Ellen DeGeneres

Samsung's Oscar ads? $20 million. Ellen's selfie? Priceless

March 4, 2014: 7:57 AM ET

How ABC, Twitter and Samsung stage-managed the world's most re-tweeted snapshot.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

FORTUNE -- The photo had everything. Lights. Action. That sparkle of spontaneity. And subjects who really know how to smile for a camera.

But the moment that turned into the world's most-retweeted post -- 3.1 million and counting -- wasn't 100% spontaneous. Rather, it was the fortuitous product of a carefully planned multimillion-dollar business arrangement that served the mutual interests of a Korean smartphone manufacturer, a social media powerhouse, a U.S. television network with a temporary global reach of 43 million viewers, and the biggest stars in Hollywood, for whom TV face-time is money.

Among the deal's moving parts:

  • Samsung paid ABC roughly $18 million for 5 minutes worth of prime-time ads plus unspecified consideration for product placement throughout the broadcast, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • According to Ad Age, Samsung also sponsored 10 tweets featuring celebrity "selfies" taken from the green room and sent via the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
  • Twitter was paid to promote the selfies through its Twitter Amplify program, which gives preferential treatment to tweets posted by paying clients. (Full disclosure: According to Twitter, Time Inc., which publishes this blog, is one of those clients.)

And that spontaneous moment? SlashGear's Chris Burns transcribed the opening dialogue between host Ellen DeGeneres and best-actress nominee Meryl Streep:

DeGeneres: Meryl, here's my idea, ok, so you were nominated -- it's a record-breaking 18 times, right? So I thought we would try to break another record right now with the most re-tweets of a photo. So right now I'm going to take a picture of us, and we'll see if we can break the record for the most retweets -

Streep: Get her in -- *points to Julia Roberts*

What followed, for what it's worth, made Twitter history.  "It was a great plug for the Samsung brand," WPP branding expert Allen Adamson told the Journal. "Ellen's selfie is going to be more impactful than their commercials. You can't buy that magic of going viral."

Lest anyone be left with the impression that the photo was less than spontaneous, Samsung ponied up another $3 million and issued the following statement:

"While we were a sponsor of the Oscars and had an integration with ABC, we were delighted to see Ellen organically incorporate the device into the selfie moment that had everyone talking. A great surprise for everyone, she captured something that nobody expected. In honor of this epic moment and of course, the incredible response of nearly 3 million re tweets, we wanted to make a donation to Ellen's charities of choice: St Jude's and the Humane Society [of the United States]. Samsung will donate 1.5 million dollars to each charity."

IRONIC FOOTNOTE -- AND GRATUITOUS APPLE (AAPL) ANGLE: The millions Samsung paid ABC goes into the coffers of the Walt Disney Co. (DIS), whose largest shareholder is Laurene Powell Jobs. Steve Jobs' widow is one of richest women in the world -- No. 73 on this week's list of billionaires -- on the strength of the Disney shares she inherited from Samsung's arch enemy in the smartphone wars.

SEE ALSO: Ellen DeGeneres' Oscar tweet count: Android 5, Apple 4

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