The new TikTok trend is convincing people not to buy things

'Deinfluencers’ built a following because of their authentic product reviews. Now brands want to work with them.

(Video: TWP)
12 min

Alyssa Kromelis was scrolling on TikTok in late January, enthralled by the number of people giving candid reviews of products they view as being overhyped by the army of paid influencers on the app.

“Wow, I really like this,” she recalled thinking of the phenomenon creators were calling “deinfluencing” because “I am the type of person that will buy something, and if it really sucks, I will be very vocal about it.”

So, the 26-year-old from Dallas made her own video — with her own unfiltered takes on top-shelf haircare, skin care and makeup products — and TikTok users loved it. Her first post has racked up more than 804,000 likes and about 5.5 million views.

(Video: @alyssastephanie via TikTok)

The trend signals that traditional influencer marketing — a $16.4 billion industry last year — has reached an inflection point, experts say. Younger consumers increasingly see through the influencer-brand partnerships, calling companies out for going too far, and creators for prioritizing money over authenticity and promoting overconsumption.

“It’s in direct response to the overwhelming number of influencer-promoted products,” said Brendan Gahan, a partner and chief social officer at ad agency Mekanism. “The hashtag #tiktokmademebuyit has become synonymous with TikTok because of its overwhelming ability to push new products and drive sales.”

It also comes in an era of high inflation — which cooled to 6.4 percent in January compared to last year — that has forced shoppers to be thriftier and savvier. Policymakers and economists closely monitor consumer spending, which powers more than 70 percent of the economy. Retail sales were up 2.3 percent in January from the month before, a sign that consumers remain resilient even as prices stay elevated.

But they’re also carrying more credit card debt, which surged 18.5 percent to a record $930.6 billion in the fourth quarter of 2022, according to credit reporting agency TransUnion.

(Video: @cakedbybabyk via TikTok)

The idea that deinfluencing could lead to less consumption is already fading. Instead, it’s adapting, according to Ronnie Goodstein, a marketing professor at Georgetown University. Many of its adherents change course quickly and begin offering alternatives for the items they tear down. Some are even dipping into sponsored content, including Kromelis — she recently posted an ad for a perfume company.

“I think that the deinfluencers are going to get such a following because negative information is believable, so they’re going to get the believability ratings that the influencers used to get,” Goodstein said. “So the deinfluencers’ influence is going up and the influencers influence is going down.”

Deinfluencers are the new influencers

Deinfluencing isn’t new, according Heidi Kaluza, a sustainable fashion influencer in Seattle with nearly 50,000 TikTok followers. Content creators in certain corners of the internet have been talking about the dangers of fast fashion and overconsumption for years. But the value of honest product critiques shifted when the deinfluencing trend picked in late January.

“There’s now virality in that — it’s been determined as a valuable piece of content,” the 36-year-old said. Before, creators who made these kinds of videos were called “haters” in their comments. “There simply was no space for people to give their true opinions.”

The authenticity identified with deinfluencers has given them more social cachet, so brands have to adapt, according to Gahan, the executive at Mekanism. Companies need to rethink their strategies — such as thoroughly researching and vetting potential influencer partners and establishing longer-term deals, he said.

“If I’m a brand, I don’t want to get in hot water for some creator doing something that it’s just going to put a negative spotlight on us,” Gahan said. “I’d rather work with somebody who has really built that trust or rapport and is not going to do something that’s going to create a bunch of legal headaches.”

(Video: @basicofcourse via TikTok)

But some companies have taken a different approach. Elle Grey said some of the brands she discouraged her followers from buying asked whether she’d give them another chance. She said she declined with a “thank you, but no thank you.”

Goodstein predicts some brands will go further and offer to pay influencers to not talk about their products.

“Detractors are costing brands a lot more money than promoters bring in,” he said. “People believe negative information more than they believe positive information, so that the deinfluencers are going to have a bigger impact on the marketplace than influencers do.”

Deinfluencers should also be thoughtful about who they partner with, Goodstein added.

Grey, 25, is acutely aware of this. Brands started reaching out soon after she began posting her reviews. But she is careful of whom she partners with because she doesn’t want to undermine the trust she built with her 11,000 TikTok followers.

“Unless I bought something with the brand with my own money and have used it for a long period of time, I wouldn’t work with them in general,” said Grey, who splits her time between New York and San Francisco.

Claire Wenrick, a content creator and coach in New York, often works with aspiring influencers who are looking to make it their full time jobs. Now, she warns them that the old way of accepting any and all sponsorships no longer flies. TikTok users are less tolerant of creators constantly pushing product or their affiliate links like an Amazon storefront.

“You have to build a community that knows you, likes you and trusts you,” said Wenrick, 24, otherwise no one will care about their content — especially their ads.

From Hollywood to anyone with a phone

Goodstein isn’t surprised by the quick-turn in public opinion on influencing. Advertising has a life cycle, he said. The digital marketing strategy of using a person with a certain following to represent or promote a brand predates the social media boom — and it’s a story of cyclical ups and downs spurred by an everlasting desire for authenticity.

It started in Hollywood, where celebrities were the first to sway spending decisions, said Jenna Drenten, a marketing professor at Loyola University Chicago who studies digital consumer culture.

“Celebrities were very curated and created this persona that we as consumers had no choice but to accept, because that’s the only thing that there was,” she said.

But the celebrity endorser was usurped by the rise on social media, where everyday people could offer intimate snippets into their lives or earnest opinions about their purchases. Platforms such as YouTube and Instagram not only obfuscated the traditional gatekeepers of fame, but redefined what fame was in the first place. Now anyone was able to accumulate a large, far-reaching following and build trust with an audience.

Brands took notice of the shifting dynamics and invested millions into marketing their products with influencers on YouTube and Instagram, Drenten said. The strategy was a less expensive and more authentic step forward, she added.

(Video: @impactforgood_ via TikTok)

“Suddenly now the consumers were the brokers of attention rather than the Hollywood power brokers,” Drenten said. “This desire for authenticity emerged because we were given the option. Social media gave us another choice.”

But this generation of influencers took a hit right before the pandemic, as social media users grew tired of the perfectly filtered, edited and coifed aesthetic, Drenten said. The space was saturated and consumers once again craved authenticity.

TikTok opened a new wave of influencers. Its unique algorithm, which shows users an endless stream of preference-based videos, made it even easier for anyone to gain a following. The app also feels more intimate despite its more than 1.5 billion monthly users worldwide who can easily interact with influencers through the comments section or by reacting or replying with their own videos.

All of these aspects combined have turned TikTok into a product-pushing ecosystem. Commerce is so enmeshed in the app that half of users turn to the platform to research a new product or brand — and shoppers are nearly twice more likely to buy directly from TikTok than other platforms “because it’s entertaining,” according to Mekanism data.

Nowadays, nearly 75 percent of marketers use influencer marketing to promote products — a number projected to reach 89 percent by 2026, according to data from Mekanism. The industry has grown nearly tenfold in the past six years.

But similarly to the saturation point that Instagram reached around 2018, the tides in TikTok have turned. The “straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Drenten was the January meltdown ignited by a sponsored post for a mascara, when Mikayla Nogueira, a beauty influencer with 14.4 million followers, was accused of wearing fake eyelashes in a sponsored post for L’Oréal’s Telescopic mascara in late January. Around the same time, makeup brand Tarte sent a group of TikTok stars to Dubai on an “influencer trip,” during which the creators routinely posted videos endorsing its products.

Nogueira, who didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from The Post, has not addressed the backlash — instead following up what was deemed “mascaragate” with three Valentine’s Day-themed posts a week later.

Consumers are “now saying ‘wait a minute, we see what you’re doing, that the influencers and the brands are in bed together and we don’t like it. We’re the ones that are getting shafted because we don’t know what to believe,’” Drenten said.

It was a realization that TikTok’s “authenticity isn’t always authentic,” Goodstein said. And it ignited a push against the deluge of product recommendations, try-on hauls and overall consumption inducement on the app.

A ‘flash in the pan’?

Even as deinfluencing has renewed calls for authenticity from influencers and broader awareness about overconsumption, its staying power remains to be seen.

“When I first saw it, I genuinely could not be happier,” said Jess Clifton, 26, a content creator from Bentonville, Ark., focused on sustainability. “I am absolutely in love with TikTok — I think it’s the funnest social media ever — but the overconsumption that is generated on it is truly terrifying. … Every single product in our home now is a trend on TikTok, and it’s been really concerning to me.”

It didn’t take long for Clifton to feel dejected. The once “wholesome” trend, as she called it — that for a time was helping people declutter their drawers and reevaluate their need for multiple blushes and eye shadow pallets — has now done a full 360. Now, it is all about the “dupes” (a cheaper, similar product) or “buy this not that.”

(Video: @meeandminne via TikTok)

“It’s just so disheartening,” Clifton said. “How did TikTok even find a way to take the most genuine trend and still spin it toward overconsumption? It’s wild. Like, Bravo! You did it.”

Wenrick, the influencer coach, said she found the shift somewhat amusing — these creators were “bashing on influencers and at the same time, you’re making a very influencer-like video, like giving your opinions on products and influencing people to either buy or not buy something.”

But the change isn’t that surprising, said Shanna Battle, a city employee in Richmond and part-time content creator with nearly 56,000 TikTok followers. It’s logical that people watching deinfluencing videos will want to know what products are worth buying instead. People also crave the “dopamine hit” that comes from shopping, said spending coach Paige Pritchard.

“We get the same release of dopamine when we buy something as we do when we eat sugar or drink alcohol,” Prichard said. “But when we’re specifically talking about social media, I think that really what gets us is the fact that we’re following these people who are really just showing us a highlight reel of their life.”

Still, deinfluencing has opened doors for TikTok users to better understand how influencing works and opened opportunities for content creators to be more purposeful about how they monetize their audience, Kaluza said.

“Consumer needs and wants are changing,” she said. “And that’s also going to open up enough space for influencers like, I think, myself who can work with brands from an awareness perspective and educational perspective.”

(Video: @overcoming_overspending via TikTok)

Kaluza recently partnered with For Days, a recyclable clothing company. Clifton, who has almost 278,000 TikTok followers, said she does a lot of concept marketing, such as working with a nonprofit to explain a climate bill.

Even with this new cultural push, the traditional influencer will still exist, Battle, 40, said, because there “are always going to be people who want to be told what to do.”

Despite the trend starting a new life cycle of marketing using some old techniques, Kaluza is optimistic that deinfluencing and the importance of authenticity and conscious consumerism isn’t going away.

“I think this is the beginning of something,” she said. “I don’t think that this is a flash in the pan.”