final attempt to uncover some campaign-related buzz, I took to Instagram. There I found a total of 686 posts mentioning the hashtag, not all from Australian users and some visibly the result of a hashtag hijacking by a self-loving attention-seeking user.

Why did the #Magnum5kisses hashtag fail to catch on during the campaign?

Critically, this ad was never designed with the intent to trigger a social conversation and engage the audience in the first place.

As it happens, the hashtag seen in the Australian versions of the ad was most likely introduced in post-production locally. You can check the original TVC produced by Spanish agency Lola below– no hashtag in sight.

The ad is also not word-of-mouth worthy – a new ice cream range is hardly riveting stuff or breaking new grounds; the ad doesn’t feature anyone famous and isn’t funny. All in all, it isn’t designed to be viral (unlike the excellent 2013 #DancePonyDance ad for UK mobile network Three).

Simply, unless you give your audience a compelling reason to participate in your hashtag conversation, they just won’t.

For recent best-in class examples, I settled on this year’s Super Bowl TV ads. The clear winner this year was Esurance with its #EsuranceSave30 campaign.

The insurer prides itself in being “built to save”. True to its brand mission, it went on to save US$1.5M (i.e. 30%) by strategically booking the first TV spot after the end of the game. Naturally, it wanted all Americans to know about it and made sure of it by offering to give it all back to one lucky winner through a contest on Twitter. Entering the mega prize competition was as simple as posting a tweet (any tweet) with the campaign hashtag to be eligible. Not surprisingly, it became the most talked about brand of the game with 200, 000 entries in the first minute of the ad going on air and the hashtag trending as #1 worldwide shortly after.

Critical to the success of this campaign was the prize give-away – and what a prize that was – but most importantly the fact that the ad gave the audience a simple yet robust reason to participate.

With all of this in mind – should hashtags be banned from TV ads?

Clearly not. As seen with Esurance and other successful case studies, they can be one of the key enablers of a campaign success.

Also, with social TV participation on the rise in Australia, this represents a great opportunity for brands to engage with their audience in new and interesting ways, and generate much-needed brand love – that is as long as it is done effectively.

Perhaps, instead, TV networks could help champion best practice by rejecting TV ads every time they fail to use hashtags correctly. Just a thought.

Cecile Ferre is a digital marketing consultant. Passionate about digital marketing, she writes about its development and future direction. You can follow her via email at or on Twitter at @digitalfabriq .

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