Internships.com paid Charlie Sheen to be a spokesman, but would rather you not call him that.
Wednesday afternoon, a paid copywriter inside of ad.ly, a Twitter ad network specializing in turning celebrity Twitter feeds into promotional vehicles, drafted a tweet for Charlie Sheen and passed it to Sheen's people, who sent it cryptically into the world:
The tweet points you to the news that more than 74,000 people applied to be Sheen's social media intern on a site called internships.com. It was a follow-up tweet to one ad.ly, again posing as Sheen, sent on Monday. That one said Sheen was "looking to hire a #winning intern," and people could apply for the job on internships.com, a year-old startup that hosts internship opportunities from more than 17,000 companies. 412,000 people clicked on the link in less than 48 hours (Sheen is the new Drudge!) and found an application for an 8-week, full-time, paid internship with "#TeamSheen." The application asked for a name, an e-mail, and a response to this prompt: "I should be the Social Media Intern because..." Naturally, answers had to be 75 characters or less.
It was the kind of publicity internships.com would pay for. Which is what it did, becoming the first company to willingly sponsor Charlie Sheen, #Winning edition. Just don't say it's also the first company to make an unemployed Sheen its spokesman. Its CEO wouldn't like that.
How this all came about: ad.ly, the company that also registered Sheen on Twitter, caught wind that #TeamSheen was looking for an intern. It approached Robin Richards, CEO of internships.com and longtime investor and stockholder in ad.ly, to see if his site wanted to turn it into a marketing opportunity. Any organization can post an internship listing for free on the site, but not every organization will tweet about it to 2.5 million people. "We decided, 'Hey, it's going to happen. We might as well absolutely deal with it in a way that will make our company proud.'"
And so internships.com became Charlie Sheen's first Twitter advertiser.
In exchange, Sheen's team followed through and put his internship listing on internships.com, tweeting about it soon after. Sheen will get perhaps as much as a hundred thousand dollars for doing so.
That money is coming from internships.com. Internships.com will only acknowledge that it entered into a "commercial arrangement" with ad.ly, the details of which Richards says he cannot reveal. But ad.ly confirmed that internships.com, like all of ad.ly's clients, paid ad.ly. Ad.ly then paid Sheen.
On an episode of Sheen's UStream show, Sheen's associate appears to say that the deal with "interns.com" -- sponsorship does not ensure accuracy, apparently -- would net Sheen "six figures." All for a couple tweets. (Ad.ly, citing company policy to not discuss the financial details of its business deals, declined to comment on the size of Sheen's payment.)
Traditionally, when a celebrity pimps a product in exchange for money, we call him a spokesman. But Richards, apparently uncomfortable with the idea of an abusive coke addict representing his company, disagrees. "Sheen is not a spokesman for internships.com ," Richards says -- emphasis his.
Well, then what is he? "I would describe his relationship to the company as a company that placed an internship on our site, and brought more volume from college students, and brought more volume from around the world, than ever in history on the social network," he says.
Of course, internships.com doesn't necessarily pay the other companies who leave listings on the site to also run ads promoting it.
Richards seems to think he and his company are immune to Sheen's taint because he's not actually in bed with the actor. He's in bed with ad.ly. "My commercial arrangement, Chad, my commercial arrangement is with ad.ly. 100 percent. My contracts are with ad.ly 100 percent. I have no interaction with Team Sheen on these issues. I deal with ad.ly." Richards would have us believe internships.com is similar to the handful of other companies, including McDonald's, Ford, and Infiniti, that have tried to capitalize on the Sheen meme. (The Atlantic has been especially vigilant at keeping track of the profiteers.)
It's an intriguing bit of cognitive dissonance. But just because there's a middle man doesn't mean the principal figures don't have a relationship. It'd be like CBS saying it wasn't paying David Letterman, because it's actually in a commercial arrangement with Worldwide Pants, his production company. Yet somehow, David Letterman still manages to pay rent every month.
To the 2.5 million people who follow Sheen on Twitter, meanwhile, there is little evidence of the middle man. Only a small "via ad.ly network" tag at the bottom of a tweet. Far more evident is the link between internships.com and Sheen, a company and its paid spokesman. Or "commercially arranged" non-spokesman. Whatever you want to call him.
Update 12:58pm: The mechanics of the ad.ly Twitter network's relationship with Sheen's Twitter account have been amended.