By the time Tina was 14, she was navigating deals with brands and moving from small-scale promotions to sponsored posts on her Instagram and YouTube pages, which now boast more than 500,000 followers each. These days, brands send 17-year-old Tina (who asked that I only use her first name) so many makeup products that they practically flood her apartment. “I get sent a couple packages daily, so there’s a lot that I either give away or never even get to try out,” Tina said.
Tina is one of many influencers in an ever-expanding framework that links the social and commercial. Influencers — experts in their own niche arenas, from makeup and beauty to veganism — cultivate relationships with their audience, a unique feature that allows them to advertise with the perceived authenticity of recommendations exchanged between friends. “An influencer is someone who has effectively monetized their identity” Jia Tolentino said in the recent Hulu documentary, Fyre Fraud.
Glossier, a makeup and skincare company known for its brilliantly trendy packaging, is one of many companies with an advertising infrastructure rooted in influencer networks. Glossier’s Rep program — which includes hundreds of young people who post about the products on Instagram and offer deals to followers who “shop with them” — masterfully taps into pre-existing social networks. The reps aren’t technically Glossier employees, but they can make a marginal commission on the sales they facilitate. And, of course, they are generously compensated with free products. Nadine Fuller ’19 estimated that she’s been sent at least $1,000 in products during her time as a rep.
Fuller became a rep after a Glossier employee sent her an Instagram direct message. She said her position as an ambassador is part of a larger strategy that helps to “humanize” the brand.
“It’s weird because, to some degree, I know I’m being used by brands to generate content at a fraction of what it would cost them to hire an expert,” Fuller, who began promoting the brand as a sophomore, told me at Collegetown Bagels over the weekend. “Instead, they outsource it to random teenage girls like me, but the brilliance of the rep model is that we have such a handle on audience specificity.”
Part of what differentiates Glossier and other companies’ strategy from traditional advertising schemes is that influencers use their personal pages to promote products, invoking authenticity. Your makeup isn’t being marketed to you by some out-of-touch advertising executive, it’s being recommended to you by a girl in your econ class in posts so subtly brand-affiliated that it can be hard to tell if reps are working with the company or if they’re just really fond of the lip gloss.
Glossier was recently valued at $1.2 billion, leading some to speculate that the company is on the IPO path. But even as Glossier dabbles in more traditional marketing campaigns, its army of influencers allows it to maintain the vibe of a small start-up, coated casually in millennial pink.
I happened to reach out to one friend — a singer in New York City — to see if she could put me in contact with any influencers, only to find out that she dabbles in the industry herself. She said she had commented on some popular brands’ posts in exchange for Amazon gift cards (she asked that I not name the brands). Then, an old roommate told me she had just agreed to promote a brand a few times a month on Instagram. Her payment? Pricey organic snacks in the mail (she, too, asked me to not name the brand). These arrangements shed light on an infecting dynamic: the widespread presence of quiet deals — and promoters’ hesitance to name or even reveal them.
But as this thicket of influencer infrastructure grows more popular, thorny questions arise. Are influencers who act as marketing intermediaries subject to the same legal consequences as companies that engage in false advertising? Fresh on everyone’s mind is Fyre Festival, the disastrous music festival fraud scheme that arts columnist Isabel Ling ’19 wrote was “synonymous with the pitfalls of influencer culture and the internet as a whole.”
The festival was almost exclusively promoted by influencers, with Kendall Jenner reportedly paid $250,000 to post about it just once on her Instagram, which has 107 million followers. The festival’s organizer was recently sentenced to six years in prison, but what about the influencers who, intentionally or not, helped propagate his scheme? Is Kendall Jenner culpable?
Three festival attendees recently filed a lawsuit accusing Jenner, the festival organizers and other influencers of “negligent fraud and misrepresentations” that encouraged people to buy tickets. The suit’s plaintiffs were partially motivated by Jenner’s failure to disclose that she had been paid for her promotion (a post that has since been deleted). When influencers are paid to promote, the Federal Trade Commission generally requires them to make that clear to their followers. This is why some influencers end posts on Instagram with “#ad” or “#sponsored” notices.
Elizabeth Couse ’19, whose sustainability-focused Instagram has more than 24,000 followers, told me that while she has been paid to promote products, she prefers arrangements in which companies send her products instead of paying her. “I think no matter how genuine you are, if you’re being paid to post something, it always seems a little sketchy,” Couse said.
Couse’s status as an influencer — a word she might be wary of using to describe herself — has brought her a range of opportunities. She’s stayed at eco-lodges in exchange for promoting them and traveled to London on a trip paid for by Lush Cosmetics for the company’s Spring Prize event. On any given day, she said, she receives dozens of emails asking her to promote granola bars, protein powders and other healthy lifestyle products.
But when an influencer’s inbox and mailbox are being inundated with promotions and packages, how do they choose what to post, and what to ignore?
Tina, of New York City, is not only promoting products, she’s also evaluating them, gauging their quality and worth and influencing which brands are beamed onto the screens of her followers. Even five years ago, it would be almost unimaginable for a young person with no formal credentials or traditional celebrity accolades to have such commercial sway.
Speaking with these ambassadors made me realize how ubiquitous influencers are on my social media feeds, and how disconcerting it is that I hadn’t known.
“I just think the whole thing is arbitrary and funny and weird” Fuller, the Cornell senior and Glossier rep, said as we wrapped up our interview. “But I mean, I’ll take the free stuff — I was going to take pictures of myself anyways.”
Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Dissent runs every other Tuesday this semester.