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The Rise and (Maybe) Fall of Influencers

By Vanessa Friedman

Bella Hadid in Fyre Festival's promotional video.
 
Youtube
Bella Hadid in Fyre Festival's promotional video.

I never really expected to write these words, but: It was Kendall Jenner who did it for me.

Or, to be fair, not Kendall Jenner herself — or not entirely Kendall Jenner — but rather the 10th-anniversary Indian Vogue cover that featured Kendall Jenner, as conceived and photographed by Mario Testino. When released last week on the magazine’s social media accounts, it almost immediately became the centre of a storm of social media ire, most of it along the lines of this tweet: “Disgustingly inappropriate. Were ALL the Indian women unavailable??”

Which was then followed, as these things so often are, by a host of headlines like CNN.com’s “Vogue India Cover Lands Kendall Jenner in More Trouble.”

But here’s the thing: Was it really Jenner’s fault? Was she in any way culpable for this bad choice? After all, she was being used as work for hire: a body and a face to sell a magazine.

Or was she?

Therein lies the problem. Because the obvious assumption — the one made by all the worked-up folks in the Twittersphere — was that she had been employed not just as a clothes hanger (as models used to be known) but, at least in part, as herself: a public figure with an immediately recognisable name and face and family back story, along with approximately 80.3 million Instagram followers. An — and I cringe at the word, but it is in the Cambridge English Dictionary — Influencer. And that influence was part of what Indian Vogue was paying for by paying her to be on its cover.

 

 

It’s the same thing that the Fyre Festival, the famously failed music festival in the Bahamas, was paying for when it paid Jenner, along with Bella Hadid (12.7 million Instagram followers), Hailey Baldwin (10 million) and Emily Ratajkowski (12.8 million), to drum up excitement via promotional posts with said women cavorting in bikinis on a beach. It’s what, to a certain extent, Pepsi was paying for when it hired Jenner (sense a theme here?) and put her in an ill-conceived ad in which she uses a soda to soften up a police officer at a riot. It’s what Vogue Arabia was paying for when it put an only-semi-veiled Gigi Hadid on the cover of its first issue.

Whether or not it is obviously an ad, whether or not a Federal Trade Commission-required hashtag admission goes with it (and the FTC is increasingly cracking down on influencer posts, recently writing to 45 celebrities to warn them about necessary disclosures), there is, as Lucie Greene, the worldwide director of the Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson, said, “an implied individual choice.”

And that means that those involved are perceived as having a personal — not merely professional — relationship with the thing they are selling. Which in turn means they bear some responsibility for it. There is a downside to the upside of being an influencer.

Sometimes it’s literal: The Fyre Festival is facing a class-action lawsuit in which the defendants include not only the organisers but also a number of “Jane Does” who helped promote the festival.

YouTubeBella Hadid appeared in a promotional video for the failed Fyre Festival, an association she may now regret.
Bella Hadid appeared in a promotional video for the failed Fyre Festival, an association she may now regret.

Sometimes it’s reputational: After Selena Gomez, the proud possessor of the most Instagram followers badge (she had 120 million as of Wednesday), signed on to represent Coach — after having been an ambassador for Louis Vuitton, a brand with a very different aesthetic, one nonfan tweeted: “Selena Gomez, the previous face of Coca-Cola, Louis Vuitton, Verizon, and the current face of Pantene and Coach ... a joke to the industry???”

Either way, it’s real.

As with all slippery slopes, it’s easy to hop on but also easy to end up in a heap at the bottom. Which raises the possibility that we are on the verge of a new (hopefully more considered) age in the evolution of Influencer culture.

“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. See, for example, the lesson of PewDiePie, a YouTube star who had signed deals with Disney and Google and then was discovered to have made anti-Semitic statements. (The corporate brands cut all ties, not surprisingly.)

But while it’s easy to be distracted by the siren call of Influencer culture — Money for just being you! Free trips to sit front row at fashion shows! Global branding laying out the red carpet for your delicately pointed feet! — what the cases of Kendall et al. make clear is that there are also risks to individuals.

As Meridith Valiando Rojas, the co-founder and chief executive of DigiTour Media, the live entertainment company that runs Digifest, the Coachella of the YouTube generation, said, being an Influencer means you are often thought of as a “friend” by your followers. And that comes with a host of expectations that may not attach to a more traditional kind of talent.

“Youth culture can see through anything they think is inauthentic,” Greene said. And because followers have what at least seems to be direct access to their “friend” on Twitter or Instagram, they can respond directly. Also publicly.

As we go further down the rabbit hole of personal branding, new agencies are springing up with the mission of connecting brands to influencers and monetising social media presence (names like MuseFind, UP Influence and Instabrand), and traditional talent agencies like CAA and WME/IMG are signing up YouTube stars or helping their clients transform themselves into social media mavens. Magazines and ad agencies are measuring a model’s attraction not just by his or her physical dimensions but also by the number of followers. It is increasingly clear that a disconnect exists between the imperative to make as much money as possible out of your influence as fast as possible, and the need to be highly selective about how you wield your influence in order to preserve its equity.

The generation that grew up on social media, the digital natives at whom Digifest is aimed, understands this viscerally. The older generation, the ones who Rojas said “were born not on social platforms but as traditional celebrities and have migrated to social afterward,” seems to be learning the hard way. And that may, in the end, change the equation. Or at least ... well, influence it.

Sorry. Couldn’t resist.