Unlike its musical counterpart of pop, where the lip-synch reigns supreme, rock has never rested on the laurels of authenticity. Not like social media. Gareth May unpacks the weird world of fake #sponcon.
Any self-respecting compendium of worst performances typically includes The Who’s infamous 1973 tour (when difficulty with a pre-recorded backing track resulted in Pete Townshend laying into a sound engineer on-stage) and Slade’s Scunthorpe Working Men Club gig in 1969 (when they were told to “bugger off” for being “rubbish”). Better to take to the stage tipsy or ill-equipped and botch the thing live, than cower in the shadows and mime in unison.
Rockstars don’t have much truck with fakery (unless you’re called Threatin) but the same is not true of wannabe social media influencers.
The culture of “street cred” for Instagram or YouTube stars with sponsors has led to an unnerving trend for fake endorsements, whereby social media users build up a (false) reputation as a beauty or gaming insider by sharing #ad posts that have not been commissioned by the brand featured.
In the world of social marketing, sponsored content, of any kind, makes an influencer appear established in media circles, validates their content, and gets them paid.
But things are changing. The Federal Trade Commission in the US and the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) are clamping down. The CMA recently announced it had warned celebrities, including Ellie Goulding and Alexa Chung, for failing to disclose paid advertisements, payments or gifts shown on their social media channels. Yet, still, fake endorsements remain beyond the reach of regulators.
Let’s unpack the weird world of fake #sponcon with five examples of fake sponsored content that had people fooled.
90 Day Fiancé star Leida Margaretha caused such a stir for fans of the hit show that a Change.org petition was started to get her deported (the American documentary series follows couples who have applied for an American visa). It wasn’t her last brush with digital judgement.
When the Instagram star posted a picture of her holding a FabFitFun box presented as an advertisement, one Instagram user contacted the FabFitFun company to question why she was being used as the face of the company—only she wasn’t.
The company replied saying they use a “wide variety of influencers” and cited Leida Margaretha as not a “current FabFitFun partner” – clearly because the brand didn’t want to be associated with a villainous, albeit pantomime, celeb.
The controversial YouTube star proved that not all publicity is good publicity when he made a video of him playing a video game that he claimed was sponsored by Volvo.
What conditions led to him making this fake sponsored post? The post was in the wake of anti-Semitic comments that saw the gaming streamer face widespread criticism and lose thousands of followers. By tagging Volvo the vlogger was attempting to win back creditability and fan respect by aligning with an undisputable and highly respectable global brand. But Volvo had not aligned with him, leaving him picking up the pieces of another social media smackdown.
Some days later, he reproduced the same video tagging in Saab instead. Car crash.
It’s not always bad, bad, bad. After micro-influencer Samantha Leibowitz-Bienstock, known as Trendy Ambitious Blonde, posted a photo of herself with a Betsey Johnson bag she bought with her own money and tagged the brand’s channel company, she was picked up and featured on their website, earning her some welcome press and exposure.
Leibowitz-Bienstock wasn’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, either, she was actively attempting to get interest in her posts, working her way up to sponsored deals in the long-term rather than poaching them now for a short-term gain.
It’s not all one-way traffic. Some influencers show enough flare to dupe even the most beady-eyed of marketers. Jason Wong, founder of false-eyelash company Doux Lashes, is on record saying that one influencer who he ended up hiring to promote a product tricked him. It was only once the deal was inked that he found out all of her ad posts were faked.
Somewhat a reversal of roles this one—social media being the duped party. The failed 2017 music festival founded by Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule was built on a bed of false claims and bad booking. The event was not only promoted on Instagram by socialite influencers who did not disclose they had been paid to do so, the festival also originally blew up Twitter with the promise of big performers such as Blink-182, Major Lazer, and Disclosure. The kicker? Many of the music artists were yet to even be contacted.
McFarland, the subject of a recent Netflix documentary (Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened) was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud in 2018. As for Ja Rule, he’s giving it another go.
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