Influencers: Nothing is Real on the Internet

In 2019, as the Disney industrial machine regurgitates a spitfire volley of dead horses in the form of Toy Story 4, a “live” action Lion King movie, yet another Avengers film, yet another Spiderman film, and whatever else they’re planning on inflicting on us once they open Netflix: Disney Edition™ in November, you’d think that the general public is so glutted of glossy CG and airbrushed foreheads that a little unreality on Instagram would pass without comment. In the light of a certain recent Vanity Fair article about surfer mum influencers in Byron Bay though, we feel compelled to say a few things about influencers and influencer culture.

Full disclaimer: Starship use influencers in our work for clients, either directly or through specialist agencies. As a whole, they’re highly committed, on-the-ball small business owners who often have an extremely quick turn-around on briefs. Understand things a little bit more now? Yes, influencers are merely a new(ish) possible extension of your media buy. For them, it’s work. Just like the photographers, public relations people, and artists you might use on a campaign. Do you really think Omega watches are the best after watching a James Bond show? Think that driving an Audi will make you more like Iron Man? If so, we have bad news: advertising and marketing campaigns are all about promoting a particular reality on behalf of our clients. In Starship, we’re firm believers in authenticity and encourage clients to stick to valid statements where possible — if only because it builds trust in your brand. However, all the photography and media that form part of the content of a campaign is always put forward in the best possible light. Blemishes disappear. The light looks warmer and richer. Products are always perfectly positioned. We think of it as HyperAdreality.

HyperAdreality and Influencers

Back to the Byron Bay article. We now know that surfer mum influencers are collectively known as ‘murfers’, a term that we wish we could scrub from our minds. Carina Chocano wrote a cutting article about the murfers in Vanity fair, titled “The Coast of Utopia“, containing gems like:

She still considers her feed her “personal thing,” but there’s something about the stream of photos—the uniform palette of beige and white, ochre and dusty rose, the coordinated clothes, the styled life, the sponsored content, the kids like modern-day Von Trapps—that looks like a massive ad campaign. But for what? Children? Good genes? Good taste? Good luck? In the comments, her fans want to know how she keeps the place so spotless with five kids in the house. (And it is spotless.) They want to know what product she uses in her hair. (Aveda is a partner.) They want to know where she got that dress, that paint colour, those shoes, that life. They want to know her secret.

Opinion naturally split a few ways. There were those who loved the takedown. There were the Byron locals who bemoaned the effects Instagram had on their town:

“Too many people come here thinking it’s some kind of Utopia, when in reality it has just as many negative or other issues as any place,” she says. “An egalitarian, inclusive image is given [by Instagramers and marketers] of a place where you can make your creative dreams come true, raise your kids in domestic beachy, linen bliss.”

And the actual reality?

“Yes, it’s gorgeous. But behind the facade, it’s a big old country town, with all the restrictions and issues to go with that. People come to live here with unrealistic expectations — and often land flat when the truth of life hits. Ask any health professional in town and they will tell you stories of the people who arrive with big ideas and end up suffering from depression because the dream has been shattered, or because Byron Bay wasn’t the answer to their problems. It’s undeniable that a Utopian image is continuing to be sold [and] projected.”

There were people concerned about parent influencers oversharing information about their kids. Which, I mean, I get. I’ve opened Facebook before only to be shown naked videos of my friends’ toddlers in the bath. Why??? Why is something like that even online? There are all sorts of terrible people on the internet. That being said, there were also articles that came out in the murfers’ defence, including a response on SMH:

I know I use Instagram as a place to post pictures I find pretty and share moments that I think my handful of followers might enjoy or relate to. It’s not really real though but, who really wants to see our trips to Woolies anyway?

As a photo-sharing platform with built-in filters, it was designed for us to appreciate each other’s pretty pictures, as well as a form of self-expression and entertainment.

An interesting counter-trend involves some younger influencers “going out of their way to make their photos look worse”. Still, I get why the article has touched a nerve. What I don’t understand is the hate.

Regardless of how you feel about the article (which does make some good points about Australian immigration and native title), I’m not sure whether Adamo and her friends really deserve all the anger, privileged as they definitely are. Why bother so getting angry at some mums who like to post touched-up pictures on the internet? For a lot of them, it’s just a business that they can run from home. Yes, HyperAdreality can be bad for some people — particularly people who have lower self-esteem, tend to hold themselves up to unrealistic body expectations and such. I do know people who feel that social media puts them in a negative place, and I know people who’ve begun to tie in likes and such digital affirmation markers into their sense of self-worth. Flaming other people isn’t the answer though, even if social media can be a corrosive space. It’s why I’m not on Facebook any longer, and why my Instagram is highly curated to contain design, animal photography, and food pictures only. I recommend it.

Cultural Differences

That being said, it’s true that there are influencers who misuse the power of their platforms. There was a recent trending hashtag, #couscousforcomment, deriding food influencers who try to blackmail restaurants for free food for “exposure”. This was both depressing (poor restaurants!) and hilarious in a sad way. As creatives, we’re often asked to give free or heavily discounted work for “exposure”, and we like to respond that this sort of argument won’t work in a restaurant. Turns out it does — for some:

In the UK Mick Smith, a chef who runs three successful venues in St Ives, Cornwall including the Porthminster Beach Cafe, told the Guardian that some approaches he gets from influencers can feel like “blackmail”.

“It’s like people try and blackmail us: ‘We want stuff for free or else we’ll write a bad review.’ It’s a big problem.”

Only this week, a customer who wanted a discounted glass of wine but was made to pay full price took her complaint to social media.

“Within 30 minutes there were hundreds of extra comments on the post, many of them negative,” says Smith. “You feel like you have to monitor every social media thing – people want to take you down.”

A sobering read for people like me and the creative director, who often judge a restaurant on its zomato score before deciding whether to visit. This influencer shakedown isn’t confined to the restaurant industry — it’s also a thing for hotels. The White Moose Cafe, a luxury Dublin hotel, banned all social media influencers after Elle Darby, a YouTuber, asked for a free 5-night stay. The hotel refused in a Facebook post that blanked out the YouTuber’s information, but when people figured out who it was and took to her videos with negative comments, Darby uploaded an emotional video where she broke down in tears. The resulting stoush resulted in the hotel’s decision. While the White Moose Cafe matter was perhaps dramatic in particular, enough to make the news, this issue has been troubling the industry recently:

“Everyone with a Facebook these days is an influencer,” she said. “People say, I want to come to the Maldives for 10 days and will do two posts on Instagram to like 2,000 followers. It’s people with 600 Facebook friends saying, ‘Hi, I’m an influencer, I want to stay in your hotel for 7 days,’” she said. Others send vague one-line emails, like “I want to collaborate with you,”with no further explanation. “These people are expecting five to seven nights on average, all-inclusive. Maldives is not a cheap destination.” She said that only about 10 percent of the requests she receives are worth investigating.

Influencers can be good for a hotel — if they’re professional, and managed. Just like any other asset in your team. Some may even provide extra value:

Zach Benson, who owns a network of travel Instagram accounts and who says he has gotten more than 200 nights for free over the past year and a half, touts his background in digital marketing when he approaches hotels. Along with the traditional Instagram posts and Stories, Benson offers to work with a hotel’s digital marketing arm to improve the brand’s in-house social media accounts.

“We really want to help people and make their companies and hotels better,” he said. “We know that just doing a couple Instagram posts for them isn’t really going to help them that much.” During his travels, Benson hosts boot camps for hotel social media teams, where he trains employees on things like Facebook ads and Instagram promotion.

“I just think a lot of the influencers have entitlement mentality,” Benson said. “A lot of them think about giving the bare minimum.”

Bedwani said that it’s critical that hotels set explicit terms in their deals with influencers. “I know a major brand that opened up and flew in a plane full of influencers,” he said. “Three-quarters of them didn’t even post. It was a major fail from their team.”

As we mentioned at the start, we do work with professional influencers, all of whom have produced stellar work for our clients. As with any contractor, employee, or external agency that a brand might use, there are good ones and not so good ones, highly professional ones and ones who might not add as much value as you’d like. Want to know more? Need help managing your next campaign? Get in touch.

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