The Influencer Paradox 

Influencer marketing is a new concept that hasn’t been fully realized. Have we already seen the repercussions it could have?

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When we think of advertising, it is natural to jump to the most obvious conclusion of commercial advertising. Commercials and their prevalence in our day to day lives have become a new form of normalcy.

Commercial advertising is all around us, it’s on our TVs, on our phones, and littered within our dying print media. However, there is a new form of advertising, a revolutionary form of mass marketing that has taken the world by storm. 

Commercial placation has been infused, absorbed, and delivered through our programming, our social media pages, and now even in correspondence between content creators and their viewers. Advertising has evolved into a more digestible, understandable, and approachable form.

Instead of pleading to the masses to buy a product or try out a service, advertisers have learned the best way to implement targeted advertising, borne out of the desire to have personalized commercial advertising that fit the specific needs and tastes of the particular consumer. 

The thinking being that if the ad fits into the programming or the piece of media by someone that the consumer can relate to, then the pitch for the product or service will be tailored for that particular consumer and said consumer base. If this idea sounds sneakily familiar to you, that’s probably because you have been targeted by this ingenious marketing practice. 

However, it’s in the way that this kind of marketing has taken form in the last five or so years that is both groundbreaking but is also concerning. The most common form of these kinds of ads is usually placed on established social media accounts as well as through the videos of popular and trending YouTube stars. These kinds of advertisers created out of rising content creators are commonly referred to as influencer marketing. 

What is Influencer Marketing and What Forms Does it Take?

Influencer marketing is a form of marketing involving endorsements and product placement from influencers, people, and organizations who have a purported expert level of knowledge or social influence in their field. This kind of advertising has flooded the market with the rising prevalence of corporate use of social media as a marketing tool and usually appears on sites like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and various other websites in which content creation drives site consumption. ¹ 

Most of these kinds of influencer marketing can be witnessed through curated posts on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram where content creators and influencer stars utilize social media to reach out to their millions upon millions of followers to plug a product or service.

The same kind of marketing can also be seen on YouTube where web media personalities like Jeffery Star, Phillip DeFranco, Keemstar, and H3H3 Studios have sponsored videos that feature products that they advertise in order to keep their channels and web presence active. ²

Although the commercialization of web-based media might seem like a no-brainer. Marketing products and services as sponsorships is a pretty well-known and understandable marketing strategy and have been around since the birth of commercial advertising, with celebrity and professional endorsements on particular products. ³

However, the idea of marketing a whole person, their personality, and their very presence and popularity is a new concept, something that has been borne out of the meteoric rise of certain web-based celebrities and content creators.

It seemed like a brilliant concept to turn these self-made social media hustlers to plug products and services and wield their massive followings and powerful platforms to deliver clever targeted marketing to their audiences. Yet, issues and complications were just waiting right around the corner.

The Crisis of Finding Marketable Content Creators

The question of whether influencer marketing is worth it or not has been posed over and over again when situations like the various apocalypses of YouTube’s fame have arisen in the past. And it seems as though the influencer market isn’t slowing down. Rather, it’s growing to this day.

With more and more content creators being created with every passing day on platforms like TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, advertisers see this kind of marketing as a natural evolution to the art of marketing and therefore the practice will grow and change as platforms change over the coming years. 

However, in order for this kind of marketing to evolve, it’s practice has to evolve when it comes to its practice and its procedures. The fact that anyone, literally anyone, can become mass-market advertisers can be concerning as ordinary people are becoming tools for advertisers. This brings about certain challenges for both the company and the influencer themselves.

For the companies, the issue of marketability over the long term becomes a major factor as most content creators are just that: Creators. They don’t possess the natural ability to advertise to mass audiences and therefore they don’t have the experience, the resources, or the ability to discern whether or not they are the right fit to be marketing products or services. 

As for the creator themselves, they have their own set of circumstances that the advertising company doesn’t have to worry about including appealing to a large, unwieldy audience who might be hesitant to be sold to. Or the very real pressure that content creators are feeling when it comes to running productions all by themselves.

When a person takes on the responsibility of becoming influencers, they also bear the weight of having to consistently create marketable content while also adhering to the wills and whims of not only corporate sponsors but also their massive audiences as well. 

With all of the pressure and the stress to succeed on their own merit, content creators often find themselves on the receiving end of some kind of backlash, and when controversy comes-a-knockin’, advertisers hit the road, leaving their content creators in the lurch. ³ This is exactly what we saw with YouTube in the Summer of 2017 with the iteration of the first “Adpocalypse”. 

Advertisers VS. Youtube: “The Adpocalypse”

In the Summer of 2017, YouTube was rocked by a series of advertising boycotts that were done by companies pulling out of their agreement to advertise on key popular YouTube content creators. This sparked from fears of an atmosphere of unmarketable – plagued by creators and their relative controversies on the platform which included but was not limited to hate speech (including antisemitism, racism, homophobia, and sexist language/messages), defamation between creators and prevalence of odd pedophilia that had been an issue on the platform for quite some time. 

This advertiser boycott and mass pulling of ads on YouTube video content were referred to as the “Adpocalypse” and, since 2017, there have been several iterations of this so-called “adpocalypse.” In turn, this hurts not only the creators but also YouTube as a whole as their entire platform is built off of advertising revenue.

Social media stars have also had their share of controversies and had their ads pulled due to said controversy. The giants of the industry like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have all been the staging ground for some of the most notable and recent backlashes and fall outs for social media influencers.

The most notable occurrence is within the beauty community which has been criticized in the past for being “toxic” and overly competitive, had a string of controversies including but not limited to the infamous James Charles-Tati Westbrook-Jeffery Star-Shane Dawson beef. The claims were of false advertising on sponsored beauty product posts and online shaming over everything from weight fluctuations to age differences.

However slick influencer marketing doesn’t just impact the lives and financial stability of the companies and their influencer advertisers, it also negatively affects the audiences in which these posts and videos are targeted towards and when that happens, it can ruin companies’ reputations, brand loyalty, and even harm the consumer for the long term. 

When the Influence Market Turns on Those it Markets To

It’s one thing when the controversies only affect the companies and their influencer advertisers but when it affects the target audience, it can create disastrous repercussions that can haunt the companies, the influencers, and their ignorant and easily deceivable audiences for a long time to come.

Deceptive advertising, false marketing, and empty promises plague the influencer market. Here are just some of the most recognizable controversies and problematic influencer marketing campaigns that not only failed to work but actively harmed the audiences in which these ads were targeting:

The Fantastic Failure of Fyre Island Festival

Fyre Festival is one of the most notable examples and one that is often mocked widely for just how terribly it failed to deliver on it’s larger than life promises of a music festival on a private luxurious island in the Bahamas.

The festival, which was widely advertised on sponsored and deceptive advertisers on major social media accounts, was supposed to be the most luxurious, all-inclusive island entertainment experience. In reality, it was a disastrous weekend on an ill-prepared island with thousands of stranded wealthy influencers and mislead fans. ⁵

The promised luxurious private tents were, in reality, a string of FEMA tents that were situated on a strip of land. This are was not the promised private island of Fyre Cape but instead was on the nearby and mostly inhabited island of Great Exuma. 

The event was tweeted and posted about by the likes of popular influencers such as Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Hailey Baldwin, and Emily Ratajkowski, who later admitted they were paid to post about, not knowing the reality of the situation. ⁶

It costs thousands of people an inordinate amount of money as well as the horrible ordeal of having to not only make it to the falsified festival but also had to find a way off the island, most at their own expense. 

The Fyre Festival fiasco has gone down as one of the leading examples of influencer marketing mishandling and social media fraud. The organizers of the event have been brought up on criminal charges as well as numerous lawsuits and the world witnessed one of the largest influencer advertising scandals to ever be perpetrated on a consumer base.

BetterHelp May Not Be the Best Help

In a marketing move that not only cost audiences’ money but also their mental health, the company BetterHelp – a mental health website that pairs those seeking services with an online counselor or mental health expert best suited to fit the patient’s needs – enlisted the assistance of several key YouTube stars to plug the newfound mental health startup in order to gain new customers. ⁷

It seemed like a smart move at the time: take the largest and brightest stars on YouTube to advertise a mental health service to their faithful followers. However, the issues of the service and what it actually offers versus what the YouTube stars said it was supposed to offer became starkly apparent. 

According to the news outlet Polygon, within the ad reads for the company, YouTubers promised “professional services” from “accredited psychologists” but consumers found that neither one of these claims were accurate and their experiences on the site were negatively affected by the unprofessional and unhelpful manner of those tasked with helping counsel these subscribers on the service.

This marketing strategy which turned into an influencer advertising fallout between the video-sharing platform YouTube and the mental health service BetterHelp was advertised by several key popular YouTubers like Phillip DeFranco, Trisha Paytas, H3H3 Productions, The Young Turks and Boogie2988, to name a few.

BetterHelp used YouTube’s content creators to sell their mental services to their creators by having the YouTubers connect with their audience through a sensitive and vulnerable appeal. They targeted discussions of mental health issues and challenges the Youtubers were facing and how BetterHelp was a place for them to get the help they needed. 

The advertising worked, as droves of subscribers from over a hundred different YouTube stars went to the website, thinking that this service might be the answer to their mental health concerns and having them pay hard-earned money only to receive lackluster and even unprofessional counseling from the website. The resulting reviews from the site lead to a massive fallout between not only the online service and the video-sharing platform but more importantly, a mistrust between the YouTube influencers and their audiences. 

Both sites and the creators tried their best to do damage control but the damage was done. The confidence of the audience into the claims of their most trusted YouTube personality had already been tested and it failed and many felt cheated, swindled, and worst of all, taken advantage of. 

The idea that their mental health issues could be used to profit off their loyalty as a viewer didn’t sit very comfortably with a growing percentage of the audiences of these YouTube stars that advertised this service and even though they stopped advertising the service, that kind of target advertising turned a lot of people away from these YouTubers.

Final Word

Although it’s hard for us to sometimes see, advertising is all around us. And its an ever-evolving medium that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

In fact, ads are becoming more and more aware of consumers’ very specific tailored needs and desires and one of the ways it does so is through the use of influencer marketing.

Not to mention, also through embedded advertising that uses people and their platforms as a staging ground for advertising.

The question isn’t how do we stop this kind of advertising because there isn’t a way to stop it. Instead, we should be asking ourselves how do we spot deceptive influencer marketing and how can we restrict it from harming ourselves and others? 

It isn’t enough to listen to our favorite celebrities and sports stars advertise to us, now we have everyday normal people posting ads on social media to impressionable people. It is our responsibility as consumers to research and understands the product and services they are purchasing and or using and share these truths in order to create real transparency.

Transparency is key to influencing consumers in an ethical manner. To not to try and defraud and cheat and lie your way through endorsements.

The understanding that an ad is actually an ad is extremely important in order to continue to practice proper and just advertising habits and if a deal is too good to be true then its best to stay away. 

The market is an ever-changing animal and it is our responsibility as consumers as well as possible influencers ourselves to be mindful in how we treat advertising and the influence marking model because if it’s used improperly it could lead to disastrous results and irrevocable damage to not only advertising companies and influencer spokespeople but to the consumers themselves.   

Reference Sources

¹ TapInfluence: What is Influencer Marketing?

² Insider: 27 Times Influencers Were Called out for Controversies and Weird Behavior in 2019

³ Ad Age: From Racism to Vegan Cheating, This List of 10 Influencer Scandals Has It All

Wikitubia: YouTube Adpocolapse

BBC News: Fyre Festival: Inside the World’s Biggest Festival Flop

The Tab: The Instagram Models and Influencers That Promoted the Fyre Festival Scam

Polygon: YouTube’s BetterHelp Mental Health Controversy, Explained

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