What is an influencer? It seems that we say the word, but most people over 35 don’t really have a clue what it means in the context of social media and brand marketing. And those under 35, the target group, are generally so used to their existence and intent that the lines between branded content and real comment are totally blurred. If TV and print have been declared dead, then so is advertising in its current format. Social media platforms have become the host of mass engagement, and so capitalism has crept in as ‘influencing’. A clever and direct way for brands to market directly to consumers without the usual controls and regulations that govern traditional advertising. While they are still under the same rules, there has been no stoush to date between a high-profile influencer and the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA).
An influencer is defined as someone who has the power to affect the purchasing decisions of others because of an authority, knowledge, position, or relationship with their audience. They follow a distinct niche where they actively engage to garner a following that will depend on the size of their topic of the niche. Individuals are not just marketing tools but rather social relationship assets that brands collaborate with to achieve marketing objectives. In short, they’re advertisers.
In Australia, the advertising and marketing industry is expected to adhere to the Code of Ethics set out by the Australian Association of National Advertisers. The Ad Standards Community Panel handles consumer complaints. Gender portrayal is of extreme concern within the code, with the standards stating ‘explicit sexual depictions in advertising, particularly where the depiction is not relevant to the product or service being advertised are generally objectionable to the community’. It places a lot of the ‘hot bikini influencers’ literally in the hot seat if they are promoting anything else other than bikinis. I’m still wondering what exactly what ‘hot mums’ are and what’s appropriate for them to sell? Nipple coolers? I don’t think the ‘hot mums’ would make it through the advertising guidelines if they were to appear in more conventional ads.
Over 3.4 billion people use social media. This translates as 45 per cent of the world’s population. That’s a platform advertisers want. Social media are perceived as being individually curated by the user, and we access other individually curated profiles. From a marketing standpoint it’s pure gold. It’s person-to-person direct marketing. Except you choose to follow and consume the content of your chosen influencer/advertiser. In the old days we used to mute the ads on the telly; now we go to social media and subscribe and watch and like.
The problem with influencers is that the lines are blurred. Everyone knew advertising was fake. Actors playing the part of grumpy mums sick of wiping a bench, or some girl thrilled with the freedom her tampons gave her. We knew the script was written, the scenes were shot in a studio or on location, and we were expected to be tricked into believing the narrative as real. Influencers aren’t actors; they’re real people. They don’t broadcast from networks; they share from their personal accounts in their kitchen. It’s self-shot content to promote brands – that can become very confusing re authenticity. Clearly it’s authenticity they are harvesting to push the sell. They still have to be clear that it’s an ad, so it’s different from their usual posts, but very often the message is camouflaged and slips through as regular content.
So without the regulators breathing down your neck, how much duty of care do influencers take when deciding to take on a product to promote? While I am sure there are those who are highly ethical, there are just so many influencers and it is clear that there are those who don’t do the due diligence on what they push to their followers.
Blindboy is an Irish satirist and podcaster who duped reality stars and influencers into agreeing to promote a fake diet drink containing cyanide to their Instagram followers. In his 2019 BBC documentary Blindboy Undestroys The World he offers three influencers a fake diet drink brand deal. They were all told the product contained the ingredient hydrogen cyanide but they couldn’t try it as the product wasn’t ready yet. Blindboy was very transparent in presenting the product to see if they’d sell a product to their fans that would kill them. They all agreed to promote the product without trying it first. So I guess the answer is ‘Yes’. They were prepared to promote a drink that could kill. Not everyone does their due diligence. And as advertising now seeks to market to us using authenticity and our sense of what’s ‘real’ as cover, then we the consumers need full disclosure.
For a start we can rename influencers to advertisers. That at least would be authentic. Because it would be true.
But I guess no-one wants to watch a show about a bunch of advertisers in Byron Bay.