Topic 4: Social Media, Businesses and Ethics

Social media is a great tool for businesses.  Not only can they communicate with customers on an accessible (and increasingly popular) platform, but they can promote products and services to a massive audience – Twitter alone has over 270 million active users.[1]

When it comes to advertising, Twitter is also key to a successful campaign.  There’s now even the term ‘reactervising’: when businesses react to live events with adverts.  A famous example of this was the Super Bowl blackout.  You can read more about that here. [2] 

But when does advertising on social media become unethical? When does ‘hijacking’ of hashtags go wrong?

Though I won’t be focusing on privacy in this post, this also raises the question of whether advertising on social media is ever ethical (specifically with regards to targeted advertisements). If you’re interested in digital privacy, watch this TED Talk.

This week, I looked to see which companies would ‘hijack’ the #eclipse2015 on Twitter to promote their brand, rather than contribute to the discussion of the eclipse. Below is a handful that stood out (with BMW’s perhaps being the least subtle).



Kopparberg UK:


Oreo Cookie, however, launched their own hashtag: #oreoeclipse.  This was also successful, and arguably more ‘ethical’ since it didn’t ‘piggyback’ an existing hashtag trend:

Though the above examples are not offensive, John Oliver collects a number of inappropriate and unethical uses of corporations ‘hijacking’ hashtags.  In fact, he argues that corporations on Twitter are entirely inappropriate, comparing them to uninvited guests at a cocktail party.  This raises an interesting point on whether businesses abuse Twitter’s status as ‘a platform of communication’.[3]

Click image to view the video

Click image to view video

John Oliver shames corporations for their unethical approach to meaningful hashtags. However,  a recent BBC podcast argues  big corporations ‘can’t feel guilt’ when they publicly shamed online.  Instead, they have a ‘soft underbelly’ to shame, purely because they care about their ‘reputation’. [4]  This makes them different to individuals like Jamie Stone, who as a result of being publicly shamed online became ‘racked by PTSD, depression and insomnia’.[5]

Twitter has ‘given a megaphone to people who enjoy shouting’ [3] but this megaphone has also been given to businesses and corporations, who don’t feel the same effects of shame. It would be harmful for businesses to avoid social media altogether, as I explained in the introduction, but they tread a thin line between ethical and unethical when hijacking hashtags.




[1] Team Caffeine, ’10 Remarkable Twitter Statistics for 2015′,

[2] Nat Ives and Rupal Parekh, ‘Marketers Jump on Super Bowl Blackout with Real-Time Twitter Campaigns’,

[3] ‘Twitter Abuse: Easy on the Messenger’,

[4] ‘Shame with Jon Ronson’, BBC,

[5] Jon Ronson, ‘How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life’,

[383 words, excluding quotes and references]


8 thoughts on “Topic 4: Social Media, Businesses and Ethics

  1. leighravenhill says:

    Hi Sarah
    Engaging post – the use of current Twitter ‘trends’ makes this a up-to-date and entertaining read. This week I focused on celebrity endorsement on Twitter and the laws being put into place as a result of ethical breaches. I was wondering if you believe there should be some kind of ethical guidelines or laws put into place to prevent companies gaining business through ‘hashtag hijacking’? Not so long ago the ethical issues surrounding ‘hijacking’ came into question when Macmillan cancer charity ‘hijacked’ #icebucketchallenge which was intended to raise money for ALS Association. The understanding is that no one owns a hashtag and this article (1) explains that people have been using others’ ideas ‘since the dawn of time’ and ‘hijacking’ represents this idea in the digital age. You have made clear that there is a difference between individuals using hashtags and businesses using hashtags. Therefore, should there be a different set of ethical codes for each? Do you think there is a solution to the breach of ethics?


    • Sarah Kyle says:

      Hi Leigh,
      Thanks for your comment! I equally enjoyed reading your blog – I definitely agree that there are ethical breaches when it comes to celebrity endorsement on social media. Celebrities should not pose as consumers, if they are, in fact, selling a product or service .

      Companies using hashtags to promote their products, however, are not pretending to be consumers – so that’s not the issue. It’s when they are insensitively promoting products or their brand using trending hashtags, in order to reach a large audience, is when it crosses an ethical boundary. There are many examples in John Oliver’s video.

      However, I don’t know if there can be the same kind of guidelines as the ones placed upon celebrity endorsements – as you and the article mentioned: no one owns a hashtag. Anyone, for example, could hijack #UOSM2008. To impose guidelines on who can use hashtags, and when, could prevent businesses using Twitter entirely (as it effectively steals their ‘megaphone’ to shout).

      I think guidelines could also become legally complex – hashtags are used too widely, for multiple purposes, including breaking news, and even as you mentioned, charity campaigns. I can’t currently think of a solution to the breach of ethics – it’s a tough question! I’d be interested in hearing your ideas though 🙂

  2. nicoleodofin says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Your post was very insightful as it portrayed a side of social media that I was unaware of. Having read your post, I’m aware of many companies that ‘hijack’ societal changes/recent news to subliminally promote their brand. Oreo were definitely driving off the motto ‘go hard or go home’ as they even had a pull out in The Sun Newspaper just for the eclipse.

    Despite this, I think that this approach is something businesses have to do. As social media grows, us as users tend to get bored very quickly and are always anticipating something new. Therefore, businesses such as Oreo and BMW have to be creative and responsive to popular culture in order to grab our attention, promote their brand and essentially make profit.

    Do you think that businesses will ever stop doing this, or is the openness of the web just something we have to accept?

    • Sarah Kyle says:

      Hi Nicole,

      Thanks for your comment! Oreo are definitely masters of marketing and advertising 🙂

      I agree – businesses need to adapt their advertising and marketing techniques for their ever growing digital audience. I stumbled across a couple of sites this week which argue the 4 Ps (Product, Price, Place, Promotion) are dead because of social media. Instead, there are now the 4 Cs (Content, Communication, Conversations, Community, Connections).[1]

      I don’t think businesses will stop hijacking hashtags, and in a weird way I often hope they don’t – Lidl’s tweet about Zayn Malik leaving One Direction, for example, was very clever:

      It was also successful because it was essentially ‘reactervising’.

      However, I expect if tweets from companies are not creative like Lidl’s, or even humorous, they will become a) less effective and ‘white noise’ or b) twitter users may become less tolerant. Essentially, if businesses cross the ethical boundary by promoting products using serious hashtags (such as John Olivers #notguilty example in this week’s post) public online shaming of companies may increase, and become more damaging to a business’ reputation.


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