As tied in as I am to the high-tech zeitgeist, I must admit that until I spent a weekend bingeing on two documentaries about the disastrous Fyre Festival of 2017, the whole culture of social media “influencers” had flown under my radar.
Fyre, it may be recalled, was a music festival that was supposed to take place over two spring weekends in the Bahamas. It may not have started as a fraud, but over time it became indistinguishable from one; its chief organizer, Billy McFarland, is currently serving a federal prison term for fraud as a result of the scheme. Hundreds of festival-goers paid thousands of dollars for deluxe accommodations and catering, only to be stranded in the rain without transport home and fed stale cheese sandwiches.
What makes this relevant to the influencers culture is that Fyre was all about the marketing, which took place almost entirely on Instagram and other social media, chiefly through a coordinated campaign of posts launched on Dec. 12, 2016. Kendall Jenner, perhaps the most prominent “influencer” in the world, was reportedly paid $250,000 for a single posted contribution to this campaign.
Fast-forward to March 12, when dozens of wealthy parents were arrested by federal agents and charged with paying bribes and committing fraud to get their kids into elite universities. Among them were Lori Loughlin and J. Mossimo Giannulli, who allegedly paid $500,000 to bribe their daughters’ way into USC as purported rowing stars.
The younger daughter, Olivia Jade, 19, is a prominent influencer who promptly incorporated her college lifestyle into her commercial pitch. “It’s been a few weeks since I moved into my dorm and I absolutely love it,” she attested on Instagram. Surrounded by new bed linens and makeup accoutrements, she wrote, “I got everything I needed from Amazon with @primestudent.”
See how this works?
“We live in this world of celebrity,” says marketing executive Michael Blatter, who claims to have coined the term “influencer” in 1994, when he was paying New York bartenders to hand out Camels to patrons desperate for a smoke.
Marketers are “buying product exposure” by affiliating with Jenner or Giannulli, Blatter told me. What makes an effective influencer is “mass popularity and a continual personal narrative — where they party, who they date, where they shop. It’s all just part of the fantasy lifestyles that regular people want to live.”
So far, this sounds like advertising as it has been through the ages — celebrities telling the rubes that they can live the good life if they smoke the right brand, wear the right clothes, drive the right car, use the right toothpaste.
After all, marketing always has evolved to match the dominant platform of its time. When picture magazines such as Life were big, ads were bold and glossy, with elegant stars showing off their minks; television created pitchmen and women who projected a certain homeyness, sometimes but not always with a slight touch of glamour, like Betty Furness posed next to a refrigerator or Dinah Shore singing an ode to the Chevrolet. They were being invited into your living room, after all.
Yet there’s a subtly different quality to influencer culture on social media — sufficiently so to have raised the hackles of the Federal Trade Commission.
Concerned about the ease with which Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other social media platforms blurred the line between ordinary people offering informal reviews and opinions and representatives endorsing products for pay, the FTC in 2017 issued warning letters to more than 90 influencers. The letters reminded them that they were legally required to disclose business or family relationships, monetary payments, the receipt of free products or any other “material relationships” tying them to the products they were pitching online.
Moreover, the disclosures had to be “clear and conspicuous” — meaning that they couldn’t be hidden at the bottom of a post where consumers might not see them, but within the first three lines. They also had to be explicit: “Many consumers will not understand a disclosure like ‘#sp,’ ‘Thanks [Brand],’ or ‘#partner’ in an Instagram post to mean that the post is sponsored,” the FTC wrote.
The rise of the social media influencer has dovetailed neatly with that other cultural phenomenon, the rise of the celebrity “famous for being famous.” Kendall Jenner had no identifiable skills or achievements outside of modeling; her true claim to fame was membership in the Kardashian clan, who were featured in a reality television series. Lately she has topped lists of the most followed models on social media.
As for Olivia Jade, she seems almost to have been raised to become an influencer as surely as a cell is cultured in a laboratory petri dish, starting with a YouTube channel at age 14. (We reached out to Olivia Jade via her Twitter and Facebook accounts but received no reply.)
From the outside, being and becoming an influencer looks easy and the rewards stupendous. Louise Linton, the actress spouse of Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, appeared to be going for the gold in August 2017 when she released an Instagram post commemorating her landing in Kentucky with Mnuchin for an official government event and draping it with shout-outs to fashion designers Roland Mouret, Tom Ford, Hermes and Valentino.
Linton blew the effort, however, when she got into a crass and condescending exchange with an online critic she called “adorably out of touch.” Today she has a measly 14,200 followers on Instagram; that’s not close to critical mass when Olivia Jade has 1.4 million followers and Kendall Jenner 106 million.
As Blatter and others attest, creating an online influencer persona that merchandisers want to associate with can be labor-intensive, expensive and uncertain.
The half-life of influencers can be short, in part because the target audience can get sated with endless pitches for products.
The very concept was lampooned as far back as 1964 in a scene in “A Hard Day’s Night” in which George Harrison encounters a TV producer offering to introduce him to “Susan Campey, our resident teenager.… She’s a trendsetter. It’s her profession.”
“She’s a drag, a well-known drag,” George replies. “We turn the sound down on her and say rude things.”
Modern influencers may even face having their jobs taken away by automation. Computer-generated influencers have recently broken into the big time, including “Lil Miquela,” a CGI figure fashioned as a 19-year-old Brazilian American model, who has 1.5 million Instagram followers and a marketing relationship with Prada.
Real life also can intrude on the marketability of genuinely human influencers. After Olivia Jade Giannulli’s parents were arrested and charged with fraud, she was dropped by the cosmetics firm Sephora.
“Because Fyre was such a train wreck,” Blatter says, “and hit the popular zeitgeist so loud, brands are definitely more aware that you have to be super careful. When consumers see posts, they’re a little bit more conscious that they [influencers] could be paid too.”
There’s a level at which Fyre was the perfect brand to be sold via social media influencers. It was a product that never existed in reality, promoted by pitchmen and pitchwomen who had scarcely more substance.
But whether Fyre, or any other fiasco, really can put an end to the influencer culture is doubtful. Consumer marketing feeds on itself, and the ecosystem of influencers, influence marketers and brands seeking notice in a fragmented media world today is large and thriving.