It isn’t often that multiple films come out at the same time about the same topic. And yet two new documentaries—Fyre Fraud and Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened—purport to illuminate the strange case of the Fyre Festival.
For those that don’t know, the Fyre Festival was a music festival in the Bahamas organized by Billy McFarland, a New York marketing CEO and scammer. McFarland and the festival’s organizers claimed Fyre was going to be one of the most lavish and luxurious parties of the century. McFarland had promised amazing food, famous bands, beach-front accommodations, and the ability to rub shoulders with some of the most beautiful and most powerful people in the world.
When guests arrived, however, they realized that the festival was not as promised. Instead of yachts, pavilions, and food, guests received tents and sandwiches. Flights on and off the island were blocked, and the situation quickly deteriorated. Only a single local band played, and after 24 hours the lack of sanitation, food, and shelter.
One of the major questions that emerged from the failure of the festival was how such a massive fraud could take place. People paid hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to attend based on the promise of an epic party. However, that promise was not made through traditional advertising. Instead, McFarland paid “media influencers” to talk about the festival with their audiences. Models like Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, and others promoted the event, often without signaling that they were doing so as an advertisement. Consumers were then led to believe that these prominent people would be there and took that as a sign of the legitimacy of the event.
What happened on the island was a clear case of fraud. However, the incident is going to be remembered more for bringing issues with influencer marketing into the spotlight. The festival reveals the power and reach of media influencers—for good or bad.
What Is Influencer Marketing?
Influencer marketing is the use of a popular figure, typically on social media, to promote a product, service, or event. Rather than focus on a target market or a product, advertisers will use someone (the “influencer”) to mention the product, service, or event to their audience. The understanding here is that influence sells the product—the object of the advertising doesn’t sell itself.
This idea isn’t new. For centuries, companies have used individuals to sell their products. In the 20th century alone, the rise of commercials starring celebrities—everyone from movies, TV shows, and music—was predicated on the fact that people wanted to use products associated with their favorite stars, regardless of whether the sales proposition of that product related to them.
The use of this type advertising has faded over time as many celebrities have determined that their integrity or social image would be damaged by hawking questionable goods. However, stars might still sell products that they actually use or that don’t conflict with their image (or, in cases of extreme commercialism, many celebrities simply shoot commercials in Asian countries to avoid damaging their reputation in the U.S.).
Influencer marketing, however, has taken up the slack by plugging into everyone’s connection on social media. Instagram and Snapchat have become centers for influencer marketing, where individuals can build networks of thousands of people who follow their words, images, and recommendations every single day. It isn’t a prerequisite that an individual be a “star” to have influence. Regular people, smaller celebrities, or anyone with the time, skill, and inclination to build a social media audience can be an influencer.
What Is the Issue with Influencer Marketing?
The primary issue is that it isn’t obvious when someone is marketing to you.
Take a commercial or an ad on Facebook. When that advertisement appears on your screen, you know exactly what it is: someone is trying to sell to you. That isn’t bad, necessarily. In fact, knowing that someone is trying to sell you something is the best way to determine if you want to buy a product. They must work, to some extent, on gaining your attention, trust, and money.
Influencer marketing, on the other hand, is a bit more disingenuous. An “influencer” selling you a product might post their advertisement of that product within their social media feed as if it were any other snippet of their life. That is, they would convince you that they use a product, or work with some service, as part of their routine. They might praise that product for how wonderful it is, how well it serves them, how much it saves them money, and so on.
Not much different from a commercial, right? Wrong.
Because the ad is pushed in their social media feed, and because there currently isn’t much regulation on how influencers disclose their role as advertisers, members of their audience could be tricked into thinking that they actually use a product. What seems like an endorsement of a product by someone influential is a bought and paid for advertisement.
Advertisers and influencers leverage the seeming “reality” of social media to convince audiences that the products they sell are an organic part of their everyday lives. If one influencer mentions that product, then another, and then another, a shared audience might literally be tricked into thinking a product is taking off because of its merits and value.
More significantly, influencer marketing reflects the people that we follow and look up to. The reason the Jenners of the world can have such an impact is because few people really engage with them on anything more than a superficial level. So, when they decide to take advantage of their position, those taken advantage of have no idea about what is really happening.
What Does the Fyre Festival Have to Do with Influencer Marketing?
Our initial reaction to the Fyre Festival is that rich and famous people were tricked into attending a party that really didn’t exist. We might not feel a lot of sympathy for them. Sure, it sucks that they lost out on that money, but they should have been paying attention.
Except that the advertising tricks used by influencers can damage the brand and the influencer, and they can undermine the structure of social media in the following ways:
- If a brand associates with an “influencer” and that individual commits a crime or turns out to be a racist alt-right goblin, then the brand’s image is irrevocably damaged. Companies using influencer’s run the risk of tying their entire image to the brand in a more intimate way than traditional marketing, and thus taking a hit if that relationship doesn’t work out.
- If the brand is fraudulent (as in the case of the Fyre Festival) then the influencers involved look foolish and lose a lot of credibility.
- If everyone is looking to build an audience to advertise, then the line between authentic social engagement and advertising becomes blurred. Instead of finding real people who might offer help or might look to start their own businesses online, we have individuals who gain a following only to turn around and monetize their followers.
Since influencer marketing is built on the relationship between an influencer and an audience, it also reflects the people that we associate with. If someone takes advantage of their audience, there is a direct correlation between that fraudulent marketing and the quality of the person advertising.
Should I Use Influencer Marketing?
When it comes to small or mid-sized business, this question is less relevant. There isn’t anything wrong with getting endorsements and support if your customers like your product and your advertisers present a respectable image for your company.
However, if you look to “influencers” to promote your brand, realize that you are selling an image and not a product. Your goods and services are secondary to the sale, which isn’t going to promote longevity in terms of actual customer retention (unless, you know, you have a good product).
Influencer marketing does teach us a lesson about sales, however. Don’t sell what you can’t back up. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. It can be tempting to promise the world and use underhanded tactics just to get clicks, calls, sales, and support. But in the end, it will all fall apart. Use real advertising that speaks to your real target market and that supports a product you are proud of. If you follow these principles, everything will work out.