It’s hard to imagine that it’s only been a few short years since Instagram influencers burst onto the scene. With their legions of followers and aggressive content schedules, it can appear to be a lucrative career for those lucky enough to make it big. However while it’s clear that Instagram influencers are here to stay, it’s worth noting that at the end of the day they are marketers first, celebrities second.
How the rise of Instagram influencers changed the marketing landscape
If you browse Instagram, you’ve probably seen it before. The profiles of impossibly beautiful women who seem to only travel to the most amazing destinations in the world. Their manicured photos suck you right in. You want to be in that tropical paradise, or on that deserted beach too. Then you start to notice that they’re constantly spruiking some sort of product. One post it’s a health supplement, the next it’s a beauty cream. You realise you’ve falling head-first into a highly polished ad reel and you’re being sold stuff in an underhand way.
Suddenly that deserted beach doesn’t seem quite as alluring as it did just moments before.
Celebrity endorsement 2.0
Whatever your take on instagram influencers is, there’s little sign that they’re going anywhere. According to CBS, the influencer industry will be worth roughly $10 Billion by 2020. That’s some serious money. However, it’s worth noting that the current influencer trend is only the latest iteration of a marketing trend that’s been used effectively for eons.
Celebrity endorsements work. People believe they’re getting a better product and are likely to remember the ad when they’re endorsed by a celebrity that they like. So it’s no surprise that individuals who have developed a large following on social media platforms like Instagram would turn to product endorsements as a way to earn money.
But this can be a double-edged sword.
Earlier this year, a group of high-profile beauty bloggers fell from stratospheric heights due to a public falling out. Allegations of racism and toxicity were thrown about over social media, including the dredging up of old social media posts. The fallout was that some beauty bloggers lost hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and potentially thousands of dollars in revenue.
Recently it was revealed that some companies go to extraordinary lengths to promote their products. The Verge reported that beauty influencers can demand upwards of $60,000 for a single promotional video. Not only is that an obscene amount of money, but unless you’re a large company, the chances are that you won’t be able to pay that much.
To make matters worse, it’s been alleged that some companies are paying influencers to post negative reviews of their competitors products. If such practices are true, it raises doubts over the authenticity of influencers as a whole.
This poses a serious problem. If influencers are marketing specific products and are being paid to bad-mouth the competition, how are their followers supposed to decipher what is real and what isn’t? Especially if their followers are young and haven’t developed critical thinking skills. They won’t necessarily realise that the media they’re consuming is biased.
An Australian perspective
In Australia, there are ethical guidelines that cover all editorial content. These are set by the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA), the peak national body for advertising. They state that paid content must be clearly defined, and cannot be concealed.
However in 2016, Paul Barry and the ABC’s Media Watch outlined a case where influencer Zoe Foster Blake was promoting a range of YouFoodz meals that she had in her fridge. While she wasn’t paid for the Instagram plug, it was eventually revealed that she received the products for free. This sort of endorsement is somewhat of a grey area, because technically it wasn’t an advertisement.
Moving forward, how do we enforce such standards on those who live and work overseas? After all, the internet has no geographical boundaries.
It’s clear that influencers aren’t going anywhere. If anything, they’re going to become more prevalent and influential as platforms like Instagram become even more popular. However, it is necessary to realise that influencers are just the latest intention of celebrity endorsement. The difference is that their fame can be fickle and fleeting. Sponsors, promotors and fans can evaporate for any perceived slight or transgression.
What is important to remember is that younger people may not necessary understand that the products influencers promote are actually paid advertisements. It might be worth examining how to better educate consumers, and provide clearer disclosures when promoted products are actually ads in disguise.