[Note: this piece was commissioned by The Pool, but sadly the publication recently went into administration and so this article remained unpublished. I feel strongly about the topic so wanted to post it here]
[DISCLAIMER: this piece is about the high-earning Youtubers you read about in the press and the industry as a whole. I am well-aware that there are plenty of people creating content on social media who are hardworking, authentic and offering something of value. This is not about them.]
I posted some thoughts about online influencers on my Instagram stories last month and my inbox blew up. It turns out most of us have an opinion on #adculture. The same happened last night, after a Panorama documentary on the same topic aired and I had a digital run-in with a big Youtuber on Twitter.
She told me: “My job is to create free content, making ads is just a part of it.” I pointed out that our jobs are what we get paid for, by definition, so her job is, in fact, creating advertising.
Online influencers – a term that now encapsulates Youtubers, Instagrammers and bloggers alike – have made careers out of marketing products to viewers. Makeup, technology, bleach: it’s all being covered. That’s why they’re called influencers because, in simple terms, their career revolves around their influencing us to buy stuff.
They fill their lives and their homes with the free gifts sent to them by brands. Often, they are also paid for the subsequent posts that encourage their viewers to buy the promoted product. Even the content they create that isn’t obviously or technically an advert is still promotion, because in every single video or Instagram photo or blog post they mention a product that they ‘genuinely recommend’ and we should absolutely go and buy.
Time and time again I get the rebuttal that they are simply skilled professionals who are doing the same as writers, TV producers and celebrities who wear specific designers on the red carpet. I fundamentally disagree. The different between an influencer and a writer, producer or traditional A-list celebrity is vast. The level of skill necessary to succeed in those arenas is huge: to be a respected journalist or to make television shows or films is a world away from writing about makeup in your bedroom (with a slender grasp on grammar) or filming a ‘haul’ from your latest ASOS order. I’m not definitively knocking it, but the comparison is absurd. Becoming a successful influencer involves, yes, hard work and a bit of self-taught skill, but mostly having comparatively rich parents you can live with until you’re 25, disposable income for YSL makeup, friends in the right places and a whole lot of luck. There’s a reason why none of the biggest Youtubers are working class.
They also argue they are doing the same thing as adverts on TV. But online influencing is not the same as traditional advertising, because traditional advertising was a ‘break’ from the entertainment. Three minutes in the middle of The X Factor when we could go and make a cup of tea. This is the entertainment. Watching 20-somethings talk about their latest gift or purchase is the entertainment.
On Instagram I wrote: “Influencers are presenting an image of life that is unrealistic, that quite possibly even they couldn’t afford were they not to get it all for free.” This becomes especially sinister when they dress it up as authentic by declaring: ‘I’m not a celebrity, I’m just a normal person doing normal things like going to Hawaii on an all-expenses paid trip with L’Oreal.’
I was inundated with hundreds of messages. From people who work for the NHS or in call centres, single mums who turn to Youtube for a 10 minute break and are left feeling that their life is not good enough. There are thousands of people who have gone further and further into debt because they believed buying something would make them feel better. Why shouldn’t they have a piece of the ‘good life’?
The writer Jamie Varon says: “It takes a great deal of emotional fortitude to resist the urge to believe that life is better and shinier with more money and things. I believe that happiness and satisfaction should be income-inclusive. And that the only way to curb the feeling of dissatisfaction is to let go of comparisons, define success for yourself, and cultivate a sense of worth and value outside of money.”
Clarity is important. It is unethical for an Influencer not to disclose whether they are being paid for a post or if the products have been gifted to them. There was heated discussion on Mumsnet recently about ‘mummy bloggers’ saturating their platforms with adverts.
Of course, this is a job, and I certainly appreciate transparency, but I would argue that there’s still a problem with even the most upfront of them. If the content someone is producing is focused entirely on the promotion of things that cost money, they are suggesting that our worth and our life’s worth hangs on the accumulation of things.
As journalist Laura Jane Williams puts it: “For me, the cornerstone of every upload is that it must inform or entertain. I call that “value for follow”, because informing or entertaining means you are giving something to your community. If you’re gifted a new kitchen, there should be a way to make your gift of value to the community you’ve grown – after all, it’s been gifted because of them. Get them a discount code or opportunity to win as part of the gift and explain what you chose to spend time and focus on, or where you thought it was okay to cut corners or how you decided to allocate budget. It takes four times as long to craft content that does this, but when it is literally your job, that should be a non-issue.”
There are influencers using their power for good – for charity work, championing great writing or promoting a political message – and there are lots of accidental influencers who have gained a following thanks to their words or creativity. They thank and disclaim, and I appreciate that. Some of the most successful influencers don’t seem very grateful though. There’s a defensiveness to them. An unwillingness to accept criticism and an urge to profess that they are doing valuable work. I wonder though, whether one feels that urge when they actually are, in fact, doing valuable work.
We now live in environment where the concept of normal has been skewed, and teenagers are relaxing at the end of the day by watching a young white straight woman sitting in her 3-million-pound mansion talking about what she’s just been given by Gucci or Space NK. We live in a capitalist society so consumerism is always going to be rife, but as our teenagers become adults and this trend progresses without assessment, it is unclear and worrying where on earth we’re going to end up.