Social Media Influencers: Friends or Foes?

Influencers, who are they? What are they? Are they my friends? Are they marketers? Truth is the term social media influencer is a rather fluid term. Influencers can be almost anyone on social media with a significant following that posts pictures representing a brand in exchange for free items from that brand or monetary compensation. So let’s cut to the chase, why am I talking about them?

The Fyre Festival Debacle

Lets imagine for a second you’re a susceptible young adult and you’re perusing your Instagram and next thing you know every model you follow, including Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid, is hyping up this exclusive music festival that promises a luxury concert going experience including a private jet to a private island where top talent will be performing. Enticing right? Now lets flash forward to the day of the event. People are herded onto a commercial jet and taken to the popular Bahamian island of Great Exuma, where they are met with FEMA disaster relief tents and the now famous Fyre Festival cheese sandwich. The moral of the story, the glitz and glamour we see and are promised on social media doesn’t always align with reality.

Expectation

Reality

Where is the Trust?

Social media influencers operate on the premise of having a large following. This following gives influencers clout, that is the more people that follow them, the more likely I am to follow them, because other people follow them. You see it’s like a trust mechanism in a way where since I know 27k other people follow this influencer and like their posts, I trust that this influencer has something to contribute to my life or, at least, my feed. Businesses saw this trust mechanism that influencers built for themselves and exploited it offering free items and/or money to influencers in exchange for a moment in the spotlight with the influencers. What these business have done is taken advantage of the inherent trust and similarities between the influencer and his/her following and exploited it. Businesses know that an influencer’s followers identify with the influencer, and hope that by having their brand be seen with the influencer, the influencer’s followers will also want to be seen with the brand in an attempt to embody their role model. This is where the term influencer is coined, they have the ability to influence their following to like certain brands or even purchase certain products, just by posting a single picture featuring a brand. However, what many followers don’t realize is that the influencer is just doing their job, making money from the brands they post with and commission on every item we buy as a result of their post, regardless of if they actually use the product or not. So why should we continue following them? Why should we trust the brands they post with if the influencer isn’t actually using the brand themself?

My Take

Social media influencing is a predatory marketing technique aimed to trick followers into believing that a certain product or brand, is essential to embodying as the influencer. I see influencing as predatory because an influencer’s followers may have a hard time distinguishing between a post they are getting paid for vs. a post the are genuinely posting. This makes it easy for businesses that use influencers to take advantage of the more naive of us that are susceptible to purchasing products our role models endorse without realizing that they may not have our best interest at heart. I think this point if anything is the point I wanted to get across, social media influencers do not always have your best interest at heart.

So, I pose the question how can we prevent influencers from abusing their power, their “influence”, for their own economic benefit? I’m not saying they shouldn’t be able to make money from paid endorsements or commissions from products they sell. I’m just saying we need to be able to quickly and easily distinguish between a paid ad an influencer posts and their personal testimonials. I think the latter has significantly more credibility in the eyes of the consumer, so why shouldn’t we have the right to distinguish between the two? Shouldn’t the influencer we trust and respect share that same respect with us such that they let us know the difference between their paid advertisements and their honest testimonials? Why would they want to breach that trust at the risk of losing their credibility?

In the aftermath of the Fyre Festival disaster, I believe influencers should hold themselves to new standards even if the law lags. Influencers should see that they owe it to us to do their due diligence before accepting paid advertising deals and the Fyre Festival was a prime example of that. All of the biggest influencers on Instagram took a big hit to their credibility. But, I feel worse for their followers who lost money because of their misplaced trust. Without the influencers, Fyre Festival would not have gained as much traction as it did, and people certainly wouldn’t have thrown thousands of dollars for VIP access to what seemed more like Naked and Afraid than a music festival. My stance is that influencers should be held liable for products that they take commission on if there are legal grounds for false advertising; and further, that influencers should distinguish between paid ads and their personal testimonials.

What are you thoughts? Are influencers friend or foe? How can we prevent blatant abuse like this from happening again in the future? Comment Below!


6 comments

  1. I just did an interview on Hubspot on the topic of influencers. I actually split them into three types 1) professional influencers. Those who influence for the purpose of influencing, getting attention, and money. These people are in it for the influence. 2) Lifestyle influencers. There are people whose influencing are driven by a passion for something, think fitness influencers. These people are in it to share their passion 3) Everyone else. We are all influencers on social media, just to varying degrees (and most don’t make money off of it). We’re just in it, whether we like it or not

  2. I did my blogpost on the Fyre Festival and its promotional techniques, so I can definitely relate to your topic of trusting influencers when they are simply getting paid to promote products. I mean how likely is it that Kendall Jenner uses Proactive, let’s be real. I have seen more and more influencers using #ad in posts that they are paid for, so I think this could be a great way to distinguish between people’s actual and paid posts. It has become harder and harder to figure out what celebrities and the people we look up to actually like and use, but I guess we just have to have a more critical eye when looking at posts. Great topic!

  3. This is a great topic to address since we’re living in a time where social media is king and the number of influencers continues to grow. I think Luiza made a great point in her comment when she highlighted the fact that many influencers are using #ad when posting about a product that they are promoting. This isn’t something that they just decided to do, but rather something that they were forced to do when the Federal Trade Commission got involved and sent out letters to influencers
    (like the Kardashians, for example) promoting products on their feeds without letting their followers know whether or not they were sponsored. Even though this is something that is being cracked down on, I think consumers have to remain aware that not everyone is going to abide by the rules and let them know when a post is sponsored. That being said, I think consumers just have to be aware and do their own research when they see an influencer posting about a product that they might be interested in before diving in and purchasing it.

    This article is a little bit older, but has some good information on why “#ad” and “paid sponsorship” are showing up more frequently on Instagram feeds.
    https://adage.com/article/digital/instagram-make-clearer-influencer-posts-paid-ads/309401/

  4. I think Professor Kane’s distinctions are critical to this discussion. “Professional influencers” are the ones we really have to worry about, because, if you think about it, they kind of defeat the purpose of influencing. Influencing started as already influential people, like celebrities, artists, and “lifestyle influencers,” sharing their personal endorsements (or opposition) to people who already followed them. I would say they were more like tastemakers than influencers. It was easy to trust them because we knew they had other sources of income. The very fact that professional influencers are “professional influencers” is what makes them untrustworthy in my opinion. Why would we trust the opinion of someone who’s job it is to post pictures of Skinny Tea on Instagram any more than would trust an actress in a commercial for the same product? Professional influencers are essentially unrepresented models and actors.

  5. I have become really skeptical about influencers and their true motives behind sponsored content (even before watching the documentary), so I appreciated this post and the questions you raise around how to hold them accountable. Ever since “influencer” became a common term (and for some, a job title), I think it’s gotten harder to differentiate between brands and products that the influencer truly believes in and what’s just being sponsored for the sake of earning extra money. The article that Keagan included in her comment talks about the “paid partnership” label/feature that Instagram rolled out last year, which I’ve found helpful when scrolling through the app. Since brands benefit from gathering data on these tagged posts, I wonder if the brands themselves would consider making this a requirement for influencers until the law catches up. With that said, I do believe it is ultimately the responsibility of the consumer to do their own due diligence before purchasing any product.

  6. I don’t think the idea of ‘influencers’ is a novel topic. I don’t see it as very different from a commercial 50 years ago where a celebrity would be endorsing a product. Woody Allen endorsed Smirnoff Vodka, Marilyn Monroe endorsed cosmetics, Bette White endorsed some diet fad. In each of these cases, celebrities with an impact on their fans were paid to promote a product. In those cases, people understood that the celebrities weren’t directly involved in the making of the products and they weren’t held accountable. Would you be upset with Brett Farve if your Wrangler jeans didn’t meet your expectations? I don’t see today’s influencers as any different. Yes, the medium has changed (personal posts instead of national TV or print ads) but the fact that these people are getting paid to promote a product hasn’t.

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