A ‘surprise’ engagement on Instagram that turned out to be a marketing exercise has raised the hackles of influencer marketing experts trying to show the space is cleaning up its act.
Last week, Goop’s head of brand partnerships and aspiring influencer, Marissa Fuchs, was whisked away by her significant other for a proposal-turned-wedding in France. The elaborate event was documented via Instagram Stories and streamed to her 200,000 followers.
But, it later emerged that the ‘surprise’ had been pitched to advertisers in a detailed marketing deck months in advance.
The marketing "opportunity", as reported by The Atlantic, meticulously outlined the trip's itinerary, the relationship of the pair and the content plan for Instagram. The final clincher slide detailed 'Brand Fuchs' and the potential reach of her platform. It was reportedly sent to multiple brands and agencies leading up to the "one-of-a-kind proposal experience for a one-of-a-kind female ambitionist."
Fuchs' partner, Gabriel Grossman, has since insisted the blogger was unaware of the pitch, or proposal, and claimed it was compiled by a friend in the ad industry, Elicia Blaine Evans, who took it upon herself to engage brands in the scheme.
Grossman also said the pair received no direct payment for the posts.
However, The Drum counted no fewer than 24 brand mentions in four separate Stories posts. These ranged from fashion companies such as Love Shack Fancy and Ramy Brook, which appeared to gift clothing, to Tumi Travel, whose suitcases were heavily featured, and Delta Airlines, which the couple used for their flights to Paris.
Grossman later confirmed that photography service Flytographer provided three photographers for free, while Jade Trau gave him a significant discount on jewellery. On-demand beauty app Glamsquad, meanwhile, provided free hair and makeup. Flywheel gifted a free, private exercise class.
In the UK, where the Advertising Standards Authority has implemented guidelines for influencer marketing, the couple would have been required to make it clear which products, flights, hotels or meals at restaurants had been gifted to them.
But, as Anna Hart, founder of marketing agency One Roof Social points out, regulation in the US is drastically different.
“The [Fuchs'] marketing deck was also vague and didn't have things like a rate card, so I would assume that everything was done on a gifting basis. And you don't have to declare that in the US,” Hart said, adding that in her experience, brands continue to prefer working with US influencers as gifting can still “look organic”.
'A blatant attempt to monetise her engagement'
It’s not the concept itself that's irked the industry. In fact, many have highlighted how it cleverly played into people’s interest in following a love story. Others have said it is the modern, social equivalent of celebrities 'selling' life moments to magazines such as Hello and OK.
Instead, their biggest critics stress that Fuchs and Grossman's lack of transparency about brands' involvement not only further damages the trust people put in influencers (a recent study into the attitudes of 56,000 people by media agency UM found that just 42% of respondents trust bloggers and vloggers for product recommendations) but has put an unfair spotlight on an industry still trying to prove its value after being called out for “dishonest business models” and fraudulent activity by the world's most influencial CMO.
“Audiences are looking for authentic content and respond well to personal insight into an influencers’ life – this creates the foundation for a trustworthy endorsement," said Adam Williams, chief executive of influencer platform Takumi.
"A marriage proposal is such an intensely emotional and personal event, it’s likely that Fuchs’ followers would have had a genuine, emotional reaction to her engagement. However, many may have felt betrayed by her potentially duplicitous attempt to commodify a significant life milestone.
“The brand partnerships for Fuchs’ engagement were very transactional. As opposed to genuine endorsements from Marissa and her partner with a deep-dive into why the brand might be relevant to her engagement, Fuchs bounced from place to place chalking up multiple brand mentions. None of these posts were tagged with #ad or marked as a gift. These didn’t feel like authentic collaborations – rather, it seemed like a blatant attempt to monetise her engagement for financial gain at the expensive of deceiving her loyal audience.”
Williams predicted that the brands involved in the staged experience will not remain unscathed, suggesting public perceptions and sentiment will have negatively affected their credibility.
“Consumers are savvy and can see straight through thinly-veiled partnership agreements such as this. The public is increasingly holding brands accountable for their unethical quest for profit,” he added.
Though the “reality TV on steroids” moment, as Hart put it, will have drawn viewers in the hundreds of thousands in the short term, Fuchs’ credibility and ability to work with brands in the long term might take a hit as a direct result of the lack of transparency. Hart said she would advise her clients against taking the "risk" of working with an influencer like Fuchs.
Reports also emerged that Goop, her employer, had no knowledge of the stunt, despite a portion of it taking place in its New York office. Goop’s attempts to distance itself have further highlighted the challenges facing those that have built their large followings as a direct result of their full-time jobs.
Think Sarah Harris, deputy editor at Vogue, or Lisa Aiken, fashion and buying director at Modaoperandi, who have become brands in their own right due to the exposure and unique access to products and experiences they have in their day-to-day jobs.
“My main issue is the manipulation of bringing together her professional role, Instagram following and want of stuff – that’s where it's gone wrong,” said Hart. “If the brand partnerships director at Goop, or her fiancé, asked a brand to get involved [the brand] won't say no.”
The overriding message from those in the industry is broadcasting a proposal, wedding or any other kind of life event is not the problem. Expect to see more of it. But, if it’s to be successful for both the influencer and brand, then all parties must be upfront with the audience.
"Firstly, we need to wake up to the fact that influencer marketing is an industry and [influencers] want to make money," said We Are Social’s chief strategy officer, Mobbie Nazir. "Secondly, brands need to feel like it’s not a dirty little secret if they decide to invest in influencers and their content - it's media spend.
“What irked people most seemed to be the fact it was pitched a ‘surprise’ yet brands had been briefed in advance. It's less obvious on social media than in traditional advertising when something is ‘real’ and when it’s not. Brands working with influencers need to be open, honest and transparent about their involvement – and make sure the influencer is too.”