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Sunday 25th August 2019

Is influencer marketing immoral? Confessions of an insider

The big brands are increasingly selling though social media 'influencers' – but isn't it all just phoney?

It’s a dreary Tuesday evening and I’m sat on the sofa eating a ready-meal mac ’n’ cheese,
watching ‘The One with Ross’s Sandwich’ for the tenth time.

I flick through Instagram and watch my favourite influencer ‘unboxing’ the three free parcels she’s been sent today. One by one, she shows off her new jade face roller, cashmere knit jumper and Mulberry handbag.

I imagine a life where, having just put on my new cashmere jumper, I take my jade face roller out of the fridge, de-puff my eyes, pop it into my Mulberry handbag and
head out for brunch with my influencer friends.

Wiping cheese from my mouth, I order a jade face roller and find an almost identical cashmere-blend jumper in the sale. I feel one step closer to the influencer life I dream of.

Now to secure an all-expenses-paid trip to Bali.

Influencers (those with a large social media following that literally ‘influence’ others) are
contacted by brands wanting to promote a new product. Brands either pay influencers to
promote said product, or ‘gift’ an item or experience in exchange for social media
promotion, thus advertising it to the thousands of people that follow the influencer.

The lines between advertising and entertainment have become blurred and we’re actively choosing to watch those we admire flaunting the latest hair product.

Consumers lap it up, frantically buying the latest ‘must-have’ and both the influencer and
the brand saunter off into the sunset a few thousand pounds richer, while we, the consumers, are left penniless despite having ‘super-soft’ hair.

Every time we open Instagram, we’re presented with another product that we ‘need’. We’re encouraged to use discount codes and ‘buy before it sells out!’. But what does this mean for those of us spending 10 hours and 27 minutes on Instagram a week? (I hate you
weekly screen time.)

I’m presented with a world full of free shellac nail treatments, paid partnerships with Gap, and gifted trips to 5* resorts in the Algarve. I’m happy to admit that I desperately want that life, but know I can’t have it without spending my life savings.

Having dabbled in the influencer industry myself, I’m fearful of being a hypocrite; I regularly accept ‘gifting’ opportunities and have been sent free clothing and haircare products, not to mention a pair of Gucci earrings. I’ve never been able to afford a pair of Gucci earrings and am confident that, unless I win the lottery this weekend, I never will.

So why am I, as a ‘micro-influencer’, presenting an ideal of life that I, myself, am not really living? Why am I ‘influencing’ others to buy things I wouldn’t normally be able to afford

Let’s be honest, unless you’ve taken a Buddhist vow to renounce your desire for all
possessions, it’s nice to get free stuff.

I regularly scold celebrities that use their platform solely to encourage you to purchase the latest teeth-whitening treatment.

But I also feel morally thwarted: should I be accepting free products in exchange for promoting them to others? Making those of us with smaller means feel inadequate and unfulfilled? Or even worse, making those desperate to live the life I’m presenting fall further into a spiral of debt?

Some will say this is not my responsibility but the responsibility of the brand and their
advertising campaign. But since I was given the Gucci earrings, I’ve felt more and more
guilty promoting products I simply wouldn’t have if it weren’t for my mere Instagram
following of just over 3,500.

I regularly scold celebrities that use their platform solely to encourage you to purchase the latest teeth-whitening treatment, yet I fall into this category myself.

Previously, advertising was distant and impersonal: a billboard near your local train station, adverts on the TV between Blind Date, leaflets posted through your letterbox. We were able to ignore them, mute the TV, and throw away the leaflets without a second glance.

But now the lines between advertising and entertainment have become blurred and we’re actively choosing to watch those we admire flaunting the latest ghd hair product in their
beautiful two-bedroom Islington flat.

Of course, for the brands, this is advertising at its best. Influencers are selling a lifestyle,
not just a product, and 100,000 willing Instagrammers watch and crave the supposedly
glamorous life the influencers present.

But for us as consumers, it’s dangerous; it sparks a desire for products we otherwise wouldn’t have known about, it encourages frequent spending on products we don’t need and promotes an unrealistic and unachievable lifestyle.

Instagram is an ideal: a picture in a catalogue, an IKEA showroom, the elderly couple running along the beach in the BUPA advert.

The Instagram bubble becomes the norm and we’re sucked into a world where
influencers go on six holidays a year (five of which were free), while we’re desperately
saving to go on one package holiday to Mallorca.

I have to admit that I find accounts that solely advertise products incredibly dull – it’s like
watching a 24-hour TV channel full of adverts. The ever-expanding world of social media is becoming increasingly focused on ‘stuff’.

What happened to asking someone about the last book they read? Or their views on the climate change crisis? Having a platform means having power, and influencers should use that power to make an impact, and I’m not talking about one in sales.

As consumers we need to remind ourselves constantly that Instagram is an ideal: a picture
in a catalogue, an IKEA showroom, the elderly couple running along the beach in the
BUPA advert. It’s an advertising platform that we shouldn’t get sucked into, unless we want our finances sucked out of us.

I’m not saying I’m never going to accept gifting opportunities again, because I am. But I’m
certainly not going to accept them so frequently, nor am I going to accept things I wouldn’t normally be able to afford. What you don’t see is what I’ve turned down: the jewellery, the fancy skincare, the expensive clothing I won’t ever wear.

As an influencer, no matter how many followers I’ve got, I have a responsibility to portray my ‘real life’ as well as my ‘Insta life’, and if that means saying ‘no’ to free stuff, then so be it.

I don’t want to think about the amount of money I’ve wasted purchasing things I thought would drastically improve my life, because let’s face it, I’m never going to be that jade-
face-rolling, Mulberry-handbag-swinging, cashmere-jumper-wearing girl I see all over the internet.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that every Tuesday I’ll be sat on the sofa, watching Friends and eating a ready-meal mac ’n’ cheese. (And I’m secretly delighted.)

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Emma Real-Davies

Emma Real-Davies

Presenter, podcaster and writer, Emma is struggling with freelancing, struggling with being sustainable and struggling generally.

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