Under The Influence – On PR Samples
God almighty, this post is a lot. I was supposed to write ONE blog post on this topic, but it turned into two, so the next one is coming after I post my highlights. The influencer biz is confusing, largely unregulated, and massive. And yeah, I’m using the term influencer even though I hate it. It’s what we have, even though it’s garbage. Please send your suggestions for a replacement term that isn’t so market-oriented.
I’m putting all this in neat little paragraphs with headers and things. I hope it’s easier to navigate than my usual meandering longform blog posts.
PR samples vs Gifts
Something I see a lot of on instagram is influencers saying that a brand has “gifted” them a product, and sometimes this is referred to as a “pr gift”. This is very odd to me, as in my neck of the woods most influencers agree that what a brand sends you is not a gift, but press samples. These samples are used by influencers as tools and material for their work. A gift is something that is given freely, between friends or acquaintances, as a show of appreciation or adoration. There’s no expectation that you might give them a bit of free PR on your instagram feed.
Brands send products out in the hopes that said products are interesting enough to be covered, giving the brand and product visibility on social channels without having to pay for ads or sponsorships. They’re not giving you skincare because they like you, they’re giving it to you because it might benefit them. That is not a gift.
PR samples vs Sponsorships
Something I’ve heard from followers is that a PR sample is akin to sponsorship. That’s not accurate. Even if my above statement seems pretty critical of giving PR samples, it’s actually a pretty important part of beauty journalism as well as blogging. We couldn’t possibly cover as much content as we do if we had to buy everything ourselves! We need those samples to do our jobs. It’s not only about levelling the playing field so that even low-income people like myself can afford to write about beauty, it’s also sometimes important – especially for the traditional press – to have access to a product early.
In recent years, services like Octoly and Influenster have appeared as a way for smaller influencers to access press samples. This would be a good thing, but of course there’s a catch. The products come with the condition that you post about them on social media, according to a format set by the service. Here’s the thing – a respectable PR rep would never demand coverage or control over your content in return for product. Anyone who sets terms without compensation (as in a check) is using you.
This happens to journalists, too – interview opportunities or press samples offered only in exchange for guaranteed coverage and sometimes, control over content. Then, what you are making is advertising. And it should be disclosed as such. And paid taxes for. You see the problem – if you only receive a face cream as payment, you have to pay out of pocket to cover taxes. Plus, you should never sell coverage on your platform cheaply, no matter how small your following.
Using PR samples in giveaways
Here’s where it gets a little muddy. When you receive a product, it is sent without terms or demands, and is yours to do with what you will, within reason. I asked my followers on instagram whether they thought it was ethical to offer products sent to you in PR in giveaways, and the responses were varied. Personally, I am also torn. My kneejerk reaction is that it’s not okay to use samples in giveaways. It’s a way of using PR benefits to gain followers in a way that isn’t completely kosher. Plus, it comes off as unloading your “seconds” on your followers and I don’t necessarily think that’s very respectful. At the same time, you’re still giving the products coverage, so it’s not entirely under the table. I wouldn’t do it myself.
Selling PR samples
Absolutely not. Under no circumstances, barring a situation in which your skincare product is standing between you and your next meal, should you sell PR samples. They are not to be sold. They are for you to use and evaluate and at most give to a friend or loved one if you don’t care for it. Yes, they are sent to you without demands but there is a level of decency and respect to be upheld between you, the industry and your colleagues. Also – If you sell them, you face the same problem as with those sample services – the profit becomes taxable income. It’s also a generally tacky thing to do.
Next, I’ll be talking about ad disclosures, brands that lash out, consumerism, and stolen content. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments – do you agree? disagree? have questions? I’d love to hear it.