Celebrities pitching products and services is old news. From actors, to rock stars, to athletes, celebrities have always been used to influence consumers. Now, a new breed of celebrity is teaming up with brands to influence the marketplace: The social media celebrity.


There’s a slight difference in the way marketers do business with social media influencers. Rather than hiring influencers to appear in ads — the way an agency would a traditional celebrity for a commercial or a magazine ad — brands are hiring the influencers to create ad campaigns and promote them on their social media accounts, such as Vine, YouTube, and Instagram.


Weber Shandwick recently partnered with Niche, a company that pairs brands with social media influencers who have large fanbases. By tapping into the Niche influencer database, Weber Shandwick and other firms can identify thousands of social media influencers to partner with to create brand campaigns. Those campaigns, of course, are viewed by the influencers’ millions of followers. We’ve seen a host of these influencers land multi-million dollar deals with brands.


The above video features Robby Ayala’s Vine campaign for Dick’s Sporting Goods. As you can see from his caption, Ayala encourages his more than three million Vine followers to follow Dick’s Sporting Goods on Twitter for a chance to win a GoPro.


So, what’s wrong with that?


Vine logo

Vine has more than 40 million active users, and Vines are watched by more than 100 million users every day. Reachpod.com

The ethical dilemma has to do with the platforms on which the campaigns are taking place. Those of us in public relations and communications view social networks as low-cost platforms to communicate messages to the public about our clients, but the average person views social networks as free platforms where people share and engage with content. Bloggers and other influencers gained popularity by sharing interesting content, which helped them forge relationships with fans. Now that the influencers are being influenced, those relationships are being manufactured.


In a traditional advertising campaign, the receiver of an ad understands they’re being sold to, but a subscriber who logs on to YouTube to watch his or her favorite celebrity play a video game does not. This is especially true when the subscriber or fan is a child. Conversely, a child also doesn’t understand that they’re being sold to when they watch a commercial on the Disney Channel, and few are arguing about the decency of this marketing tactic.


Like it or not, paid influencers are the new celebrity brand ambassadors, the Michael Jordans and Peyton Mannings of social media. What makes influencers unique is that they create the campaigns, unlike traditional celebrities who read their scripts and show up on time. This makes the influencers the creators, rather than simple messengers. For those who question the ethics of these arrangements, there lies the most important distinction. Still, it begs the question: Who’s influencing whom?


What do you think of brands partnering with social media influencers? Would you stop following a social media celebrity if you found out they were being paid to pitch products? Leave your insights in the comments section, or tweet me @nataliepetitto.