No, the Fyre Festival debacle did not kill ‘influencer marketing’

The Promotion Fix is a​n ​exclusive biweekly column for The Drum from Samuel Scott, a global keynote marketing speaker who is a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications in the high-tech industry. Follow him @samueljscott.

If you post about marketing and have writer's block, you can always ponder whether some recent negative news over some marketing tactic will lead to the 'death' of that practice. It's unoriginal and cliched, but people will read it – even though the answer is always no.

While I was on holiday and giving a talk in Dublin last month on the biggest lies in digital marketing as part of my work as a marketing keynote speaker, Vanessa Friedman used the recent debacle of the Fyre Festival in the Bahamas and its promotional partnerships with Hailey Baldwin, Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner and Emily Ratajkowski to discuss 'The Rise and (Maybe) Fall of Influencers' in the New York Times:

“‘The influencer bubble will totally collapse in the next 12 months if people aren’t very careful about the money being thrown around as brands try to buy influencer placement,’ said Caroline Issa, the fashion director and chief executive of Tank magazine and a street-style star-turned-occasional Influencer.

"Since being what used to be called a ‘tastemaker’ became a job, and word-of-mouth tips became known as ‘influencer marketing,’ attention has been focused largely on the risks to brands in linking up with individuals.”

For those who might have missed the news, the Fyre Festival story began with advertisements like this one that included the aforementioned influencers:

(See more in the pitch deck that was obtained by Vanity Fair.) In reality, the luxury meals turned out to be two slices of bread and cheese with a few pieces of lettuce and tomato served with some dressing. The five-star accommodations were disaster relief tents. Feral dogs roamed the 'private' island, and festival attendees were stranded without water and air conditioning. What was billed as a luxury Coachella turned out to be a millennial Katrina.

In response, Amelia Tait wrote in the New Statesman that the event “conclusively proves both that influencer marketing works – and that it shouldn’t be allowed to”. Dani Simpson opined in PR Week that influencers “need to take responsibility for the weight of their personal brands and the impact their influence can have on their followers”. Davis Richardson stated in Wired that “the influencer model is now in jeopardy. And maybe that’s not a bad thing”.

Nothing will change. The Fyre Festival was terrible, but there is little that can be done to prevent anything similar from happening again. Besides, the influencers and marketers were responsible only for getting people to buy tickets. The fault lies with the event organisers on the ground, who were evidently more inept than Ashlee Simpson was at singing.

If you read too many clickbait marketing articles from people who are desperate for pageviews, you will fall under the illusion that marketing communications is constantly changing and that one thing or another is always 'dying' or 'broken'. But marcom never really changes – and when it does, it changes very, very slowly. (What does change are the channels at our disposal and the marketing collateral formats that they allow. The internet is just a new set of channels over which marketing tactics can be done.)

Influencer relations has always existed and will always exist. (Yes, I wrote 'influencer relations' and not 'influencer marketing' – more on that below.) One element of the traditional promotion mix within marketing communications is public relations (also called external communications). As defined by the Public Relations Society of America, PR is “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organisations and their publics”.

Under the umbrella term of 'public relations', there are specific practices such as media relations and community relations. In media relations, people might form relationships with journalists by giving exclusives to reporters in the hope that it will result in favorable publicity in the future. In community relations, company representatives might meet with neighbourhood residents who live near a factory to discuss environmental concerns or form an online community of product users with the goal of creating brand advocates.

In the same way, influencer relations has always been a PR tactic – even if the word 'influencer' had never been used until recently. Influencer relations is the action of building mutually beneficial relationships between an organisation and relevant celebrities or thought leaders of one type or another.

But first, an important note: people who say 'influencer marketing' are using an incorrect term. And words matter. Marketers who write generic phrases like '[random noun] marketing' are using phrasing that is too vague and imprecise to be useful – and a lot of that comes from the fact that many digital marketers have not been classically trained in marketing.

A past example of influencer relations

The use of 'influencers' is not new. Starting in the 1930s, the American cereal Wheaties used athletes to reinforce an ingenious "Breakfast of Champions" slogan that was remarkably effective in building a desired connotation among a mass audience. By the 1960s, the company had almost a 7% market share among all cereal brands (although it has since declined significantly).

Companies and their celebrity endorsers facing controversy is also nothing new. Here are just a few that were catalogued by NBC News: Kellogg’s and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, Nike and New York Yankees baseball player Alex Rodriguez, Wrigley’s and singer Chris Brown, and Subway and pitchman Jared Fogle. Most recently, CNN and Squatty Potty dealt with comedian Kathy Griffin’s 'beheading' of Donald Trump.

Cracked has more examples of influencers gone bad. So does BuzzFeed. More recently, there was Jenner (again) with Pepsi. I doubt that Bill Cosby will be selling any Jell-O Pudding Pops in the future. But influencer relations has always remained despite the bad results that happen from time to time. Why? “Nothing sells like celebrity.” It’s usually worth the risk – after all, one survey found that Pepsi’s brand favourability actually increased following the Jenner spot. (But Jenner’s did not.)

The difference in influencers today

Of course, there are some differences today. In the past, celebrity endorsements were often done through the product labeling of Wheaties cereal boxes and late actor Paul Newman’s food products or through advertising on third-party channels such as print and TV. It was always obvious that the 'influencer' is being financially compensated.

Today, many companies form relationships with influencers through the mediums that they personally use such as Instagram – although the social networks still legally 'own' the user accounts – so it is less obvious when images are commercially sponsored. (Is she wearing that dress in that photo because she likes it or because she is being paid? The US Federal Trade Commission is rightly concerned.)

But while the tactics and channels change, the overall idea remains the same. Those who think that influencer relations – or any of the many other marketing methods touted today as 'new' – is something original should remember this from Dave Trott:

“New words are more attractive than old words.

"Because you don’t have to do the hard work of having a new thought.

"You just change the word and it looks like you’ve had a new and intelligent thought.”

Influencer relations will always survive in one form or another – and today, many practitioners are taking advantage of the rise of Instagram and its users with massive followings. (This tactic also allows marketers to bypass ad blockers, which will increasingly hurt martech and adtech platforms.)

Instagram has continued to soar while Snapchat is becoming desperate following a lacklustre IPO. First, Snapchat is trying to gain more advertisers through sales promotions, which almost always hurt brands in the long term by making them look cheap and causing a downward spiral in the prices that people are willing to pay. Second, the company is trying to force users to agree to be tracked in exchange for the ability to use basic filters. That intrusion is hardly worth a set of virtual dog ears. And I’m not even discussing the new, annoying direct-response ads.

If I were a betting man, I would say that Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, is trying to contain Snapchat while deploying almost-identical features in blitzkrieg fashion to stem the latter’s user growth. As a probable result, I have yet to see Snapchat mentioned in a major news event – good or bad – in a way like the Fyre Festival.

The dark side of influencer relations

Despite the pleas from marketers with their hearts in the right places for someone, somewhere to do something to prevent another Fyre Festival, nothing will happen and there will be no increased enforcement of regulations. The US kompromat administration under president Trump is the most business-friendly one in history. People would still have gone to the event if the influencers had put the hashtag '#ad' in a comment way down at the bottom of their Instagram posts. Nothing would have changed.

Young people are young people. They like music, dancing, parties and booze. Young men like attractive young women. They want to meet and be like their idols. Many of them have little life experience. They are easily fooled and often act foolish. Same as it ever was. How many young women wanted 'The Rachel' haircut in 1995? (I’ll even point the finger at myself: In high school in the 1990s, I grew out my hair to have a 1970s haircut like Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues for far too long.)

But the dark side of influencer relations today stems beyond bad haircuts. The actors and athletes who appear in TV and print advertisements and on Wheaties cereal boxes trained for years to hone their crafts to achieve extraordinary things. They are often worthy of being role models. Many Instagram celebrities are women in dire need of sandwiches who dress in bikinis and pout their lips a little closer each day towards becoming frozen in duckface. (15 years ago, I wondered something similar: why, exactly, is Paris Hilton famous?)

Bob Garfield put it best at MediaPost when he wrote that they are “insta-escorts” who “preen for money”. Most have done nothing to warrant attention and admiration – they have merely won the genetic or parental lottery. (Leaving the rest of us in the Shirley Jackson version, I suppose.)

'Modeling' is not even an accurate term for Instagram influencers. Most traditional modeling is not only about being beautiful. Models are essentially human clothes-hangers. Top-tier models need a specific height, weight and set of body measurements – more than just a pretty face – to ensure that the clothes are displayed in a desired way. It’s also why most models in photos, fashion shows, and advertisements never smile – they do not want to distract from the clothes.

Instagram influencers such as Baldwin, Hadid, Jenner and Ratajkowski do not merely sell clothes – they sell lifestyles to the millions of women who want to be them and the millions of men who want to be with them. The modeling industry has always dealt with body-image issues among young women. I wonder what people must think when influencers tell them that their looks as well as their entire lives are inferior.

Is it any surprise that researchers from Yale University and the University of California at San Diego recently found in a study of 5,000 adults over two years that the more that one uses Facebook, the worse that one feels? Perhaps both marketers and the world in general need to spend less time on all social media. Except in specific instances like the Fyre Festival, it’s probably not going to help you to sell more stuff anyway.

While many people in the marketing industry, including myself, would prefer that companies stick to endorsements from actual celebrities such as actors, musicians and comedians through media that is more regulated, there is little that we can do about it. It’s a free marketing industry.

According to recent reports from the marketing platform Chute as well as other sources, the use of influencer relations will continue to increase. Celebrities in traditional ads might persuade people to purchase an overpriced watch or get a bad haircut. Today, influencers on social media might get people stuck on an empty island with wild dogs.

I always say: caveat emptor.

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by Samuel Scott, director of marketing and communications for AI-powered log analysis software platform Logz.io and a global keynote marketing speaker on integrated traditional and digital marketing. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.

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