Is it possible for an influencer campaign to be a little too effective? To announce the arrival of Fyre Festival, a new Bahamas-based festival that billed itself as an ultra-glamorous, highly exclusive Coachella alternative, organizers behind the event reached out to 400 influencers in various sectors to build hype, and even held an Insta girl photoshoot that included Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, Hailey Baldwin, Elsa Hosk, and Rose Bertram posing in swimsuits aboard a yacht.
But what was sold as a supermodel-packed escape turned out to be a dystopian nightmare instead: Reports included little to no actual on the ground preparation, with poorly constructed tents, bad food, canceled flights, and canceled headliners. As harrowing images flooded in on social media from the festival site as attendees attempted to return home (in itself a reportedly traumatic experience), the Internet began to turn on the ones who sold them this dream in the first place: Fyre Festival organizers, of course, but also the Insta girls who’d made it look so great to begin with.
With the lines between communicating with followers and commerce increasingly blurred–look no further than the FTC’s recent crackdown on branded content guidelines—and the outrage surrounding Pepsi’s poor-taste commercial featuring Kendall Jenner, Fyre Festival is just the most recent example of social media-based influencer campaign gone wrong. Which brings us to the question: To what extent should a celebrity or blogger be held responsible for what they personally endorse?
Sure, it’s advertising—and for the very famous, it’s easy money. But the implications behind an Insta girl shilling for a slimming tea on her Snapchat is decidedly different than that same person appearing in a magazine ad for the same product. (If it wasn’t, the FTC wouldn’t have to get involved.) “On some level, I think it’s a lot more personal of a decision than the way a magazine would do an advertorial,” says Karen Robinovitz, cofounder and co-CEO of Digital Brand Architects. “A magazine doing an advertorial still doesn’t necessarily have to feel like a 1,000 percent endorsement from that magazine. Everything an influencer puts on his or her feed in some way, paid or not, is an endorsement. When someone is getting behind a brand, a product or an item, he or she has to think about the association and really believe what’s being shown; influencers have to be able to stand up for what they post and be passionate about what they’re doing.” When things go wrong, it could affect that person’s marketability going forward: Say an It girl repeatedly instagrams herself using a brand of toothpaste that actually made people’s teeth fall out. A big beauty brand isn’t likely to hire her for their campaigns in the future, because consumers may associate her with a bad, fraudulent product (and missing teeth). “The reason these [types of business transactions] are somewhat removed from straight up business is because influencers’ brands are built around their personalities, their likes and dislikes, and how they connect with other people,” says Robinovitz. “It’s really an intimate conversation in a lot of ways versus the old school way, which was where the talent might be really removed from the audience. Today’s influencers personalize everything.”
Which isn’t to say that they don’t often have professional help. In the case of Fyre Festival, a creative agency and production company called Matte was hired to create advertisements to be used on the festival’s website and in social media posts, including sponsored instagrams like those posted by Insta girls. According to Matte cofounder Max Pollack, creative input from influencers “really varies” when it comes to sponsored content. “Most of the time it’s more of an influencer signing off on it. Creatives are already usually kind of done,” he said. “But I think we always welcome, to an extent, creative input.” It’s assumed that it would be required for those pictured to believe in what they’re selling, and like Robinovitz, Pollack stressed the need for influencers to naturally fit the message they are sending. “I think people in general are super savvy about being able to detect bullshit,” he noted. So, Elsa Hosk posting a yacht pic with fellow supermodels is in line with what she might post otherwise: the promotional aspect is in the geotagging and the captions, leaving viewers to connect the dots. “[Influencer marketing] has always existed,” says Pollack. “I think it just needs to feel more real [today]. When things fall flat, it’s because it’s not so real, it feels too branded or an inauthentic message coming through, or this person doesn’t feel like a fit for this brand or for this specific creative. So I think people are just getting a little bit more intelligent about it.”
According to James Nord, CEO of Fohr Card, a company that connects influencers with brands, the responsibility falls on the influencer to do the due diligence on a brand and suggested project ahead of time. “The problem with large scale projects like [Pepsi]–obviously that was quite expensive–is that brands start walking down a road, and they get a certain distance and they feel like, ‘We’re already so far, we can’t turn around,’” said Nord. “And then they don’t have the right people around them, and they’re just a bunch of yes-men, and they convince themselves that it won’t be that bad, and it comes out and it is [that bad]. I think it takes a lot of courage to say no to things and to push back.” The problem with an Instagram post is likely the opposite: it’s low stakes. So if it goes bad, just delete it.
Pollack noted that most of the time, influencer marketing campaigns are “limited in scope,” so a debriefing after a campaign with an influencer rarely occurs, unless an ongoing relationship is being developed. Says Pollack: “I think ultimately they’re not really in the conversation.” It’s up to them whether that’s going to change.
“Actresses and actors make bad movies. It happens. That doesn’t mean that they’re going to start writing the scripts,” says Pollack. In regards to Kendall Jenner’s involvement in Pepsi’s commercial, he said, “I don’t think it’s her fault by any means. There are bad campaigns that don’t work out and ultimately that’s a mix of different things coming together, whether it’s misguided creative, or bad timing, or a bad execution of good creative. A lot of things can happen in a campaign.”
Jenner has remained silent about the Pepsi commercial and has since deleted her Instagram post supporting Fyre Festival. Ja Rule, one of the festival founders, has taken to Twitter to admit to his part in the failed festival, saying, “I truly apologize as this is NOT MY FAULT… but I’m taking responsibility.” Likewise, festival organizers have promised to refund tickets in full and give “free VIP passes to next year’s festival.”
No word yet on which social media influencers will choose to align their personal brands with the event again.