Remember the good ol’ days of celebrity endorsements? You know the type — TV and movie stars who show up in commercials to tell you how they just can’t live without their favorite shampoo, beer, or cooking oil.
You can’t fool us, Florence. We know you got paid a bunch of cash to pretend to care about “Wessonality.” And that’s fine because that’s how celebrity endorsements work. We learn product names from the commercials and then talk to our grandmas to find out if Wesson really makes the best fried chicken.
The social media age has ushered in a staggering number of changes to the way we buy, sell, and experience products, and one of the most profound is how social proof in the form of influencer marketing manipulates the customer journey.
For the uninitiated, influencer marketing is a strategy whereby a company purchases social capital for cash or product trade. Influencers then create sponsored content sometimes with giveaways or review products. Social capital is the currency of social media, so the more engaged followers you have, the more valuable your endorsement.
You may have seen Jameela Jamil rally against this kind of marketing “collaboration” to sell fitness detox teas or, more recently, wondered how “brand ambassador” Olivia Jade managed to get all those Amazon boxes to her dorm recycling center.
But the biggest paradigm shift in the way we consume product endorsements is who counts as an “influencer.” Everyday people who have amassed even a modest following on Instagram can create a rate card and start pitching brands. Savvy influencers have turned their endorsements into full time gigs as content creators with set fees ($1000 per blog post, $800 for a giveaway, etc.) This glossary of influencer marketing terms is a clue that this technique isn’t a quirky trend: it’s big business.
Now, I’m not anti-marketing or even influencer marketing. Far from it! I love marketing because it connects people with the products and services that make their lives better. I love influencer marketing because it has the potential to amplify the voices and presence of people who might otherwise be excluded from traditional ad campaigns. Good influencer marketing is transparent and appropriately compensated.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad practices that can make influencer marketing unethical, and that’s what I want to shine some light on today. These practices are particularly heinous in the wellness industry and end up doing much more harm than good. If you want to buy a particular brand of tequila because Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson endorses it, cool. Have a margarita for me. But if you buy fat burners and detox teas and wacky fitness contraptions because your frenemy with the impossibly chic grid says she’s never felt better, that’s a problem.
So, how do people actually end up endorsing products, anyway? As I mentioned earlier, influencers can pitch brands directly. It’s easy to find out how to do this and lots of companies have influencer management contacts.
Brands can also pitch influencers. This happens most often in celebrity-level endorsements or with influencers that have a high level engagement or expertise in a particular niche.
Other times brands reach out to their fans and offer free products in exchange for a review or other kind of endorsement. I’m in one such relationship with Superfit Hero. They give my audience a 15% discount (code: TAKEUPSPACE) and I get a free-to-me pair of leggings, which I am happy to promote because I do, in fact, love them.
No matter how the #sponsored post happens, two parties made a deal. Even if an influencer genuinely enjoys a product and wants to promote it based on their own brand loyalty, it’s still a deal. That’s business. And business isn’t bad unless it’s manipulative or dishonest or engages in bad labor practices.
Like this email pitch I got from AmbassadHer, a “female-focused club that publishes influencer-style marketing and other opportunities for it’s [sic] members.”
So, basically, this company pays influencers to buy a Hot Vita product on Amazon, leave a review, and post to their Instagram account “for at least 72 hours.” What kind of health & fitness products do you think Hot Vita makes?
Thermoactive Hot Sweat Gel
The horrible products are one thing, but it’s another thing entirely to compensate people so little in exchange for their reputation and their friends’ goodwill. If social capital is the currency of influencer marketing, then TRUST is the paper it’s printed on. And I don’t trust anyone who wants to sell me a fat burner.
I don’t have to trust Florence Henderson as a friend. The celebrity endorsement transaction is transparent enough that I understand I’m being manipulated by star-eyes for my favorite Brady. But influencers are supposed to be everyday people and that stings.
I was getting my eyebrows waxed last week when I suffered in awkward silence when was forced to listen to a fat burner ad on my aesthetician’s radio. The product was pitched by a local, on-air personality that I know in real life, and after the ad was over, my aesthetician said, “One of my clients actually bought that. Can you believe people are still falling for these ads?”
I felt bad for my on-air colleague, who I now associate in my brain as someone who once tried to sell me fat burners. I hope the sales were worth losing market share on a reliable reputation.
The doubly whammy of sleazy, manipulative tactics used to sell harmful products gives influencer marketing a bad name, but I hope that knowing more about how the proverbial sausage is made can help you see past the glowing testimonials for what they really are: companies trying to take your money. And when it comes to fat burners, weight loss supplements, and diet plans, there’s no virtue to be found.
If you want a chef’s kiss quality of life, spend your cash on professionals who can help you develop better health habits. Trust me, it’s worth it.