There was a time when the heroes of journalism were the voices of cool reason and the scientific communities resounding view on important issues such as climate change, the bleaching of coral reefs and melting of polar ice caps was taken at face value. Communities used to exclusively seek counsel from their local GP for medical advice, and alternative therapies were no substitute for pharmaceuticals. Within a ten-year period, all that seems to have changed– but how did we arrive at a point where we now have alternative facts and opinions taking precedence over scientific research and fact-checked news?
Since 2010 and the introduction of blogs which chronicled what people ate, where they shopped, the clothes they wore and their views on popular culture, we’ve experienced a paradigm shift from print magazines to people power. It’s great in that now the Internet is more democratic, everyone has a voice, and can express their opinion. Although the majority of ads we see on the subway, on billboards and in shops continue to bombard us with a very narrow vision of what it means to be the ideal man or woman, there’s more evidence to suggest people respond more positively when they see themselves reflected in advertising. For that reason, more and more brands are collaborating with influencers, rather than creating content and measuring the response of the consumer. ‘Real people’ are starting to replace traditional models, and the catalyst to this change is social media, particularly Instagram. The platform has made it easier to quickly share a snapshot of your life, cultivate a dense social following and leverage your online profile. More and more people see Instagram as a tool they can use to build a personal brand, with reports the highest earning influencers are paid tens of thousands of dollars for a single post. You might think the only people who stand to benefit as influencers had already become a house-hold name before the app was created, but you’d be wrong. In fact, many creatives such as photographers, artists and fashion designers are among those who have benefited the most. Nutritionists, fitness experts and personal trainers have also been quick to adopt social media as part of their online marketing strategies, using the platform to increase engagement and even collaborate with other brands. However, they're not going it alone, with many influencers choosing to pair with companies like Submit Core, WME Group and Elegant Web who offer Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), web design and business services.
A carefully curated image shared on Instagram fits in seamlessly with the other media we consume, and with many influencers opting not to disclose what is sponsored and what’s not, the line between advertising and an authentic post can easily become blurred. The addition of a watch to an outfit with the brand tagged, or makeup tutorial condensed into a minute featuring a contouring kit seems harmless enough. If the collaboration isn’t a good fit then there might be some short-term pain for both parties but overall it’s a practice that seems mutually beneficial for all parties involved, and a product gains exposure to a wider audience. Sharing pretty images online could hardly be considered detrimental to one’s mental health, however, I’m not the first to call into question this culture of perfectionism. It seems that the only images which seem to get traction are intensively styled, painstakingly curated and air-brushed to the nth degree. Increasingly, scrolling through Instagram gives us the same feeling we once experienced when flicking through the pages of a glossy magazine; a sense of alienation, isolation and dread. For that reason, the successful influencers are those which galvanize their community. They offer more than just a visually powerful image, but often package it with intelligence and wit. To take this practice one step further is to give their readers a platform whereby they can interact freely with one another, or meet IRL at events and start new friendships. Whether it be a live show in the case of Mama Mia Outloud, ‘summer camp’ experience a la Man Repeller, or seminar delivered by Constance Hall with tattooist included uniting a tribe of like-minded people is one of the more powerful and long-lasting offerings an influencer can make. However, the world of influencers is not without its villains.
Belle Gibson, an Australian wellness blogger and author claimed she had received a terminal cancer diagnosis, which she had then cured through alternative therapies and clean eating. Gibson amassed a cult following, partnering with Apple in conjunction with the release of the Whole Pantry app in 2013, followed by a cookbook by the same name in 2014, published by Lantern Books (Penguin). It’s estimated that through the release of her book and app, Gibson had accumulated over one million dollars, using her social media profile to galvanise her online following with further claims of helping others experiencing fertility issues, depression, bone damage and other types of cancer. In March 2015 investigations into claims of charity fundraising and donations made to organisations supporting maternal healthcare in developing countries, children with cancer, and schools in sub-Saharan Africa. It was later found that as little as $7,000 of the supposed $300,000 had been donated to a total of three charities- with an $1000 donation made after just after Fairfax Media launched their initial investigation. Soon after her book was pulled from the shelves, with Penguin citing a lack of response from Gibson in light of the accusations. Since the first allegations of fraud, and certainly after these claims were substantiated, her base on social media began to collapse and in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald published in April 2015 Gibson confessed her cancer diagnosis was in fact fabricated and none of the claims she had made were true. But what became of the funds raised from her book? Consumer Affairs Victoria launched legal action against Gibson for breaking Australian consumer law, with Penguin Australia paying AU$30,000 in penalties for failing to fact check the book’s content. More recently, Gibson was force to pay AU$410,000 (US$310,000) for making false claims in 2014 about charitable donations made by The Whole Pantry. Despite Gibson’s fall from grace, there are other wellness bloggers who have readily taken her place, and even actress Gwyneth Paltrow has launched her own lifestyle brand, Goop. However, a Californian advertising watchdog group has also raised concerns over some of the more dubious Goop products, including their vitamin subscription box and a $165 perfume which claims to boost the function of the immune system.
Personally, I’ve come to accept my Instagram feed now contains ads, both hidden and fully disclosed. While I’m aware that a product featured in a post by a particular influencer will sometimes drive to me a particular website, I can’t think of a time when I’ve committed to a purchase. It seems inevitable that I’ll fall victim to the influence of a social media maven, but I remain adamant I’ll never let influencer marketing inform any of my lifestyle or health decisions. Not unless they support their claims with a peer-reviews scientific journal article, but given the way things are going, it may be years before we see well researched journalism or scientific reports hold sway like they once did.