Social media is not what it was.
Scrolling through Instagram is a very different experience from what it was a few years ago. Friend’s pets now have their own accounts, sometimes with thousands of followers. Celebrities are breaking records for opening accounts, and (often unwanted) sponsored posts now litter our feeds.
Many of these high follower accounts are being paid large amounts of money for the opportunity for brands to collaborate with them, and it’s not always obvious.
Simply put, an influencer is someone who has a social following of 10,000 or more. These range from beauty gurus, actors, comedians, podcast hosts, and even game show contestants. The opportunities offered to these influencers range from PR freebies such as makeup and flowers, clothing and jewelry, to house renovations and holidays all over the world.
The infamous downfall of the Fyre Festival was the first time many realized the power of influencers. When the orange boxes began showing up all over Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, it piqued interest quickly, being dubbed “the new Coachella.”
Influencers around the world filled their grids with this unassuming orange tile and the clever marketing campaign began.
However, we all know what happened to Fyre Festival. The event ended before it had even begun and in absolute chaos. The world’s 1% were stranded on an island in The Bahamas, without food, an exit strategy, and most importantly to some of them; no festival. Many of the staff and hired help also lost a huge amount of money and most were never paid for their work. There was the event planner, Andy King who famously offered to “take one for the team” when a shipment of bottled water got stuck at customs.
Andy King eventually went back to his day job, and the CEO, Billy McFarland was already in prison. But governments realized that something needed to be done about social media advertising.
Due to the issues surrounding the use of influencers leading up to the Fyre Festival, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) locked down advertising rules, to ensure that viewers were aware of a social media post was an advert. However, some influencers are still refusing to acknowledge these rules.
According to MediaKix, in 2015 the influencer industry was worth around $500 million. This year, it’s expected to be worth between $5 and $10 billion.
Many brands pick their influencers wisely, and in doing so reputations aren’t tarnished, but some are poorly constructed.
Billy Jenson and Paul Holes from The Murder Squad began their podcast advertising by selling bras to their listeners. The former police officer and true crime writer are both men, and the whole idea was a little odd. Instead of waiting for a more appropriate sponsor to come along, the Exactly Right network decided to continue their advertising responsibilities and the ad breaks were nothing other than cringeworthy.
Advertising on social media comes in all shapes and sizes. At one end of the scale, you have U.K. based YouTuber, Zoella who hit the headlines in April after being warned by the ASA about her promotional posts.
The star, who’s worth an estimated $7 million, told readers they too could buy the dress she was wearing from a fashion retailer. The 30-year-old included an affiliate link but the tag was hidden under a button.
Affiliate links send the reader to a product’s page, and in doing so give the person who created the link monetary rewards, indicative of the number of clicks they receive from the affiliate link. This is how many influencers make their pennies, and not all of them disclose this information clearly.
The other end of the moral scale is the promotion of products without testing them out first.
In December 2019, three British influencers unknowingly appeared on BBC Three series Blindboy Undestroys the World. Lauren Goodger, Mike Hassini, and Zara Holland, who have 1.3 million Instagram followers between them, were secretly filmed agreeing to promote a new drink called Cyanora.
The clip showed the three minor celebrities running a script for the drink, which ingredients included cyanide.
That’s right; cyanide. None of the three questioned the deadly ingredient, with one even having issues pronouncing it.
The Only Way Is Essex star, Lauren Goodger even divulged that she had never tried the weightloss drink, Skinny Coffee that according to her Instagram has helped her shed two stone.
Earlier this year, the story of YouTubers Myka and James Stauffer giving away their adopted son, Huxley surfaced. The couple, who have over one million subscribers across their YouTube channels, told audiences that they had rehomed their adopted son, as they were not fully aware of his needs.
“After multiple assessments, after multiple evaluations, numerous medical professionals have felt that he needed a different fit in his medical needs,” said Stauffer on a vlog, which has now been disabled.
The internet was livid and made sure their opinions were known.
“Hope this little boy gets a real family filled with love he deserves not just for Instagram,” posted one reader on Instagram.
Companies who worked with the family began to distance themselves and The Delaware Sheriff’s Department even launched an investigation into the family and the welfare of the child.
In May, after the announcement on their channel, the YouTube couple lost over 20,000 subscribers, and they haven’t recovered from that loss.
In 2018, The Atlantic wrote an article on how hotels are now struggling under the weight of the influencer entitlement.
“I was with five other influencers and we were excited to post, but there was limited Wi-Fi. If you don’t have the simplest things ready for us, then that makes it difficult to produce the content you need, or do it correctly,” said Joe Miragliotta, a lifestyle and travel blogger.
It’s not always the influencers with a large following who are asking for preferential treatment, it’s often the people with smaller channels. Because of the rising costs to keep these non-paying guests, many hotels have now opted out of the race.
A few years ago, a boutique hotel in Ireland straightened out one influencer when she emailed him requesting a free stay.
It’s not just hoteliers who’ve had enough of people asking for VIP treatment, many small business owners are having the same issues.
Laura Worthington who owns the bakery said it’s not the first time this has happened and says she’s asked for freebies from her business at least once a week. She said,
“It has always been frustrating, and recently I’ve just said no, this can’t happen anymore. I work really hard. I work a lot of 17-hour days, I do it all by myself.”
We’re now at the point where there are commentary websites and social media feeds, dedicated to humoring the influencer stereotype and calling out their actions.
There’s an Instagram page, Insta Repeat, that highlights how indistinctive influencer’s grids are these days, despite the fantastical places they visit.
However, not all influencers are created equal, and some are using their power for good.
Ana Silva O’Reilly launched the #PayingOurWay to help the travel industry get back on its feet during COVID-19. She wrote on her blog:
“I’m asking that travel bloggers and influencers be patient in understanding that hotels; restaurants; tour companies; visitor attractions, and the the rest of the industry may not be in a position to offer freebies to travel bloggers for a while after reopening — but they will hugely benefit from any content we can share to continue to promote the wonderful world around us and inspire people to start travelling again once they can.”
Unfortunately, despite her 18,000 followers, very few took her advice and #PayingOurWay only has 45 tagged photos on Instagram, but her advice was pure.
Overall, are we being deceived by the people we go to for lifestyle and fashion advice? No, not in all cases. Some influencers are aware of the power they wield and are reasoning with their viewers. Many of them are adhering to the new regulations and have continued on as normal.
What can we do apart from deleting those accounts that have become so popular, their opinions are now bought by advertising budgets?
Unfollowing influencers will certainly help with the immediate problem but with, often, hundreds of thousands of other viewers to their names, one unfollow won’t do much good. However, Rome wasn’t built in a day and many viewers are beginning to see the effect that bad influencers are having on their lives.
Out of a poll of 245 on Tattle Life, one of the commentary websites for influencers, the majority said that they wouldn’t click an affiliate link created by an influencer. One member commented:
“Influencers cannot be trusted. They’re paid to promote a brand, it’s been years since anything people like that put on their YouTube or Instagram were their actual thoughts, or a product they actually use and endorse. If a brand advertises heavily (or exclusively) through “influencers”, I won’t buy it no matter how much it’s raved about.”
Throughout the first lockdown, many influencers filled their social media feeds and YouTube videos with many more adverts than normal. Why? Because they had to make their money somewhere, and with brands cutting their advertising budgets, there was less work in the over-saturated market.
According to Launchmetrics, sponsored advertising fell by 35% at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Should we feel bad for them? Probably. Did we? No.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to take anything influencers say at face value when they’re being paid to give a certain opinion. It’s a turnoff and in the style of Marie Kondo, social media does not bring me joy anymore.