Bridgepoint   |   The Point   |   December 2019   |   Issue 36
Last word

The power
and the glory

As consumers, we are used to companies advertising their wares and advising us on how to make the most of our lives. Today, however, a new breed of advertiser has sprung up – “influencers” on social media, telling us what to like and how to behave. 

Lara Prendergast, assistant editor of The Spectator, asks:  why should we believe them?

Fame used to be hard to quantify. Not any longer. Today, celebrity has been democratised and the number of followers you have on social media neatly equates with your social status.   

 

We’re used to celebrities flogging us things. For most of the 20th Century, the glamorous and the beautiful were conscripted by firms to help promote their wares. But, armed with a smartphone and lashings of chutzpah, anyone can now gain influence.

 

Social media heaves with ordinary people telling us what we should like and how we should behave, hustling to the point where their posts have “influence” and companies start to pay attention.  Once that sought-after position is reached, perks, freebies and money start flowing in.

 

As print and TV advertising collapses, money is being diverted to people prepared to become living adverts, whether it be for a new mascara or a package holiday. One friend who runs an online jewellery company admits that most of her marketing budget is spent on avaricious influencers, who demand both freebies and money in exchange for posting photos of themselves in her wares.

 

Instagram created a massive influencer industry and on average, the return on investment from one dollar is $5.20. In 2016, the influencer market was valued at $1.7 billion; this year, it’s expected to reach $6.5 billion, even though some of the claims on “Insta” are palpably absurd.

Thank you for your email looking for free accommodation in return for exposure. If I let you stay here in return for a feature in a video, who is going to pay the staff who look after you?

Free market

The Advertising Standards Agency has tried to keep up. Earlier this year, it cautioned a few hundred influencers who had failed to abide by its guidelines. Paid influencers are meant to tag their posts with #ad or #sponcon (sponsored content) if they are being paid to promote stuff. In reality, most people just ignore the guidelines. There are even wannabe influencers, who pretend to have sponsorship deals with big brands. “Fake it till you make it” is their mantra, and many succeed.

Now, however, companies are becoming more sceptical. Last year, a hotel in Dublin banned all social media stars after a 22-year-old YouTuber demanded a free five-night stay before Valentine’s Day. The owner of the hotel replied, in no uncertain terms, that this was not going to happen. “Thank you for your email looking for free accommodation in return for exposure. If I let you stay here in return for a feature in a video, who is going to pay the staff who look after you?” he wrote. “Maybe I should tell my staff they will be featured in your video in lieu of receiving payment for work carried out while you’re in residence?”.

 

This robust refusal spurred a furious backlash from the vlogger’s outraged followers, but the hotelier stood firm. Other firms are tentatively starting to follow his lead, unconvinced by the power of influencers and bored by their greed.

One recent study found that in a sample of 10,000 influencers, 25 per cent of their followers were fake

Is it for real?

There is an issue with fraud, too. Instagram may be studded with beautiful snaps, but it is rife with ugly behaviour. One recent study found that in a sample of 10,000 influencers, 25 per cent of their followers were fake. Estimates suggest, too, that advertisers who engage in social media marketing could be losing at least £1 billion a year to fraud.

Trust is a precious commodity. If an influencer starts to look like they are driven too much by commercial greed or that their followers are fake, genuine followers may drift elsewhere.

 

Today, however, these amateur celebrities continue to thrive, suggesting how we should live and where we should go. Over time, this may change – or at least the line between paid-for influence and honest opinion may become less blurred. Ultimately, we may decide we are fed up with being influenced – but that would mean making up our own minds for once n

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