Don’t call it Branded Engagement When It’s Really a Curated Lie
“The audience doesn’t just see an influencer as a [entertainment] channel or celebrity; they see them as a friend,” said Pedersen (an advertising executive). “And if it’s a friend, you’re going to forgive anything.” – The Atlantic
Recently, The Atlantic detailed a story of deception, manipulation, and greed all wrapped up in a pretty little box called influencer branded marketing.
It shared how a “famous influencer” I and no one I know has ever heard of, pitched her wedding proposal as one that she would present to her audience as a surprise engagement, filled with all the unexpected, suspenseful and tug-at-the heartstrings peaks that every advertising and marketing professional hopes for when marketing their client as those are key to not only keeping the audience engaged and committed to the story as it unfolds, but also tend to leave a mark on their memory for future purchases.
That this elaborate lie happened in marketing is not surprising to me – that is, in essence, what traditional marketing and advertising is: a calculated, heavily curated, not really all that truthful or real representation around a product or service for the purpose of consumer attraction and retention.
That this was orchestrated by an influencer is disappointing. Because I still remember when blogging had a completely different purpose.
I have seen a lot of things: influencers who buy their following and STILL get offered campaign work even though we on the industry side can SEE who is real and who is fake.
Influencers who inflate what they get paid for campaigns, setting unrealistic standards for the industry and thus being helpful to absolutely no one in the process, even though we, on the industry side have no problems – well, me at least, asking how much someone actually got paid.
Influencers who mislead their audience about their lifestyle, like, being nomadic for example, even though they have long ago stopped traveling and have been home for months.
Influencers who claim success and prosperity, even though they struggle to pay their bills and sleep on people’s couches because they can’t afford a place to live or rent.
And then I have seen marketers who go along with the lie not because they give an isht about the influencer’s success or career, or even real ROI.
Marketers and public relation firms are struggling in this new media space, which is very competitive in their end too. Errrrbody is a social media marketer nowadays. And so they want BIG numbers and deliverables to give back to their clients at the end of the quarter. If that means lying, deceiving, and manipulating the message, so be it. There are more than enough influencers eager to take that check and lie to their audience. Win-win.
The real loser here? The consumer. The audience.
It used to be that social media was about breaking the barriers of traditional ad agencies and marketing firms. When I started blogging, it was about demystifying the false narrative and imagery that the media and the corporations that controlled them were presenting to us. It was about being raw and honest and real about our lives, whether it was motherhood and all that came with it – postpartum depression for some, struggles with bonding with your child and adjusting to your new life. Or about giving a voice to the invisible and voiceless in spaces like travel, or food, or politics.
It used to be that blogging and social media was about giving the middle finger to the status quo and delivering a message OUR way. Telling OUR stories and showing life as WE saw it, not as someone curated or approved it.
New media and the way we built it was supposed to be a way to change how traditional and old standards worked and fix the ways in which it failed and erased so many of us.
But instead, we have allowed the ways of old media and the money machine that helps to run it, seep into our dream for change and courage and diversity and empowerment and TRUTH and authenticity and transparency.
Instead, now we have bloggers getting on stage not to educate or mentor, but to complain about how other bloggers knock them off the top of search lists. Or bloggers buying followers and likes and having the audacity to turn around and judge and expose others for doing the same. Or bloggers misrepresenting their experience or knowledge and bragging about money they never made and fees they never secured. And entire companies popping around search engine optimization, aka SEO, the manipulation of algorithms, so that your content is the most visible, not because it is necessarily good, but because you used the right keywords.
And then you have agencies and marketers too afraid to stand up to them, too insecure to stand up to the clients who demand to work with them or to uninformed about better practices to do or know any better.
And all the ugliness and sleaziness and unethical practices of traditional marketing have found their way into our space, a world that we had hoped would be better. So that marketers and influencers are now partnering to create lies to sell products to an unsuspecting audience.
Some marketers and influencers believe that any exposed deception of those we follow and admire online won’t change how we feel about them. In fact, they are counting on it. To listen to them, one would think that this is just the nature of our business – that branded engagement is just a series of well-curated, beautified lies that we will eat up simply because we like the influencer so much. But are they correct? Would we stay with a friend who lied to us? Would we continue to support a friend who deceives us in order to profit from our naivete and trust in them? Do we, as a society, as consumers, value ourselves so little that we would allow our time, or space, and our attention to be robbed (and used) in this way? I can’t help but see the correlation between this and the current political landscape. Are we really OK with being lied to because we rather stick with the messenger no matter what? Is this really who we are?
Every view, every comment, every like, and every click and share is converted into data that is then converted into a number from which not only the influencer but also the marketing agency profits. We, not the influencer, not the marketer, are the ones who control how successful a campaign and its influencer is in the end. And we are being used to sell lies to.
At what point do we, as a society, say enough is enough and demand better? When will we stop rewarding and celebrating these people who don’t care at all for us, for the places they visit, for the products and services they shrill and are willing to sell whatever admiration we display to the highest bidder?
We have the power to evoke change. It’s time we show what that power looks like.
I will end all this by saying that I am not against influencer /marketing partnerships. I, myself partner with brands too sometimes, though more often than not I have had long-standing relationships with those marketers long before working with them, I fully disclose and am upfront with my audience, and I don’t take on campaigns that do not fit my voice, my brand, or would be helpful or enjoyable to my readers.
There are countless content creatives who put their heart and soul into our blogs and our stories. We want to change the space. We want to make it more inclusive, more diverse, more informative, more helpful, and more inspiring. Yes, many live off the money they make from their blog and the partnerships with brands because this is work. There are agencies, like mine, I am proud to say, and public relations and marketing professionals who are actively working to change how influencer marketing campaigns are done and how branded content is created.
I understand that these partnerships are ones that help pay for an influencer’s time, creativity, and efforts. And I completely agree that those are things that should be paid for, especially because brands continue to profit from the results of our work.
But these things do not need to exclude transparency, truthfulness, and authenticity. Nor do they need to be deceptive. Even traditional marketing has long learned that should they market a product or service in a way that is inauthentic to the reality of that product or service, that brand will be dragged and vilified, and canceled. Influencers should know better. And we should demand better and hold those of us who create content to a higher standard.
Let’s be the change we want to see.