In November, actress Jameela Jamil spoke out against “detox” tea – tea that claimed to help young women slim down through removing toxins in their body – and the social media influencers promoting the product on social media towards their young fan base.
Jameela spoke out against celebrities such as Cardi B and the Kardashian-Jenner women who promote the tea despite never having to use it. She claimed that celebrities, especially those promoting the product, are unlikely to use it, yet they continue to endorse the product to their fans. And she’s right to speak about it: according to nutritionists, the concept of “detox” is misleading. The liver is responsible for detoxifying the body, and what the tea does is simply act as a laxative to help women lose water weight.
While Jameela’s video – a parody of her acting as an influencer promoting tea – and the succeeding social media posts promote body positivity and a healthier way of weight loss, as a digital marketer and social media manager, the part of her tirade that got me thinking was her bit about how social media influencers were paid to promote a product. I’ve dealt with influencers in the past who required that they tried out the product and fully supported the product before sharing it with their fan base, but I’d be lying if I said all influencers were like that.
In the past, it was much harder to tell which influencer posts were paid ads and which ones where genuine posts and a branded object just happened to be in the picture. Today, the Federal Trade Commission and social media are doubling down on efforts to separate genuine posts from ads. However, just because it’s a legal ad doesn’t necessarily mean that a celebrity endorses or is responsible for the effects of the product. And that raises questions on the ethical issues of social media influencer marketing.
Social Media Influencers
Social media influencers are people with a large fan base on any social media website. There’s no specific minimum number of fans to become a social media influencer, but the bigger reach an influencer has, the more they earn. For example, an influencer with a fan base of a thousand followers may be asked to promote a brand in exchange for free product samples, but give the same offer to Kendall Jenner – who charges around half a million dollars per paid post and has a reach of a hundred million followers – and she would probably just laugh at your offer.
It’s a lot of money for one post, but apparently, it’s effective enough that influencer marketing – where businesses pay influencers to promote their products and influence their fans to buy from the business – has become a billion-dollar industry in 2018, and is expected to double next year. You might think yourself prone to ads and marketing strategies, but younger people and teenagers are vulnerable to their clear-skinned idols telling them they get clear faces and flatter tummies because of the product they’re using. And it’s effective in getting business the spotlight they need.
The highest paid influencer this year, Kylie Jenner, makes a million dollars for every post. She’s followed by Selena Gomez at $800,000, Cristiano Ronaldo at $750,000, Kim Kardashian at $720,000, and Beyoncé at $700,000.
When Paid Posts and Responsibility Meet
Social media influencers get an offer, they get paid, and they endorse the product, service, or event on their social media. However, the ethical questions start when an influencer accepts money, endorses the business, and encourages their fans to support the product. But what if something goes wrong? If the product is actually harmful or the service is a scam, what’s to say that the influencer is not responsible for convincing people that the business is legitimate?
And it’s a scenario that has already happened way before the detox tea. You might remember a certain music festival known as the Fyre Festival. I was on Twitter when the outbreak happened, and people realized they had paid thousands of dollars to get a first-hand experience of sub-par meals and poor beach conditions. The festival was advertised as a luxury weekend getaway where people got luxurious accommodations, five-star food, exclusive access to fun beach activities. They were also promised there would be influencers, models, and celebrities roaming around the party to socialize with them.
But when the chaos was over and the people realized none of that was going to come true for them, officials investigating the case found that a lot of people were convinced to join the Fyre Festival because social media influencers such as Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, Hailey Baldwin, and other celebrities were paid to endorse the event.
These influencers were featured in the Fyre Festival commercial and they posted over Instagram encouraging their followers to meet them during the festival. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that their ads were not listed as ads, nor was there a sufficient disclaimer. If it wasn’t for these influencers, people wouldn’t be driven to buying access to the Fyre Festival. So, is it right for these influencers to assume partial responsibility over what happened to their fans who were left stranded in the Bahamas?
Transparency and Honesty
Influencers are being paid a lot of money to promote and endorse a brand, but sometimes they don’t disclose that they’re being paid. Sometimes, they will take a photo with the product and then never use it again once their contract has been fulfilled. What’s dangerous is that young fans will easily believe that their idol is genuinely using this product, when really it is simply a sponsorship deal.
And because influencer marketing is fairly new, the FTC has no specific way to label influencer ads, except with a vague “put a disclaimer that the post is an ad”.
Maybe it’s time we take a page out of Australia. In 2017, they updated their Advertiser Code of Ethics, citing that all advertising, including influencer marketing, has to be clearly distinguishable. This ensures the audience know that it is an ad, which can sometimes be misleading.
Apart from the need to promote body positivity and healthier forms of weight loss, Jameela Jamil brought to the spotlight another issue with influencers in general: they have the ability to influence their fans and encourage them to buy a product that they themselves would not use. It’s dangerous, especially considering that social media has younger, more impressionable users, and gives the false sense that a product could work just because a celebrity says so.