Walgreens is using “sponsored conversations” – promoted Tweets, trends and paid bloggers – to influence customers to switch to its namesake pharmacy benefits plan.

The reason for the push is that the pharmacy chain was unable to come to terms with former pharmacy benefit manager, Express Scripts, and fears losing customers to Wal-Mart and CVS, both of which still have relationships with the company, says AdAge.

In an effort to defend itself against such loss, Walgreens posted this promoted Tweet:

“@Walgreens Patients should be able to choose their pharmacy, not @ExpressScripts. Tweet using #ILoveWalgreens to show your support!”

It also paid Twitter to feature “#ILoveWalgreens” as a promoted trend.

Not only that, Walgreens hired Social Spark, a company that matches bloggers with advertisers for a percentage of the fee, to get some mommy bloggers writing about the issue in hopes of turning the tide in its favor.

This move has resulted in a bit of a Twitter war with Express Scripts firing a round of six volleys stating its case, which can be seen in the following graphic.

Express Scripts states its case via Twitter

My purpose here is not to highlight the issue under debate, but to call attention to what I earlier referred to as “sponsored conversations,” a term popularized by Forrester in a 2009 report. AdAge called Walgreens’ use of paid social media a “bold move,” but thinks the chances of it getting customers to switch plans is slim.

I have two problems with the campaign:

First, I’ve never been a fan of paying bloggers to speak favorably about an issue, even when there is full disclosure on their part. Of course, I come from the old school, a time when “blogging was the last form of honest advertising,” as one person put it.

Second, paying for the use of a hashtag that includes the word “love” seems disingenuous to me. And I’m not the only one. Twitter users are poking fun at it, as well.

Twitter users poke fun at Walgreens hashtag

Maybe I’m beating a dead horse. Perhaps the controversy surrounding such sponsored conversations is an issue whose time has come and gone. Brands have been using this tactic for years. Still, it gets under my skin every time I see social media used in a manner that lacks authenticity.

What do you think?