Welcome to our weekly column, “Is This an Ad?,” in which we strap on our reportin’ hat (it is NOT a fedora, please stop imagining that) and aim to figure out what the heck is going on in the confusing world of celebrity social media endorsements. Because even though the FTC recently came out with rules on this, sometimes when celebrities post about a product or brand on social media, it’s not immediately clear if they are being paid to post about it, got a freebie, just love it, or what.
Jonathan Cheban is a former publicist, current entrepreneur, bon vivant, internet troll, and, perhaps most famously, Kim Kardashian’s best friend. Martha Stewart does not know who he is.
In his current career incarnation (Cheban is quick to point out that he hasn’t done PR in years, and now owns between 5-10 companies, depending what month you ask him), he has some sort of relationship (perhaps partial owner?) with a burger joint on Long Island and a lifestyle website called TheDishh.com.
Perhaps because of these new business developments, he’s taken a turn to positioning himself as some sort of culinary expert, referring to himself as the “Foodgōd.” The bar over the “o” is called a macron, and it means the word should be pronounced “foodgoad”.
(I have a theory of how this came about: starting maybe two years ago, Cheban began experimenting with a fairly typical Instagram ploy to gain followers: reposting like-bait photos of decadent desserts or other foods. These were photos he found elsewhere and would caption things like “mmm yum!” or about how much he wanted to eat it. He still does some of this sort of stuff, like a recent post where he posted a photo of an ice cream cotton-candy hybrid with the caption, “I need to try this cotton candy ice cream cone immediately ...xx Foodgōd.”)
But we’re not here to talk about ice-cream cotton candy. We’re here to talk about Cheban’s recent post about eating Burger King’s new menu item, the Whopperito.
The Whopperito is fairly straightforward: it’s Whopper filling (with spicer meat), in a burrito tortilla instead of a bun. Nick Gazin, a Vice reporter who recently ate three of these for a review, wrote: “It is my belief that this Whopperito was made to cater to the Jackass generation who want to do gross things on Instagram to show off. I don't think this was an earnest food invention. I think this is stunt-burgerism created to get press and hashtags.”
So, the obvious thing here is that Mr. Cheban used the hashtag #thekingpaidmetodoit. That seems like, obvs it’s an ad, right? I mean, he’s saying it right there. OR IS HE?
Here’s the weird part: if you search that hashtag, two posts show up. The other is from 3 weeks before Jonathan's, from a young fashion and lifestyle blogger named Ria Michelle (I reached out to her to ask if she could confirm she was paid; I did not hear back). The best theory here is that a digital marketing agency convinced Burger King to pay social influencers to post about the Whopperito using the cheeky and winking tag #thekingpaidmetodoit (so transgressive and ironic, right?) And yet... they only found 2 people to actually use the tag? Sounds like some ad buyer somewhere has some explaining to do.
There’s something more mysterious about the fact that only two people used the tag – it confuses the obvious narrative that this is clearly a paid ad. Was this just a huge failure, or is there something else going on?
Here’s how celebrity endorsements work: companies want someone who will ~align with their brand’s message~. Even if consumers know it’s an ad, that’s ok, it still has to be someone who makes sense. When we see Matthew McConaughey monologuing to a cow in a TV ad for Lincoln cars, we know it’s he’s getting paid, but isn’t there something about it where you’re like “yeah, I could totally imagine he’d drive a Lincoln”? There’s a good brand alignment there.
Cheban’s recent personal branding as “foodgoad” is relevant here: He’s worked to establish himself as an influencer in the world of viral, unhealthy food. Remember what Vice said about the Whopperito, how it was just a social media stunt food? Well, what better way to align a product that is purely a vapid, frivolous trend food designed only to appeal to society’s lowest denominator than with Jonathan Cheban? It’s simply good brand alignment.
Believe it or not, we couldn’t verify this. BuzzFeed News reached out to Burger King to confirm if this was a paid endorsement, and they refused to comment on it. Which…. is not a good look for them, since according to the FTC’s point of view, it’s the responsibility of the brand to be crystal-clear about paid social media endorsements.
So then we tried to ask Cheban. I’m already blocked by him for posting about how he is rude to fans on social media, so fellow BuzzFeed reporter Jess Misener asked:
Cheban didn’t reply, and promptly blocked Jess on Twitter.
WHAT ARE YOU HIDING, JONATHAN?
Since both Cheban and Burger King were stonewalling me, I went to some experts in the field of celebrity endorsements to find out their opinions on this.
According to Stefania Pomponi, founder and president of the Clever Girls influencer marketing agency:
I am 99.9% positive Jonathan Cheban's Whopperito post is a paid sponsorship. He is being coy about disclosing his paid endorsement, which is in direct violation of FTC guidelines which state that standardized hashtags like #ad or #sponsored be used. The guidelines further explain that disclosure hashtags must have a clear meaning to the audience (meaning the audience shouldn't have to guess if a post is sponsored) and hashtags can't be abbreviated (e.g. #sp instead of #sponsored). If Cheban wants to be in compliance, he needs to make sure his disclosures … are clearly and easily understood by his audience.
Lucas Brockner, associate director of partnerships and business development at the social media agency Attention:
While nobody loves seeing the #ad, #sponsored or the somewhat sneaky #sp, it’s part of the FTC guidelines and something we ask all influencers to include in posts. To no surprise, influencers don’t like putting this in their posts as it can result in negative backlash from their audiences. As a result and as seen in this example, you’re starting to see more clever ways that influencers are disclosing that they were paid for these types of social promotions. Of course, the more authentic the partnership, the more creative you can be. For example, the idea of using the language "in partnership with" has become a favored term amongst influencers/celebrities and brands when it’s an ongoing content series versus a one-off endorsement.
Dear readers, I have failed you here. Some secrets are too deep, too dangerous, too guarded by the forces of power and money to ever be revealed. Whether or not Jonathan Cheban ate that god-awful meat tube for fun or profit is one of those secrets.