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Mullins: For better or worse, business embraces ‘selfies’

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Published:   |   Updated: September 1, 2013 at 03:55 PM

Earlier this year, the Westfield mall company offered its Australian shoppers a contest. Post photos of yourself in fashions you just bought, and you might win a trip to Paris.

One could almost hear the Internet whimper under the strain of millions of young ladies uploading all at once.

Such is the blossoming marketing strategy of retailers trying to harness the cultural hyper-trend of the “selfie,” the oft-akward, one-handed self-portrait via smartphone. Some examples:

◆ The hip be-bop style retailer ModCloth has an online gallery devoted to letting customers upload selfies of them in their new outfits — and the system is fully integrated with the ModCloth inventory, so your friends can buy “that” outfit you just posted, and re-post all about it on Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter.

◆ Jamba Juice is encouraging customers to snap quick self-shots while slurping away on a straw and post the pics to Instagram for a shot at a gift card.

◆ The spectacularly popular and gruesome AMC drama “Walking Dead” created a smartphone app that lets viewers “zombify” photos of themselves. Sound silly? Well, the app’s been downloaded 4.5 million times, with 11 million photos taken.

◆ In what Advertising Age deftly termed a corporate social responsibility “twist,” Johnson & Johnson is asking consumers to share a “Selfless Selfie” via the J&J donation app. Each photo triggers a donation from J&J to a particular cause.

◆ The radio station Q102 (“All the Hits for Philadelphia”) has an ongoing “Summer Selfie” promotion in which listeners can post sun-baked selfies on the station’s website — drinking encouraged. To quote: “Q102, along with our partners at Miller Lite and The Bamboo Bar, want to put $1,000 in summer cash in your pocket just for sending us your SUMMER SELFIE!”

A mere 10 seconds of searching online reveals a torrent of brand selfie social media mashups. For instance, there’s Giuliana Rancic getting ready for her appearance on HSN last week, snapping a selfie of her wardrobe choice: “Going with the Bordeaux. Launching my new #gbygiuliana blazer in 5 minutes on HSN.” Then there’s @JennyDeVaughn, the Twitter title of “Sr. Director of Brand” at @RandstadSR, snapping a selfie in front of the Coors trailer at a Nascar race.

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All this rush to encourage us to take self-portraits and post them all over the social media universe may be enough to give parents heart palpitations, particularly if they are raising girls. There’s already enough raw material for embarrassment and bully/shaming out there, not to mention the inevitable Google searches done by hiring managers down the line. Is the thrill of posting pics of your new skirt on Instagram/Pinterest/Vine/Tumblr really worth the exposure?

But alas, marketers and teenagers have a common thrill in selfies — the former for revenue, the latter for fame. One UK survey found a full three-quarters of 18- to 24-year-olds have taken selfies.

We saw the first embers of this trend a couple of years ago when “Haul Videos” started popping up on Youtube, with tech-media savvy young ladies diligently explaining to their laptop cameras about every detail of every purchase they just made at the mall. It was a novel genre that blended elements of a video one might make for State Farm to document home possessions with a kind of “I’m richer than you, and look at my new clothes” envy generator. “I just got this HOT new skirt at Forever 21, so take that Tracey Bradock, you boyfriend stealer!”

Grown-up selfies could hardly be more different, and they fall into two groups — the Great, and the Regrettable.

Fox Sports Florida’s own Kelly Nash became a viral sensation around the world when she stood in the outfield stands in Boston and managed to unknowingly take a selfie photo at the second that a fly ball from the batter zipped just a few inches past her head. Her TV camera smile juxtaposed with the near-lethal projectile provided all the raw material the Intertubes needed for a viral hit.

Then there are the horrid mistakes, kicked off with Anthony Weiner, who became an incarnated punchline after his self-portrait anatomy pics rocketed into a first-class political scandal. Not long after, Geraldo Rivera’s cocktail hour got the better of him, and he posted a near-naked selfie of his 70-year-old-yet-sculpted torso. Boom, viral.

For retailers, handing over such control to the great masses of the world’s teens is a big leap. Many have spent decades finely honing their brand ethos to a distinct, irreplaceable and trademark/copyright-protected asset. Despite the $5 knockoffs out there, just try selling a Louis Vuitton purse outside International Plaza without LV’s permission.

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But with such raw and abundant techno-sociological horsepower behind the selfie, it’s no wonder retailers are trying to harness it and turn it into revenue. Facebook bought Instagram for more than a billion dollars, and Yahoo did the same with Tumblr — and not for the sterling prose and wits of their posting members, I’m guessing.

Meanwhile, more brands are embracing the hyper-short attention span medium of Vine (it’s like Instagram, but with six-second videos instead of still photos), and some video directors are charging $10,000 to create micro-videos that tell snippets of a company’s brand identity story.

For you grammar fanatics out there, the Oxford English Dictionary just last week enshrined “selfie” as a legitimate English word in the online edition, along with “phablet,” “geek chic,” “fauxhawk,” and “jorts” (jeans + shorts).

Perhaps one day the commercialized selfie will fade from popularity and become as quaint as playing Dungeons & Dragons on an actual board game. But that would be a bet against people’s affinity for their own self-portraits, and the corporate desire for ever greater revenue.

Other retail, restaurant and trend news around town:

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Forget “Quantitative Easing,” the Tooth Fairy is growing profligate as well. VISA this week released data showing the dental care apparition is leaving an average of $3.70 per tooth under the pillow. That’s up 42 percent from 2011, meaning a set of 20 baby teeth is generating $74. A full 10 percent of kids get more than $5 per tooth. Only 36 percent of those surveyed found the Tooth Fairy was leaving less than a dollar, while six percent were leaving $20 or more per tooth.

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As the next iPhone is set to launch soon, any day now, any second now, (right?), Apple rival and online retailing giant Amazon would like to remind the world that it doesn’t just sell electronic gadgets along with everything else. It buys them, too. Amazon has a relatively little-known trade-in program that buys iPhones, tablets, high-end headphones and the like, claiming some 16GM i-Phone 5s on the AT&T system command as much as $418. That’s assuming you’ve paid off the phone through your calling plan and own it outright. The big catch: It’s not cash that Amazon’s handing out. It’s cash in the form of an Amazon gift card. Oh, and it also buys back books — handily sorted online in a list that shows your recent purchases — from them.

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Ever since fashion icon/demigod Anna Wintour shut down the annual Fashion’s Night Out event around the country, malls have been putting together their own party plans to reclaim the hugely popular evening event. International Plaza will have events around Tampa’s Fashion Week. And now the mall giant Simon Property Group is launching its own “Girl’s Night Out.” (To be grammatically correct, wouldn’t it be Girls’ Night Out?) But anyway, here are the details. On September 12, the Gulf View Square mall will stay open late and host parties from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., complete with runway shows, free food and giveaways like goodie bags for the first 250 women.

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If you’re a fan of the new AT&T commercials where the stone-faced comic Beck Bennett chats with school kids (and if you’re not a fan, what’s wrong with you?) then you’ll be happy to hear that he’s joining the cast of Saturday Night Live, rightly known as perhaps the plumbest spot in American comedy that doesn’t stand in Louis C.K.’s shoes. Hopefully for AT&T’s sake, Bennett will keep doing cellphone ads. The marketing and social media research firm BlueFin Labs have consistently ranked his ads as among the most talked about, at one point in January finding that 16 percent of the tweets about the phrase “It’s not complicated” included the word “love.” Awww, that’s as cute as an eager first-grader.

rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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