Reflecting on being a teen when influencer culture became toxic

I still remember the first time I came across an influencer, except she wasn't an influencer - as we now know them to be - back then. I was nearly 16 and it was just before my year 11 prom, and I'd turned to Youtube for a tutorial on doing my eye make up. 

It was Jaclyn Hill's smokey eye make up tutorial. This was 8 years ago and I don't think she had more than 100,000 subscribers, if that. I actually vividly remember refreshing Instagram and seeing Jaclyn upload a picture to celebrate reaching 1 million subscribers! If you don't know who Jaclyn is, she is a beauty influencer (notoriously one of the 'OG' influencers) with nigh on 6 million subscribers on Youtube and 6.3 million followers on Instagram. She is equally controversial as she is adored, but please don't read too much into me using her as my introductory example. It's by no means an attack on her or her business, but because I was such a huge fan of her from 2012 until just a few years ago, she seemed the obvious person to use as a springboard for what I'm about to say.

I've said for a long time that as a hobby blogger, I am in a unique position to be both the target audience for social media marketing (I'm a young adult with a disposable income) and also have had a glimpse behind the PR curtain. I'm of the opinion that these days, consumers are more savvy than ever and are in a better position to spot subtle, hidden - potentially even deceptive - ads. Sponsorships, and more subtle advertising tactics like affiliate marketing and Instagram product placement, didn't automatically sour influencer culture, of course it didn't. I make money from all those things myself, and wouldn't be able to pay my bills without it! I'm all for it, more power to the people that can turn something as everyday as social media into a viable money making opportunity or even a full time career. What has made influencer culture toxic? A lack of transparency.  

The current state of transparency is another blog post entirely, todays blog post - reflecting on being a teen when influencer culture became toxic - is about the past few years. I was basically primed as a target for social media marketing between the ages of 13 and 19 (which, for context, would have been 2010-2016) and, with hindsight, was painfully susceptible to the subtleties of the then-new influencer marketing. I had a part time job so had money to spend and no bills to pay, I was fully immersed in Facebook, Youtube, Instagram and Twitter and, obviously, was a naive teenager. When I first starting following 'influencers' on Youtube and Instagram, creators were producing wholesome content that reflected what they were actually using, enjoying, doing, eating, etcetera. Sponsored content wasn't really a thing, and I suspect brands were only just starting to tentatively send out press samples to bloggers and vloggers. 
Common sense dictates that influencer marketing mostly targets teenagers and an increasingly younger audience, because they're the ones most likely to be avidly using the platforms. And, perhaps more sinisterly, are more likely to be susceptible to influencer marketing. Influencer marketing plays on the relationship an influencer has with their audience. This on it's own is not a criticism, it makes sense for a company to place an ad with an influencer whose audience is their target audience. It becomes toxic when this becomes borderline exploitative, and for that, regrettably, I have to place blame mostly on influencers. Companies that encourage and sanction (and on some occasions, probably insist) on ambiguous or outright non-disclosure are obviously culpable but I think it's more heinous for an influencer to exploit their own audience by not disclosing press samples, sponsored content and non-monetary incentives like press trips and lavish gifts. Accepting these opportunities aren't bad, but not being transparent about it lulls the audience into a false sense of authenticity and sincerity. When you put this into the context of an engineered virtual 'friendship', I'd suggest it puts the audience into a very vulnerable position because, as far as they're aware, they can trust the influencer; they feel that the influencer cares about them. Thanks to social media, influencers and celebrities can have some kind of connection with their followers. They can reply to them, see what they're saying, see what they look like, what they like and dislike. This only serves to reinforce the sense of a real, intimate 'friendship' you can have with someone you've never met. It didn't take long for the big businesses to realise what a marketable opportunity that was. I watched before my very eyes, what I saw as an online friendship, mutate into a QVC segment.

Feeling that I had some sort of personalised relationship with an influencer like - just for example - Jaclyn Hill was, in part, due to my own naivety as a young person, but it was totally encouraged. Language matters, and we're all familiar with influencers using phrases to make you feel like you know them and they know you, like addressing you as "guys" and prefacing anecdotes with "you know me..." as well as outright saying "I promise you I will never lie to you, I promise I will never put money above my relationship with my subscribers...you guys know how much I love you and you mean the world to me. I have never felt any better in my whole life and that is because of you...you guys are seriously the most beautiful people inside and out that I've ever known in my life... and I'm so blessed to have you guys." I'm not commenting on the sincerity of the latter statement, but I don't think it's up for debate that a statement like that is deliberately meant to make an audience feel intimately connected and engaged. I vividly remember watching the vlog that quote came from and I can confirm, it certainly succeeded in validating the 'friendship' I thought I had with the girl on the screen. I did go on to buy many products she released because I wholeheartedly felt I was supporting a friend (as daft as that may sound...) 
Long-term fans of Jaclyn Hill may remember her heavily recommending Make Up Geek. I recalled that the owner of Make Up Geek had gifted Jaclyn a designer handbag in 2015. Jaclyn was touting Make Up Geek long before then. (The screenshot of the 'Best of Beauty 2013' video is of her holding up a MUG palette.) I bought lots of Make Up Geek products - multiple eyeshadows, blushes and bronzers - based on Jaclyn's recommendation. I can't help but feel that if I'd have known about the kind of business relationship Jaclyn had with MUG - which is what it was, a business relationship - I'd have been more critical of the recommendation. I'm not even saying that Jaclyn's recommendation was insincere, but it does seem very disingenuous to me, with hindsight, that there was evidently more going on behind the scenes. Most people these days probably expect, and can identify, when a recommendation is actually more of an endorsement. But back in 2013, influencer marketing just wasn't a thing yet (I don't even think the word 'influencer' existed?!) So as a viewer - in particular, a young viewer - I had no reason to think that there was anything more to a recommendation than just a friendly suggestion. The thought that an 'influencer' would be profiting - even in kind, if not financially - simply didn't even cross my mind because it was unheard of, but also because of the faux 'friendship' that influencers constructed with their audience. (I'm not pointing the finger at Jaclyn Hill, seriously! There was plenty of influencers working this way at the time, but Jaclyn was just the obvious example to me because I personally was a regular viewer and because of some of her controversies of late.) 

Using morally questionable advertising techniques like hidden affiliate links (which Jaclyn Hill was accused of doing just recently) and non-disclosed sponsorships and ongoing brand relations leaves a particularly bad taste in my mouth because influencers knowingly and deliberately establish themselves as relatable and friendly. The whole point, if you will, of an 'influencer' is that they're a regular person, not a celebrity. On this basis, they deliberately build a relationship with their audience that is designed to feel personal and intimate, rather than a 'fandom' (at least initially.) That is when influencer culture became toxic: when the penny dropped that a 'personal and intimate' sense of 'friendship' with hundreds of thousands (and these days, millions) of people was extremely profitable. And it was exploited when sponsorships, affiliate programmes and other incentives weren't acknowledged and, arguably tactically, weren't disclosed.  

Perhaps it's unfair of me to lay so much blame at the foot of influencers. Would you have turned down the opportunity to make a lot of money simply by recommending, mentioning or featuring something? And it's not like there were any formal advertising guidelines that related to influencer and social media marketing; they weren't breaking any rules at the time. Maybe it's simply that the cumulative effect that led to toxic 'influencer culture' was not foreseeable. Influencers may have lacked the foresight of the long term effects, but did they really lack the insight to not see that using a trusting audience to turn a profit, and not being open and transparent about it, is morally dubious? I've read a lot of critiques of cancel culture (and it is unnecessarily aggressive and vicious) but not a huge amount of discourse on the toxic influencer culture that preceded it. I can't help but feel that 'cancelling' has a place in a world of insidious influencer marketing. I actually think it's an inevitable byproduct of the evolution of subtle 'hidden' advertising and a false sense of security and sincerity constructed by influencers. 

We all know that these days British influencers are regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority (albeit rather loosely, in my opinion) but American influencers still seem to be a law unto themselves. When I was a teenager watching influencers, as far as I'm aware, advertising guidelines didn't apply to influencer marketing because it was such a new phenomenon. The current UK advertising guidelines that apply to social media and influencer marketing are still fresh, and flimsy at best. Influencer culture is accepted these days because it's a part of our every day lives, but it hasn't by any means improved, with influencers even blindly agreeing to promote a poisonous drink just to make money. Social media and influencer marketing is a lucrative business, and I sincerely hope that honest and deserving entrepreneurs make a lot of money from it. As it stands, in my opinion, the bigger profits tend to favour those who are willing to not disclose partnerships. This is changing, but the momentum for global change needs to be sustained because, left unchecked, the realm of social media and influencer marketing will remain toxic and dangerous. 

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2 comments

  1. I concur that there needs to be stricter regulation to make "influencers" declare when a post is an advert, whenther it's paid in cash or in kind. I especially hate the various Kardashians / Jenners and their ilk who make posts claiming they actually use a particular diet drink or other dubious product, when actually they are just paid shills.

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