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When a selfie becomes an endorsement

It had all the appearances of a serendipitous selfie.

The photo that Red Sox hitter David Ortiz took of himself with President Obama Tuesday quickly ricocheted around the Web, only to be exposed nearly as quickly as a marketing ploy set in motion by Samsung. It turns out the electronics giant had contracted with the slugger to be a social media ambassador.

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Ortiz on Wednesday expressly denied that Samsung put him up to the photo. But his remarks about getting the photo, in which he exclaimed, “Yeah baby, cha-ching,” probably summed up the moment better than Ortiz had intended.

The Ortiz-Obama selfie is just the latest example of how marketers are finding new and creative ways to use social media to promote their products, typically using celebrities such as sports stars and actors and then relying on the public to distribute their message by sharing on Twitter, Facebook, and other channels.

The episode — at a White House ceremony to celebrate the Red Sox World Series win — also raised a host of questions and doubts: When is a social media moment also an advertising event? Are the celebrities genuinely excited or motivated by money? Should people be wary that every celebrity selfie is an endorsement of some kind of another? It’s often hard to tell, especially as celebrities and sports stars are sending countless tweets to legions of fans.

Obama certainly wasn’t clued in to the Samsung angle when Ortiz snapped the selfie.

“He did not know,” said Jay Carney, White House press secretary, when asked Wednesday whether the president was aware Ortiz had the promotional deal.

‘Samsung took it to a new level.’

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While Ortiz’s marketing agent acknowledged Samsung encouraged the slugger to take photos with his Galaxy Note 3 phone when the Red Sox visited the White House, Ortiz said the idea of the selfie with Obama was his alone.

“That was one of those things that just happened,” Ortiz told the Globe. “I gave him the jersey, and the photographers were going to take their pictures and I thought, really at the last second, maybe I should snap a shot with my phone while I have the chance. It had nothing to do with no deals.”

Even so, as a piece of brand promotion, it was an astounding success — for Samsung and Ortiz alike. Ortiz’s selfie was retweeted more than 40,000 times after he posted it on his account.

And of course Samsung posted it on its own account, which has more than 5 million followers.

“Samsung took it to a new level. They said they were going to leverage the most popular guy in baseball and the leader of the free world. You can’t do better than that,” said Mike Lewis, who is the author of “Stand out Social Marketing.”

“The whole selfie thing has taken on a massive life of its own,” Lewis said, “especially when you get a guy like Ortiz doing it with Obama.”

As huge as it was, the Ortiz-Obama selfie isn’t Samsung’s biggest celebrity social media moment. That came when talk show host Ellen DeGeneres posted a star-studded selfie when she was hosting the Oscars in March. The most retweeted photo in Twitter’s short history, it was also the result of a product placement deal that Samsung inked with ABC, which broadcast the Oscars.

As for Ortiz, Samsung apparently didn’t have to do too much heavy lifting to get him on board. The tech-savvy Ortiz was already a social-media butterfly, with 635,000 Twitter followers, and agreed to be a Samsung ambassador during spring training.

His job is to use the Galaxy phone to take candid photos of the Red Sox. In the dugout, for example, or other interesting places. Like the White House.

“When we heard about the visit to the White House, we worked with David Ortiz and the team on how to share images with fans. We didn’t know if or what he would be able to capture,” Samsung said in a statement. “Similar to the selfie Ellen was able to capture during the Oscars, this was an opportunity for David to share the incredible moment with his fans.”

It’s not just the Samsungs of the world that have come to depend on these new type of brand moments. Social media have become an indispensable part of celebrities keeping their name in lights.

The actress Jessica Alba had a similar deal with Microsoft to talk about their Windows smartphone, while Toronto Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista’s deal with New Balance includes using social media to promote the brand.

“It’s the norm,” said Alex Radetsky, the marketing agent for Ortiz and the president of Radegen Sports Management in New York. “So many endorsement deals now include social media activation.”

But Radetsky said that doesn’t mean Ortiz and other celebrities can just take to Twitter and shill for companies and their products.

“It’s got to be authentic or the player or celebrity looks silly,” he said.

If anyone notices that they’re shilling at all.

“It can be murky,” acknowledged Jamie Tedford, chief executive of Brand Networks, a Boston social media marketing firm. “There’s less transparency in the world of endorsements.”

When an athlete endorses a sneaker in a TV commercial, it’s clear he or she is promoting the product and its maker, Tedford said.

In social media, it’s not so obvious.

“It’s clear that as an industry, we are struggling with how to define the new role of paid endorsements”, said Tedford.

The Ortiz photo, Tedford added, “raises all the interesting questions about how brands are connected with celebrities, and how they are looking to be more effective social media marketers, and trying new things, and pushing the envelope.”

And as for the “cha-ching” quip, Ortiz later said the phrase is commonly used among Red Sox players as slang for, “Got it!”

But as Ortiz himself may have learned, in the evolving world of social media “cha-ching” can have another meaning entirely.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael. farrell @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMBFarrell.
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