If you’re a 90s kid, it’s likely the only thing you wanted to be when you grew up was an astronaut or a cowboy or a ninja. Fast forward ten years though, and every youngster is dreaming of obtaining the lavish lifestyle of a social media influencer and receiving the fabled blue tick on Instagram. And who can really blame them when their idols are earning thousands of pounds per post from, on the most part, insincerely flogging products to their followers.
Being a social media influencer in the 21st century is an accepted profession nowadays, with the rise of websites like Twitter, Instagram and YouTube giving almost anyone a platform to find their niche, grow their network, and share their content; and where the eyes go, the money will follow. In an ever-increasing digital age, and due to the fact that more and more brands are finally realising the potential and power an influential voice can bring to them, it’s no wonder that companies are jumping on the bandwagon. Influencer marketing is one of the most effective ways to reach your target audience—particularly if they’re of a certain age and demographic.
Uncle Ben famously quoted, “With great power, comes great responsibility,” – which is what a number of these high profile ‘celebrities’ have come under scrutiny for abusing in recent times. The most conspicuous case is arguably the controversy surrounding the Fyre Festival fiasco. Subject to documentaries by both Netflix and Hulu and watched in disbelief by millions, this failure of an event started a conversation about whether influencers should be held accountable for what they promote.
If you’re unfamiliar with Fyre Festival, the concept was simple: a luxury music festival located on the beaches of the Bahamas promising 5-star facilities and an experience to match. If this sounds too good to be true, it’s because it was, with Fyre Festival ironically going up in flames. The marketing strategy was centred on paying supermodels to advertise the festival on social media, with Kendall Jenner reportedly paid $250,000 for a single Instagram post. Endorsements by these well know personalities made the public trust that the now notorious video trailer, was what they could expect when they arrived at the event.
When the scam was revealed, angry attendees understandably vented their frustration towards the influencers responsible for marketing the disaster, but was this reaction justified?
As digital marketers, we have a due diligence to do our homework and communicate with clients that what we are delivering to them is accurate and verifiable. So why should it be any different for social stars with a brand deal?
An argument could be made that these influencers shouldn’t be held liable for anything outside of their control, including false statements made by the company they are promoting such as with Fyre Festival. Although they were involved, they had no knowledge of any corruption going on.
Each circumstance is different but what should be a given, is an influencer doing their own investigation into whether something is ethical or not rather than chasing fees. If they truly believe in what they are promoting, it will come across in their pitch. If not, it will be just as clear they are not worried in the legitimacy of what they are supporting and will willingly dupe their followers for the cash, irrespective of their own values and morals. This sparks a debate into whether they should be held accountable for any wrongdoings.
This was certainly the case when influencers got called out for endorsing ‘Flat Tummy’ milkshakes that promised to help you lose weight without listing the potential side-effects. Detox teas are harmful to people's health (dietary supplements aren't regulated by the Food and Drug Administration) and these types of social media posts can be damaging to people's body image and self-esteem.
Research has shown that consumers trust social influencers’ more than big companies because they believe they have our best intentions at heart and are not just interested in their bottom line. When consumers feel like they know social influencers on a more personal basis, they’ll trust what they have to say and what products they’re championing.
The good news is that a crackdown last month by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), following a government investigation into the extent to which influencers are clearly labelling commercial relationships, should reduce the number of people often being misled by influencers.