Under The Influence – Social Media and Consumerism
Back to influencer business. I had the suggestion to use “Content Creator” instead of “Influencer” and I do see that term a lot, but I don’t really like that either! It’s so vague, I mean, what is “content”? It doesn’t really describe anything in particular. So I dislike that too, even if it does lack the creepy marketing-department overtones of “Influencer”. Well.
This is an increasingly common occurence – brand representatives that behave strangely on social media. It’s actually pretty shocking the way these companies conduct themselves on their channels! The other day, I called out a beauty brand for posting baseless fearmongering about Chinese produce on their page (what that has to do with beauty I don’t know) and they called me an idiot before blocking me. This brand is stocked in a number of very respectable stores, including Net-A-Porter!
This isn’t the first or the last time I’ve seen this happen (but it is the first time I’ve been on the receiving end) – “green” brands and indie brands in particular seem to struggle with how they behave on instagram and twitter. Whether it’s posting offensive or factually incorrect material, or lashing out against poor reviews, we’re at a point where beauty brands behave more like spoiled toddlers than professional adults. Brands that are popular, loved and respected are running amok online, and it’s souring the relationship between them, customers, and influencers. Sometimes, it even turns to bullying and threats in private DMs or e-mails. Shocking.
I don’t know what to do other than roll my eyes and ask everybody to be an adult, please. For me, when I see a brand acting foolish on their social media channels, I lose interest in the product pretty much immediately. How am I supposed to trust the integrity of a formula if the people making it act like brats?
One criticism of influencer culture is that it encourages consumption and is often, if not always, undisclosed ad content. I think this criticism is perfectly valid, if not always completely well-formulated. It is true that influencers contribute to consumerism, mainly through something called conspicuous consumption. Conspicuous consumption is a term first coined by the economist Thorstein Veblen around the turn of the century. It can be summed up as the tendency of the middle and upper classes to consume as a marker of status and class. It’s showing off your stuff to assert your power as a person of means. The way influencers may post their new handbag or luxury car is a form of conspicuous consumption, it’s the act of showing off your wealth through what you buy (or, in the case of many influencers, showing off your social capital through what you are given for free).
Of course, the average consumer can’t buy all these products, but the way influencer culture works makes it seem like excessive consumption of goods is normal and achievable. It’s important to remember that most influencers don’t buy these products themselves – it’s their job to consume publicly, and it’s in corporate interest to help them do that. Even though I don’t receive much in PR myself, it’s still more product than I could ever afford to purchase myself. Only the very top segment of bloggers, youtubers, instagrammers and so on are actually wealthy.
Let’s also address the way class and capital affects your ability to become an influencer. Yes, I used the word capital. Like many “creative” industries, social media demands a lot of unpaid work in order to climb the ladder. That means it’s much easier for a person who already has social, cultural and financial capital to succeed in the field. If you can afford to buy the latest products to show on your instagram feed, you become more relevant. If you can afford to live in a city where you can access the latest treatments, the best stores, and most importantly the PR agencies in charge of brand representation, that also makes it much easier. If you can afford to intern for free at a PR firm or magazine, you have the ability to network, or be offered a paid position in a few years’ time. In essence, money opens the door. There’s a reason why the people with the most followers are white, middle class straight women.
There’s a common assumption that most, if not all, content shared on social media is sponsored. Yes, some very shady and uncool people (many of whom are the most successful in the business!) accept under-the-table ad content. Some are, instead, very clear on what content contains paid advertisements – UK influencers do this particularly well. The truth is, yes, it does happen, but it’s not as frequent as you may believe. Generally, small influencers don’t get paid to post secret ads, much less receive PR. It’s not worth the expense for these bigger brands. I also think that even if some influencers have a loose sense of ethics, most actually have very strong convictions to remain objective.
In general, it’s appropriate to disclose if you have a relationship with the brand (like if you work for them as a MUA) and also to clarify which products are received in PR. If content is sponsored, it should be marked as an ad. Undisclosed adverts, when they do occur, are actually illegal in most parts of the world and I’d argue that the average influencer would be offended if a brand made demands to be undisclosed. It’s also offensive when brands offer a partnership in which the influencer is not compensated. It may be tempting, especially if you’re new, to say yes to collaborations in which you are not paid, or paid very little, or paid in product. But you shouldn’t. Please don’t. It devalues your work and the work of other influencers to accept these offers, and skews the market in favour of corporations rather than workers. (damn, we need to unionize.)
By The Way, We Talk
Here’s something that seems not to be widely understood by followers OR by brands – influencers talk to each other. A lot. We warn each other, we discuss appropriate rates, we recommend each other for opportunities and we collaborate. We know which brands to avoid, which followers to block, and what rates to set for our work. If you treat one of us like garbage, we’ll find out and stop covering your brand.
Like I said above, we talk. So when one of us steals, borrows or is “inspired by” somebody else’s content, we know about it. Of course, copying is a difficult issue because let’s be real, nobody is THAT original. With makeup looks, it’s more obvious. Even big influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers are guilty of being “inspired” by their peers, and it can sometimes be jarring for an independent MUA with, perhaps, a thousand or so followers to find their idol has stolen their look without credit.
Similarly, brands tend to outright lift posts off people’s feeds to use on their own channels – I even had one of my images used to advertise a sale! Clearly, this isn’t kosher. You own your image and nobody has the right to use your content as advertising. A credited repost may be okay, but it does happen that brands “forget” to credit when they lift images from instagram. Tell them off right away, in a comment or DM, and ask for credit or for the image to be taken down. Some brands do ask before using images, but not nearly enough of them do.
When it comes to influencers copying each other’s content, it’s more difficult. For one, it can be hard to claim originality if your post is generic – for instance, if somebody other than me shoots their product on a petri dish, I’m not gonna demand credit, because I probably got that idea from someone else to begin with. That said, when looks, images and text are strikingly similar or even near-identical to something you posted say, 2 weeks ago, it looks pretty darn suspicious. It’s such a sensitive topic, and calling someone out publicly may be a bad idea even if you’re right. It’s easy to look like a bully, even if you’re not. A private message questioning them is the best idea, I think, but if they’re unresponsive it’s not much use to do anything but ignore them and hope it backfires on them one day.
If you’re a follower, it can be a good idea to point out similarities but for the love of god, don’t go berserk in somebody’s comment section. It makes everyone look like a fool.
In the next and final part of this series, I’ll be answering some questions and statements about influencer culture as asked by my followers on instagram, but if you want to, leave a comment here with a topic you think I need to include!