As recently as fifteen years ago, the idea that a perfectly ordinary person would be able to leverage the internet to create a personal brand, attract thousands of followers (if they do it well) and be declared an ‘influencer’ (or in some cases a minor celeb) would have sounded far -fetched. After all, there was no prominent social media platform; Facebook was a year away from soft launch and YouTube, a year behind that. Instagram, stomping ground of many a prolific influencer wasn’t around until 2010. Of course, there were popular bloggers, and those who had seemingly become famous online before making it big in the ‘real world’, but they were few and far between.
Fast forward to 2018, and many of us regularly immerse ourselves in influencer’s worlds via social media. Personally I follow people whose posts I find hilariously relatable, funny, honest, in some cases aspirational, or in extreme cases wildly out of touch with my reality (but to be honest, I don’t really mind!). That’s why I’m always slightly saddened to hear that one of them has fallen victim to savage trolling, simply because they choose to leverage the opportunities afforded to them thanks to social media.
Last week, Clemmie Hooper, aka ‘Mother of Daughters’, felt compelled to take down her Instagram page after being accused of exploiting her kids via Instagram #ads on a Mumsnet chat room. In the interests of research, I read the entire thread and noted that others saw fit to criticise her for a) accepting free holidays b) sometimes wearing expensive clothes c) moving to a beautiful house d) scaling down her working week to spend more time with her family. In contrast, some Mumsnetters put up some interesting topics for discussion, namely the regulation of #ad and #spon and the ambiguity around what true third- party endorsement looks like on social media. Unfortunately, a lot of this interesting discussion was drowned out by the vitriol Clemmie received.
In a recent blog, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) gave their take on what influencer marketing means, describing it as “a practice where brands engage with popular figures on social networks such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.” They then go on to explain that “Sometimes these engagements are authentic in nature, and the influencer may be posting a genuine opinion. In such cases, these posts aren’t considered ads”. So far, so straightforward. But you could argue that the most popular influencers, who regularly get ‘gifted’ free clothes, goodies, holidays etc. may receive these gifts in the spirit they are intended (I.e. they haven’t been asked by the business in question to plug the product) but feel compelled to lavish praise in the hope that they continue to receive freebies, even if the product was mediocre. And because they weren’t paid to say so, it doesn’t have to be labelled with #ad #spon and the endorsement is seen as genuine. But is it?
Third party endorsement is an incredibly powerful tool, particularly when it comes from someone with credibility, influence and gravitas. Of course, that’s what PR is all about; it’s not about you saying you’re great but getting journalists and the media to say you’re great based on the way you communicate, the content you create and the power of your message which brings to life your product or mission. The difference between an advert in a national newspaper, and impartial editorial is usually very clear (although advertorials and sponsored content are often suitably disguised to the untrained eye).
Move across to Instagram and it’s all rather ambiguous. Is that influencer raving about something because it’s genuinely great? If it is clearly sponsored, does it make you feel the same as a traditional ad does? I think the answer is no, and that’s part of what seems to make them so inflammatory. When I read a glossy magazine, and I see an advert for a luxury Caribbean beach resort, boasting 5* plus facilities and the finest local cuisine, do I feel annoyed that I can’t afford such a holiday and complain to the magazine about how unrelatable their ad content is? No! I simply daydream about a lottery win, and then remember that I’m off to Swanage in a few weeks and that’s almost the same (!).
Yet when Clemmie Hooper enjoys an all- expenses paid trip to Florida on the proviso that she documents her stay with hourly cute pics of the kids meeting Mickey and Minnie and the such, suddenly, people are enraged that she is so out of touch with their reality – I.e. that most people can’t afford a holiday like that, and she is flouting her good fortune. That’s despite the fact that she’s followed the necessary Instagram transparency guidelines by tagging each post with #ad and being clear about how the holiday came about.
So why are people still upset? Maybe it comes down to the fact that the way brands advertise in traditional media can be quite remote. Even if they pay a celeb to sponsor their product, a static advertisement on a page or online has a shelf life, a controlled message, it doesn’t feel organic and that makes people feel, dare I say it, comfortable. They don’t care if they don’t relate because they are choosing not to buy into the brand. Yet when you’re talking about a real person on social media, whose news feed includes lots of ‘every day’ content about their disastrous trip to the supermarket where one of their small children destroyed a display of garden furniture, and the following post is them gushing about a beautiful cashmere jumper they have been #gifted, it can feel a bit confusing. Is this person genuinely giving us a window into their life, or are they doing what a lot of magazines do in those cleverly designed advertorials, that are meant to look impartial and organic, but aren’t really, perhaps fooling the reader?
There’s no easy answer to this. The original appeal of influencers was that they are more relatable than movie stars and platinum selling musicians, which is a powerful sales and endorsement tool. If you want someone to buy your ‘family brand’ cereal, would they rather see Nicole Kidman plugging it, or a mummy blogger who lives down the road from them in Streatham and who has probably at least eaten the cereal once or twice and has a similar lifestyle to them? Most people would say the latter, which means we have to stop bashing these people when they take advantage of the opportunities given to them, and endeavour to follow the (admittedly grey) guidelines around how they promote and endorse on social media.
As for the confusion around whether a non #ad or #spon post is genuine; If the influencer seems honest and has integrity, and they are raving about a restaurant they went to that you fancy trying out, then go! If they seem like the sort that would plug anything on offer regardless of relevance and you feel affronted by their apparent quest to secure an ongoing stream of freebies by posting disingenuous reviews on their newsfeed, stop following them! I Most would ignore or tune out if they read a magazine or newspaper article where they disagreed with the journalist’s point of view (with some obvious exceptions) so let’s apply the same principles to the world of social media and let the influencers do what they do without attacking them for the ambiguity of the current rules and how quickly the digital world is changing. It’s not their fault that they have entered relatively unchartered digital territory.