If you’re in the Alberta Twitterverse, you’ve probably already seen the hashflags. It’s a cute little “vote” emoji that pops up beside any tweet hashtagged with #ableg, #abpoli and now #abvote. We’re less than a month away from a provincial election here in Alberta, and most of the discussion in these already popular threads has turned to tame, measured discussion.

Lol jk, as the kids say. This is probably going to be one of the uglier elections in Alberta history.

So let us instead concentrate on the cute little symbol that now pops up when you hashtag a political tweet. We see these brand-specific emojis on Twitter all the time. Where do they come from? And more importantly from a marketing perspective, do they work? Who is paying for them, if anyone?

Twitter Hashflags

The icons are properly called “hashflags.” Back in 2015, Twitter’s Brand Strategy team spoke to AdWeek about user excitement around special Star Wars emojis. That gave them the idea to create (and $ell, obviously) special emojis to brands like the World Cup and Coca-Cola. The Coke one got more than 175,000 mentions in the first 24 hours. That’s a big deal.

Twitter doesn’t only sell these emojis to brands. That would reduce the “cool” factor substantially. In order to better guarantee cache, it also creates its own hashflags for trending topics like, say, the Supermoon.

Mixing sponsored content with organic content so consumers aren’t being served a steady diet of paid advertising is an old formula. The purpose of it is to dilute the audience’s sensitivity to being sold something, lower their guard, and make them more susceptible to the sale. That’s the cynical view. You could also look at it like the organic content is the purpose, and the paid content is just there to foot the bill. Depends on what side of the equation you’re on, I guess.

What that means in the case of hashflag is some people are grouchy and cynical about them. They don’t like that Twitter (aka The Man) decides what is important enough to deserve an organic hashflag. You can see how people might be perturbed that the Pope’s visit to the US warranted a hashflag, for example.

Some don’t like how hashflags, organic or paid, can change the meaning of a tweet. Say you’re talking about a new #FaceMask, ie: the beauty product. What will pop up is the NFL-branded #FaceMask the football penalty.

Emojis Are, Well, Cute

From a marketing perspective, these little icons are genius. Twitter has tapped into something really smart. People like to feel included and these are visual symbols of inclusion.

People are basically delighted when we hashtag something so trendy that a cute image automatically pops up beside whatever we’re talking about. It’s social proof of relevance. We like that.

What we may not realize is whether the adorable little emoji is paid for by a brand, or just one Twitter has added to the roster because it’s current.

We may be able to use our baseline level of media literacy to guess. The NFL has buckets of money. Stadiums full of money. They can pay for their hashflag campaigns, so if you tag something with one of theirs, you’re technically shilling for a brand. If you’re a football fan, you might be OK with that.

I’m personally quite curious if the Catholic Church paid for the Pope’s visit hashflag, or if Twitter decided to promote that on its own. It’s kind of hard to assess that one.

Which brings us to the #ableg, #abpoli and #abvotes hashflags. Most recent elections do have hashflags. We know Twitter made the emojis for the US presidential election, and in Canada they’ve added these as part of their roster of current hashflags.

I’m just curious to know if they’re increasing voter turnout, or just engagement on Twitter.