On Super Bowl Sunday, somewhere between #SuperBowl and #JoeNamath, #adbowl began trending on Twitter.
Instead of cynical jabs mocking the proliferation of consumerism during the big game, tweets bearing the tag centered mainly on praising innovative commercials. Tags for Bud Light and TurboTax were also trending at the same time.
Where it was once used as a means of collecting conversations to stimulate discussion, advertisers have co-opted the humble hashtag as a means of marketing to consumers while creating the illusion of engagement.
To put it more bluntly, the same tool that allowed Egyptian protesters to make their voices heard on social media has been seized by Axe Body Spray to convince us to purchase cannisters of douche fumes in the name of world peace.
And yet, who can blame advertisers for tapping into the memetic culture created by social media?
Although the hashtag was conceived as a sort of Dewey decimal system for organizing online exchanges, it has taken the form of a million of those class clowns who would yell observations at movies in middle school .
When mere participation in mass culture equates to generating mass culture, we should not be surprised when the modern audience takes delight in voicing its mundane opinions on Coca-Cola.
But we can use hashtags to empower our public voice instead of idly submitting to ad executives’ whims or rehashing memes.
Take the trouncing JPMorgan Chase & Co. took at the hands of clever Twitter users last fall, for example. When the banking giant set up an “Ask JPMorgan” event as a publicity stunt for Vice Chairman Jimmy Lee to field some softball questions via the tag #AskJPM, the public refused to debase themselves.
Users accosted Lee with a barrage of biting, humorous questions about the firm’s practices, including their history of incurring government fines. JPMorgan quickly cancelled the event.
On a different level, the tag #INeedFeminism allows feminists to send inspiring messages to others feeling lost in a society which tolerates rape culture and other forms of misogyny.
Of course, the public nature of hashtags means childish idiots occasionally hijack the conversation in order spew hateful garbage.
But when the discussion stirs up enough controversy to incite such vile opposition, it proves it means more than some asinine channel intended for people to chime in about how much they love Chrysler.
As the hashtag permeates more social media outlets — Facebook and YouTube both recently readjusted their interfaces to include tags — consumers must choose whether or not to play into advertisers’ schemes.
The next time you see a commercial with a hashtag in the corner beckoning you to pen a 140-character ode to Budweiser, remember the public should not be coerced into thinking a subject merits discussion.
We must reclaim the hashtag before we wind up #screwed.