Influencer marketing is a scourge, exhibit A

May 14, 2019 (1045 words) :: Kylie Jenner recently announced a product in her new skincare line that might actually hurt your skin.
Tags: advertising

This post is day 134 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

For context: Kylie Jenner is the world’s youngest “self-made” billionaire, having founded an eponymous cosmetics company whose profits come entirely from her astronomical social media celebrity, which celebrity she attained due to being related to other celebrities. You may also remember her from the controversy over the disastrous Fyre Festival, when she made a quarter of a million dollars for making one (now deleted) Instagram post announcing the festival.

More context: there are no self-made billionaires. Nobody “earns” a billion dollars all by their lonesome, and certainly nobody deserves to have a billion dollars to their name in our current economic climate.

Here’s the latest Kylie Jenner controversy in a nutshell: today, she announced one product in her upcoming skincare line, a walnut scrub meant for your face. Now, walnut shell is apparently extremely controversial as a facial exfoliant, and much of the social media backlash centres around the claim that it’s actively bad for your face. There’s also a fair amount of incredulity at the gall of this billionaire (who has access to the best facial care money can buy, and whose entire job is to look pretty for the camera) acting as if the secret to having good skin is some snake oil product. (Cost: $22.)

Leaving aside the actual chemical issues here (I don’t know anything about the walnut scrub, but I’m inclined to side with the people who say it’s bad for you), I think there’s something telling about this whole episode, giving us a glimpse behind the curtain of the worldwide racket that is influencer marketing. The product rollout video features a dead-eyed Jenner - clad entirely in pink, against a backdrop of other things that are also pink, and holding a pink tube - saying (in a flat, lifeless, “I’m just doing this for the money” voice), “My walnut face scrub is my secret to a fresh face.” It’s a perfect blend of so many factors: the chillingly empty aesthetic, the overpriced product, the vacuous script intended to instill a desire to buy while promising nothing in particular. Similar to how Jennifer Aniston is a brand ambassador for smartwater because it has an “authentic role” in her life, and George Clooney is likewise for Nespresso because they have a “shared commitment to sustainability”.

I know I rail on advertising a lot, especially the influencer marketing variant, but to me it’s indicative of so many things that are wrong in our world. It’s bad for consumers - an attempt to deepen what is already a severe information asymmetry in favour of corporations - and it’s bad for society as a whole, because it amounts to a subsidy of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. And where does that subsidy come from? Well, it’s built into the prices of the goods that are ultimately being sold, prices which are then justified through ad campaigns.

But wait, you might ask, what about the influencers themselves? Surely they’re workers who should be compensated for their labour? No. Not all workers are the same, and not all workers should be supported as workers. People who make money from endorsements are beneficiaries of an inefficient arm of capital whose primary goal is to artifically stimulate demand for commodities - commodities which, let’s remember, may actually be bad for you. Whatever compensation they make from recommending products (often made by workers who are poorly treated and terribly paid) is just a kickback from the ill-begotten profits gained through inflated prices and squeezed labour costs. Ultimately, their time is being directed toward socially unwelcome endeavours in a manner similar to the private health insurance industry in the US: single-payer healthcare might destroy that industry, and thereby the jobs of many workers, but maybe those jobs were never worth doing to be begin with.

The problem that influencer marketing purports to solve is that of information asymmetry: we don’t know what products are good. But adding influencers to the mix only makes the problem worse. As long as people are paid to promote products, there will be people being paid to promote products they wouldn’t otherwise have promoted, or haven’t fully vetted. Why would anyone think otherwise? Does anyone actually believe that celebrities only take brand endorsements when they genuinely love the product? The whole point of the massive amounts of money in this space is to get people to shill for products they wouldn’t have promoted organically. That’s the whole logic here: tons of money, in order to buy integrity.

Imagine if advertising were transparently framed, the way tobacco sales in many countries are heavily regulated (and individual packs often decorated with gruesome images and medical warnings). The labels would have to be honest: this celebrity got paid $5 million for this advertising campaign, and he only started using our product after we announced him as a brand ambassador. Kylie Jenner got paid $250,000 for this substance-free Instagram post about our equally substance-free festival; she will not be in attendance, nor does she know anything about the obviously inadequate planning for the festival. Etc, etc.

Of course, that would be almost impossible to enforce, and it might not even be that successful (people still smoke cigarettes, after all). To actually abolish influencer marketing, you’d need to address the root of the problem: buckets of money being spent on marketing as the result of the widening gap between cost of goods sold and the prices people are willing to pay (especially for luxury goods). The problem is the overallocation of corporate resources in the pursuit of endless growth - never mind the negative ecological externalities - rather than investing in more sustainable consumption. We can try to regulate influencer marketing all we like (and we should!) but it will stay with us until we ditch our economic system that overproduces unnecessary commodities simply because someone finds it profitable.

Capitalism thrives by selling us a dream: if we buy this and this and this and this, we will be as happy and glamorous as the celebrities featured in ads. But the world will drown and choke and burn before we buy enough for that dream will come true. Time to wake up and smell the walnut scrub.

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