Influencer marketing is a form of marketing that uses the online presence of "influencers" to promote products. An influencer is someone with a following who has the potential to affect purchasing decisions. In influencer marketing, influencers spread brand awareness to a specific target consumer. Companies pay these leaders to endorse their product rather than marketing directly. Influencer marketing is often associated with both social media marketing and content marketing. In 2015, roughly 67 percent of marketers had reported engaging in some form of influencer marketing .
Influencer marketing involves brands reaching out to influencers, people with large audiences who have usually built a reputation for their knowledge about a specific topic, for help promoting their product or experience. Influencers can be anyone, but what makes them influential is their online following. These influencers will then post content (e.g., photos, videos) with the product, painting it in a positive light. In exchange for their endorsements, influencers may receive free products or monetary rewards, as well as exposure. This approach to marketing often works to develop long-standing relationships between a brand and an influencer.
Influencers and influencer marketing is not necessarily a new phenomenon. In the past, the Queen and the Pope used to endorse medicine. Although these endorsements may not have occurred via social media as they would today, they were still figures with the ability to affect purchasing decisions. In the 1800s, companies began to hire celebrities and create characters to generate brand awareness. In the 1890s, Aunt Jemima was invented to promote pancake syrup and breakfast foods. At this point, the R. T. Davis Milling Company hired Nancy Green to represent Aunt Jemima and began centering marketing around her portrayal. In the 1930s, Coca-Cola decided to use an influencer to promote their brand. Santa Claus was a well-known and well-liked figure, so Coca-Cola invented their own version of him. The idea was that if consumers loved the person promoting a brand, they would love that brand as well. Not only did this character help increase Coca-Cola sales, but it also provided a gateway to the modern image of Santa.
As the need for influencers grew, companies began to use celebrity endorsements to promote their products. In 1984, Michael Jordan partnered with Nike to create the Air Jordan sneaker. Within just the first year, Nike sold $70 million dollars’ worth of the shoes. In the 1990s, Pepsi used Cindy Crawford to promote their product in a Super Bowl commercial. The commercial debuted the company’s rebranded cans, and it was so influential that a similar commercial was created in 2018. Jennifer Aniston was used in 1997 to promote hair products. After her haircut on the TV show Friends became popular, L’Oreal made her the face of L’Oreal Elvive in order. Her celebrity status was used to endorse the products and increase sales.
Social media has heavily influenced influencer marketing. In 2003, Myspace was launched and its founders recruited popular celebrities and venues to join the website. This was one of the earliest examples of influencer marketing being used on social media. In 2006, Brendan Gahan created a partnership between a popular YouTube channel and a small mp3 brand. The video that resulted from this partnership ended up crashing the brand’s website. This event proved that Youtubers could monetize their online content, which led to modern influencer marketing. Today, YouTubers commonly partner with brands to advertise products via video. Other social media platforms also led to the rise of influencer marketing. Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Snapchat are some of the most popular. These social media platforms created a different type of celebrity, as these influencers are owners of their own personal brands. This makes them seem more trustworthy to their followers. In fact, 60% of Instagram users credit the app with product discovery.
Companies participating in influencer marketing to promote their business can suffer negative consequences when associated with controversial figures.
Logan Paul has an impressive online following, with over 20 million YouTube subscribers and 4.8 billion views . In 2017, he posted a YouTube video on his channel showing a dead body in Japan’s Suicide Forest. The video was widely criticized for Paul’s insensitivity. After this event, YouTube temporarily suspended Paul’s channels from their top ad network and later pulled all ads.
PewDiePie is a Swedish YouTuber whose channel was the most-subscribed channel for more than five years from 2013-2019. However, he has become a controversial figure after making anti-Semitic and racist comments in 2017. YouTube pulled ads from his videos, as well as cancelled his YouTube Red show. Additionally, Disney ended their partnership with PewDiePie after this controversy.
Fyre Festival was a fake music festival created with the intention of promoting the Fyre app. The event was promoted by many influencers, including Kendall Jenner, Hailey Baldiwin, Emily Ratajkowski, and Bella Hadid. Many of these influencers did not initially disclose their paid involvement with the event, as required by the Federal Trade Commission. Although the festival ended up being a scam, many influencers filmed promotional videos and even advertised promo codes. However, the experience portrayed by the influencers ended up being far from the reality of the situation, and investors lost $26 million.
David Dobrik is a Slovak-raised influencer most popular on social media platforms. He is most notably known from his videos on Youtube where he creates prank videos and other content with his friends called, Vlog Squad. With 18.5 million subscribers on his Youtube channel David is considered to be one of the top payed YouTube influencer. In a 2021 incident David and his Vlog Squad received heavy scrutiny after a media outlet published an article about a sexual assault allegation towards one of the members of the Vlog Squad. In March 22 of 2021 David Dobrik's sponsors Frank's Red Hot, Bumble, and SeatGeek announced that they were no longer going to partner with David and his team going forward. David subsequently posted a number of apology videos on his channel.
It is common that influencers do not use, or even like, the products they endorse online. The are obligated to provide positive information about the businesses with whom they are associated, even if this means bending the truth. However, much of influencer marketing is built upon trust and authenticity. Out of the 20,000 women surveyed in a study conducted by Bloglovin, 61% of said they will not engage with an influencer’s sponsored content if it does not feel genuine. Follows place trust in influencers, and therefore expect honesty when it comes to sponsored content.
By allowing influencers to inaccurately represent their opinions and experiences, social media, and therefore influencer marketing, is harming the importance of honesty and authenticity. People have a difficult time respecting influencer endorsements if there is a chance that the influencer in question is being inauthentic. This topic is discussed by Shannon Vallor, who claims that honesty involves putting one’s authentic self forward, which implies risk. There are general expectations of honesty when it comes to communicating information, and this applies to social media as well.
Along with the rest of the advertising industry, influencer marketing is monitored by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC has a set of guidelines and rules that influencer marketing must follow. Influencers must disclose when they have any “financial, employment, personal, or family relationship” with a brand, and there are rules outlining how this disclosure must occur. Despite this, one study found that about 93% of influencer social media endorsements do not offer full disclosure as mandated by the FTC.
Although every sponsored post is required to disclose that it is an advertisement, some brands try to cheat the system by hiding the disclosure at the end of a post or within a cluster of hashtags. Not all influencers willingly comply with the FTC regulations, which is unfair to followers who may be unaware of an influencer’s association with a brand. This lack of disclosure is an obstruction of truth, and it increases the amount of inauthenticity involved in influencer marketing.