6 Questions Bloggers Should Really Be Asking...

I have just had a month-long break from blogging, the longest I've ever had a little hiatus. It started off as unintentional, but after a week with no motivation and no interest in writing, I decided to consciously take a break. 

In the least cliche way possible, I've genuinely reflected on what I want this website to be. If I am to come under the cringe-worthy umbrella term "influencer", what do I want my influence to be? 

Here's some questions I've asked myself with regard to my platform over the past few weeks, and I encourage other bloggers to start asking them too. 

Is there inclusivity behind the scenes? 
Being a one-woman-band, this obviously doesn't apply to my website, but it certainly applies to brands I work with going forward. Before collaborating with any brand from now on, I will consider inclusivity: is this company more than just an 'old boys club' or do they have women in leadership roles, and black people and other ethnic minority backgrounds? The Pull Up For Change campaign was very eye opening, so many big companies I know and love have so little diversity, especially in higher up roles. I'll be applying similar vigour to examining if a company is inclusive to women and - it's shocking it should even need to be mentioned - fat people! The issue of discrimination against would-be employees who have larger bodies was on the news recently and I was shocked, so I'll be sure to keep an eye out for brands who 'coincidentally' have a vast number of thin employees (LinkedIn is a good place to start, FYI!) 

Do they represent a diverse range of people? 
And I'm not just interested in if a company has a diverse range of staff on their books, I'll also be concerned about their marketing going forwards: what does it look like? If their Instagram is entirely comprised of thin able-bodied gender conforming white women, I'll take a rain check on a collaboration until they fix that. Remember when Oh Polly had a separate Instagram page for plus size fashion

What are we telling women?
Building on the above - the inference being that all women should look pale, have a flat stomach, little waist, big boobs and permanently in make up - I'm starting to question my role in sending harmful messages to women. Whilst yes I know women can do whatever they want and be empowered in any way they choose (including to wear make up, for some) but, as a beauty blogger publishing content on the internet for literally anyone to access, I want to be thinking about women as a group, as a whole. Whilst it's no problem if my rave review about a certain beauty product reaches a woman that enjoys make up, it might be sending the wrong message to women who don't. Marketing rhetoric will always play on insecurities to tell women they must look a certain way, and that's not what I want my blog to be conveying. I'm not singling out any brands in particular because they all do it, and for the same reason, I can't truthfully say I'll never work with a brand that is selling women a regressive stereotype. But what I will commit to is, firstly, being more discerning when it comes to avoiding the biggest culprits of selling misogynistic propaganda, and also carefully considering my own wording in the future. For example: I was recently approached by a company that sells wax strips designed for 'on-the-go', and their marketing content specifically references needing to attend to pesky, unsightly hair "on a date". This kind of message - that natural hair is hideous, problematic and in need of 'fixing', particularly if you're about to face a man - is not something I personally want to be sharing. I know some women would find on-the-go wax strips genuinely convenient and helpful (to be honest, I'm probably one of those women) but I don't want my blog to be somewhere that tells women they must be armed at all times with an on-the-go hair removal kit, lest a man catch us being 'ugly'! That's a very tame example, but did you see the ad for a 'vaginal cleansing brush' doing the rounds? When it comes to products that's selling women the notion they need to meet an ideal, we need to be more mindful in our approach. We can't escape those kinds of products or that kind of marketing, but we can certainly change the narrative a bit by confronting the message and implications for women as a demographic, even if it's not personally bothersome to us. 

How ethical are the brands we're working with? 
With growing consumer concerns for the ethics of whom we're buying from, it's plain to see that lots of companies have, rather than take any meaningful steps towards - as obvious examples, being environmentally friendly and cruelty free - chosen to attempt to cash-in, disingenuously using labels like 'vegan' like a gimmick. This was first brought to my attention by Ellie Stennett @ellierhianstennett, an Instagram creator with a focus on vegan and cruelty free beauty and lifestyle. I love her series showing beauty brands falsely labelling themselves vegan and/or cruelty free, and, after seeing Ellie's posts, I actually chose not to purchase products I was ready and waiting to hand over my money for, based on the realisation that they were, basically, lying. I don't know about you, but I didn't even realise this was a practice in the beauty industry, it's passionate proactive creators like Ellie who are asking good questions and whistleblowing on real problems. She says, 
"I like to use my Instagram page to call out brands that put cruelty-free and/or vegan logos on their products when they very much aren’t. It’s a great way for other accounts to tag, comment, share and generally just spread the word and hopefully that will help one more person realise that that brand is not cruelty-free or vegan. I like to include information as to why that brand isn’t cruelty-free/vegan for added context, and also direct people to brands who value ethics over money in the hope they will get more support and are a good alternative. I have emailed many brands over the months to tell them I’m unhappy with how they’re putting ‘vegan-friendly’ or a fake cruelty-free logo on a product when I know full well through extensive research into that brand that they are not cruelty-free or vegan-friendly. I very hardly hear a reply back, or if I do it’s a very generic reply, but I do think it helps. If everyone did this, the more the brand would take notice. I’ve recently started doing the same on Instagram as you get a ‘seen’ come up if they have read it, which helps me understand which brands are straight up ignoring me and don’t want to respond, compared to those who may not have seen my original email. I’m not afraid to tell other people that a product they’re using has been mislabeled and they shouldn’t support it anymore, whether this is online or to their face – all in the nicest way possible of course! It may not make any difference right then and there, but if I also offer an alternative brand/product they may opt for that instead next time! All about raising awareness! I also have a series on my blog called ‘are they cruelty-free’ that explores different brands and their animal testing policies."
I also asked Ellie for her thoughts. 
"I think the main issue is there is no legal definition for the term ‘cruelty-free’ in the cosmetic or beauty industry, so brands can put ‘cruelty-free’ on a product even if it is not. Alongside this, a brand can be cruelty-free, but not completely vegan. The same as a brand can be vegan, but not cruelty-free. As cruelty-free and vegan products start to become more popular, the bigger the problem is as more and more brands are jumping on the vegan-washing train in the hopes to appeal to a new audience by slapping a vegan or bunny logo on their products, and sadly for some, just seeing a ‘vegan’ or ‘cruelty free’ logo is enough, when in reality it is no where near enough. It is a big problem because brands that truly are cruelty-free and vegan are losing support, sales and recognition for their true and genuine hard work to create great products without harming any cute little animals, while brands that are well known for animal testing are using the terms ‘cruelty-free’ and ‘vegan’ as a marketing tactic, growing in sales while still supporting and funding animal testing. It’s just a shame that some companies value money over ethics, and that’s the biggest issue."

I also asked Ellie what we, as average consumers, can do to identify misleading labelling:

"The first step I take when shopping with a new brand or a brand I’ve not researched much into before about their animal testing policies is looking for a legitimate and certified cruelty-free and vegan logo. There are three trusted logos out there, which are the Leaping Bunny/Cruelty-free International logo, PETA Cruelty Free logo, and Choose Cruelty Free logo. If a product has a cute little bunny logo or a little vegan logo, but it’s not a certified one, that does not automatically mean they are not cruelty free nd/or vegan - do a little digging first, contact the brand, read blog posts, ask bloggers, look on their Instagram, find out if they have a parent company, and see if they sell in mainland China. I think it’s also really important to remember that a company must pay to license and use one of the three certified bunny logos. That means a company can be certified cruelty-free and meet all the standards, but they might not be able to afford to pay and use the logo on their packaging. For example, brands such as BYBI Beauty, Evolve Beauty, Sukin, and many more all follow the rules for a certified cruelty-free logo, they just don't have one on their packaging."

I also asked Ellie what questions she asks herself when she's shopping for vegan and cruelty-free products.

"Firstly, I ask ‘is this a real and certified cruelty-free logo?’ and if it isn’t then I take a look at their website FAQs and read their animal testing statement/policy. If I’m still unsure, my next question is ‘Does so-and-so follow them on Instagram?” so I will go to Instagram and which trustworthy cruelty-free and vegan influencers follow the brand. I have a few who are my ‘golden rule’ influencers and I trust their judgment very much. If they follow them, that’s reassuring, but I always need to know more. If they don’t follow them, then warning signs are going off that this is not a trustworthy brand. Next, are they on any cruelty-free approved list by big names such as Crueltyfree Kitty or Logical Harmony? If yes, then that’s a massive bonus point! If not, warning signs again. Next, I'll try emailing the brand. I have a list of questions (which can be found on my IG feed) that I ask a brand directly. If their answers are repeated from their FAQs or very blunt/not informative/ kind of feels like I’m talking to a robot then I don’t trust them. If they give genuine answers that I’m happy with and tick all the boxes I agree with, including asking why they don’t have a certified logo, then I am happy to support this brand. Finally, I look around and see if other bloggers have asked the same question as me, which is normally “is XXX cruelty-free?’ – sometimes they may have written a blog post on their experiences with contacting that brand that may shed some more light into their animal testing policies. It takes a fair bit of research over a couple of days, especially when waiting for a brand to reply, but totally worth it when you find out about another brand that is truly cruelty-free in which you can support."

Ellie concludes: 

"To whomever is reading this, don’t be too hard on yourself. Shopping cruelty-free can be difficult if you’re just starting out and trying to swap to a kinder skincare or makeup bag. Be kind to yourself and don’t give up! Brands can be sneaky in their transparency for animal testing, but it takes a little research, patience and sticking to your ethics to really make a difference. Every little really does help in the fight to end animal testing, that one cruelty-free mascara you purchased, loved and recommended to a friend is two more sales which are not going towards a company that hurts tiny little animals. You won’t love every product you try, but that goes for the same for brands that do test on animals, so try another cruelty-free brand, maybe you’ll love that one!"

Are we using images legally? 
Some companies will place content on creator's platforms as a way of targeting their audience. 'Influencers' will be given an article to publish, or given an image to upload to Instagram with a pre-written caption or a template to follow. There's nothing wrong with this (provided it's disclosed it's a guest post, which I think most people do.) Often content we're being asked to host will include supplementary images that are provided along with the text. We need to start asking if the brand or the PR agency seeking coverage has a right to use this imagery. As a photographer, I use as service to trace my images online to ensure my copyright isn't being infringed. On numerous occasions I've come across guest posts which include my images, I've contacted the blogger and they've said the company who provided the content also sent the pictures to include, they just didn't think to ask if they had a right to use them or not. I don't blame the blogger, but I do want to encourage all of us who accept guest posts or host ads which include provided images to start checking permissions before we press publish. Because it's not just photographers who are vulnerable, it's not unheard of that brands will pull photographs from customers, bloggers and other content creators and use them for marketing purposes online and in-print, often without their permission. Even worse, I've seen brands comment on photos they've been tagged in (by paying customers, not just bloggers!) saying 'reply with #YesBrand if we can repost this' and if they check the terms and conditions before replying, they'd know that '#YesBrand' gives them the right to reproduce the content online, in printed media... sneaky!
Is this collaboration weighted fairly? 
When you're offered a collaboration, ask yourself: am I getting a fair deal? As a blogger, you are providing a service: creating imagery, copy writing, managing social media and giving a brand to access your audience (which will no doubt be their target audience) and are therefore entitled to be adequately compensated. For this to be in the spirit of true partnership and collaboration, not only should the brand provide you with the materials you need to create content (i.e free product!) but they should also pay you for the roles you're fulfilling. With all the money and resources that were previously pumped into traditional marketing tactics like TV ads, newspapers and magazines now being fuelled into social media marketing, why are content creators so underpaid? You're creating content that brands would otherwise have to pay for (photographers, studio hire, advertising space, producers...) There's a huge discrepancy across influencer's rates - check out the 'Influencer Pay Gap' on Instagram - so I can't offer any kind of guide for what you should be charging, but what I will say is to know your worth. If 'influencer'/social media marketing wasn't profitable, it wouldn't be so prolific - and you need to make sure you're being paid your fair share for contributing to a brands image, reputation and sales. Your contribution can be as overt as brands reposting your pictures to being asked to take part in an advertising campaign for free (how often have you been asked to say something specific when writing a 'voluntary' review on PR samples? That's an ad campaign!) Content creators, as a collective, must start challenging the dynamic between brands and influencers to make sure a collaboration is not unfairly weighted. By working for free, not only are bloggers consenting to the meaningful contribution of content creators being chronically undervalued, they are devaluing all of our work. Why would someone pay me to produce content, and all the effort and expertise that requires, when someone will do it for free? Not to mention that 77% of influencers are women - so this is just another example of the gender pay gap and of women doing unpaid work.

Thank you for reading, and thank you again to Ellie for sharing her infinite wisdom in regards to sussing out the real from the fake cruelty-free market. 

 You can also find me on Bloglovin' Twitter Facebook & Instagram 

Christine, https://www.theuncorkedlibrarian.com
Amy Gesenhues, https://marketingland.com/women-make-up-majority-of-influencer-community-earn-less-than-male-influencers-262193

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