"Should I say 'I like this brand of water' or should I say 'This is my company'?" countered former Spice Girl and now TV host Mel B, when asked by moderator Martin Clarke, publisher, MailOnline, on whether celebrities need to declare if any of their tweets are sponsored.
The British celebrity with almost 8 lakh followers on twitter was referring to a brand of water she markets - and obviously promotes.
The exchange was part of a celebrity-studded session on 16 June, the first day of the International Festival of Creativity, Cannes. Other panelists at the discussion on 'Celebrities and the media' were comedian and TV host Nick Cannon (4.3 mn twitter followers) and author, magazine publisher and TV personality Martha Stewart (2.8 mn on twitter, 6 lakh facebook fans).
Authenticity on social media
Clarke put forth a question on celebrities declaring their commercial interest when promoting a brand on social media, on the lines of media organisations declaring sponsored content like advertorials. Citing that regulations are in the works, he asked celebrities on stage for their take.
Responding, Stewart said, "It's got out of hand. Any rulings won't help. You have to be yourself (on social media). I recommend a lot of things - I don't get paid for them. If it's a brand I'm partnering, that's pretty clear and transparent."
Clarke pushed on, asking if there was a need to declare the interest, in the interest of an audience that may not be aware of it.
Cannon explained that often, it is brands that are part of a celebrity's life that gets tweeted about and not brands that are paying for his or her endorsement on social media. He cited the example of Disneyland, where he got remarried - and paid for it - which he tweeted about extensively.
"It's an extension of who we are. Sometimes it's a sponsored tweet - that's no different from doing a commercial. Sometimes it's a relationship that makes you tweet about something. Sometimes it's just what you feel," added Cannon.
The celebrities concurred that followers on social media can see through whether something posted by a celebrity is genuine, or if s/he has been paid to post something. The argument being: 'You wouldn't endorse something if you didn't believe in it'.
Stewart, who confessed to being on twitter since the time it started, said, "It's very important to be authentic. Fans really care about authenticity. Fans also find out if someone else is doing your social media updates."
She cited online surveys she has been able to do for the brand, with instant feedback, thanks to nurturing the fan base with genuine interactions.
Cannon concurred, "You have to handle your own social media. We're all busy, but we're all also addicted to this. If you're at the airport or out somewhere, you're on twitter or instagram or facebook because it's fun. And it's all about authenticity. If you hide behind a person or company that's handling it for you, the fans will say, 'He's so standoff-ish that he can't even type on his own phone'."
He made the case for viewing social media feeds of celebrities as an extension of themselves, and said, "The beauty is, you get to operate in business and in social life together. You'd say 'I loved the restaurant' to your friends anyways."
On fans' awareness, he added, "No one wants to be sold to, and they'll find out if you don't mean it. The feedback is instant."
'Power away from the paparazzi'
The relationship between celebrities and the paparazzi has changed, noted Mel B and Nick Cannon, with the advent of social media. The power equation has shifted, they said.
When Cannon and wife singer Mariah Carey had their child, Cannon recounted that a number of magazines that made offers for the first pictures of the baby. The couple chose to put up the pictures online instead, with regular updates, and any revenues earned were routed to charity.
"We've taken the power away from the paparazzi. Five years ago, they chased us all over, they were lined up outside the house. I see that coming down now that we've said 'All the pictures are online'," he quipped.
Mel B and Cannon surmised that it used to be about the 'privacy' prior - now it's about 'control'.
Don't judge people online
Asked about celebrities that the ones on stage were 'jealous' about, because of their social media presence, Mel B named singer Rihanna, someone she described as 'a bit racy and crazy'. That brought the focus to online behavious and do's and don't's.
Said Cannon, "A lot of young celebrities are just growing up. We can't judge them on the basis of what we see online; they're growing up before us."
Mel B added in agreement, "If we had social media 15 years ago, a lot of people would be in a lot of trouble."
Dealing with the 'obnoxious'
On the subject of online bullying and twitter feuds, Stewart ceded that some of the tweets were 'obnoxious', but explained her approach: to ignore them.
Mel B noted that she would look at the content, and say: 'You've taken to call me this, this, this and this. Shame on you'.
Cannon, who admitted to getting into 'twitter feuds' with a lot of people including other celebrities, said, "I've grown up as a twitter user. You sometimes realise after a long feud that you're arguing with a 13 year-old!"
He signed off underlining the importance of social media in the entertainment business, with examples of TV actors being chosen for large shows on the basis of their social media following.