Who’s influencing the influencers? That’s the question hovering behind a slew of recent stories on the digital go-getters who make money doing sponsored content online. On the one hand, they’re capitalizing on the freedom and far reach of online enterprise to succeed on what feels like their own terms. On the other hand, brands are also capitalizing on them — and the rest of us.
The Internet has made self-making easier than ever. With sponsored content, celebrities who can snag coveted slots in television commercials or splashes on Times Square billboards are no longer the only ones able to leverage their looks or their style or their skills or spunk to sell things. All you need to amass an online following is a smartphone and an Instagram account, and once you have the followers, the advertisers will come calling.
In some ways, this is what the digital age is about: anyone, anywhere reaching everyone, everywhere through whatever form of expression they choose — mixed with good, old American entrepreneurship. Millennial models post alluring snapshots, makeup mavens review shimmery eye shadows, and teenagers enthuse over cartoon phone cases and asking you to “comment your fave.”
But freedom usually costs something. The Guardian’s Julia Carrie Wong offered a platonic example this week in an exposé on a company called — yes, really — Flat Tummy Co. The company sells exactly what it sounds like: impossibly beautiful bodies in photogenic packaging. Appetite-suppressant lollipops supplement “detox” teas that the advertiser says won’t only make you look good but will make you feel good, too (remember, ladies, it’s all about wellness in 2018).
The Kardashians promote Flat Tummy Co.’s feminine ideal. But the company’s products are also on the Instagram accounts of hundreds of women who’ve never starred in a reality television show and probably don’t even have famous fathers. These women, according to former employees, made $25 or $50 to Kim and Kylie’s hundreds of thousands. “You’re not worth that much money,” the company would tell them, its representatives instructed to push prices down.
There are two problems with the Flat Tummy phenomenon. First, there’s the audience. Selling thinness encourages disordered eating, and appetite-suppressant lollipops and detox teas aren’t exactly what the doctor ordered. As the Guardian reports, the ingredients the company uses are untested and unregulated. And that’s not the only way users get scammed in a world full of influencers: Last week, a viral tweet claimed that beauty influencers can rake in $85,000 from one company for a negative review of a competitor’s product, all without revealing money is in the mix as the Federal Trade Commission requires.
Then there are the influencers themselves, reduced to ratings by a brand trying to collect an ideal set of ambassadors, instructed on how to portray themselves using the product — and told what they’re worth. That’s icky. Now think about the 13-year-olds who have scrapped lemonade stands for screens over the summer, as Taylor Lorenz reported in the Atlantic. Good for them for hustling, but there’s no one to stop them from getting hustled. Several teens have already alleged one brand refused to pay them and then blocked them.
Companies’ own efforts to control the influencer market are iffy. In the case of Flat Tummy Co., for example, Instagram already bans advertisers from using “before and after” images and similar strategies that promote “negative self-perception.” But it doesn’t ban individual influencers paid by those advertisers from doing the same thing.
And should it have to? When executives from the top tech companies appear before Congress next week, they’ll discuss how they moderate the content that appears on their platforms and whether that crosses the line into censorship. Without rules of the road, free expression can collide with safety, and letting innovation loose means people may get run over along the way.
The same issues and tensions are at play in the influencer debate. The unregulated realm in which brands and influencers operate allows the companies and platforms that host them to be more competitive. It also allows the influencers to be self-starters and express themselves however they see fit. But, as with permitting unrestrained speech more generally, that openness comes with collateral damage. And if lawmakers decide to address the damage in either area through more regulation, these companies might well start worrying about losing their own influence.