Influencers, disclosure and the nature of Instagram

Posted on April 9, 2015 by Jason Giles

An article came out in Digiday (also, Ad Week if you’re fancy) about Lord+Taylor’s hugely successful Instagram influencer blitz last week. The retailer recruited over 50 influencers to post pictures of them all wearing the same dress with their own unique twist on the style. The campaign must have struck a chord, as the dress is quickly selling out online and in-store.

If you look at this through the slightly smudged glasses of a digital marketer, they certainly got a lot of bang for their buck. The issue that the ad magazines brought up doesn’t exactly revolve around whether or not the influencer campaign worked. Instead they brought up the notion of disclosure for influencer campaigns and whether or not it was ethical to present these as organic Instagram posts without disclosing that they paid for their product placement. At this point are your eyes rolling so hard they’ve slipped into the back of your head? Same.

Not to speak for our entire demographic but as a millennial, I’ve made peace with the fact that pretty much everything is an ad these days. There is nothing in modern popular culture that advertising has not muddled in. Try and tell me something that isn’t, I dare you. Sports, music, tech, film, modern art, bass fishing, seriously try and name one thing that hasn’t been exploited to sell a product.That’s how movies are made, how sports leagues are funded; all with ad dollars, baby.

The case for disclosure:

Before I go into the reasons why disclosure is crap for most brands, lets get into why it is necessary for some. Referrals are a powerful thing and when a person with a position of influence such as a TV doctor (who I won’t mention, but sounds like Smocktor Schmoz) disclosure is important. You’re going to need to distinguish between actual medical advice and the pseudoscience stuff that he’s paid to shill for. Lord knows there are a ton of “experts” out there doling out false advice , it’s important to discriminate between the shills and the hacks. Advertorials can for the most part be ignored because we are fully aware they are ads and not content. I know the editors at GQ don’t actually believe in a non-carcinogenic form of chewing tobacco, but instead will gladly accept advertiser money to make it seem like they do. Pharmaceuticals and healthcare, alcohol and tobacco, financial and legal services; essentially anything that could seriously impact someone’s life by the swaying of an opinion from a “trusted” expert should come with a caveat that they have been compensated. There, can we move on now?

Why disclosure isn’t necessary

I mentioned that disclosure in paid advertising and influencer campaigns is important for some industries: ones that require expert opinions or ones whose product might cause harm to one’s well-being or quality of life. There’s that old saying that “clothes make the man” but at the end of the day, has anyone ever had their life significantly improve quantifiably by wearing a dress? Demanding disclosure for Instagram influencers is akin to disclosing that a runway model is paid to walk down the catwalk wearing the latest Dior dress. You don’t see “ MODEL WAS COMPENSATED TO BE IN THIS AD. THIS IS AN AD BY THE WAY” pasted across the pages of Vogue. Instagram influencers are essentially just far more accessible and practical models. But don’t tell them that, the last thing we need is more inflated influencer egos.

Another argument is the one over authenticity. If an Instagram post is outed as an ad does that make it any less engaging? No. Do I think that L+T deliberately snubbed disclosure rules to achieve this air of authenticity? No. I think the answer to both of those questions lies at the feet of the influencers. Some of them did hashtag “ad,” “sponsored” or use the right language to get the point across that they didn’t just find this dress on the floor of the department store. Some of them could have just forgot which again, totally happens in influencer marketing. I think people following these influencers know what they’re getting when they sign up. When you combine that with the fact that these personalities have more than one social profile and have cultivated a brand image across the web, it’s not too far out of the realm to suggest that getting paid to talk about products isn’t something new to them.

Finally, let’s take a look at the nature of Instagram itself. It’s not a platform that’s geared towards e-commerce, or at the very least, directing people towards e-commerce sites like Twitter or Pinterest do. It’s a platform for someone to brand themselves, to show off their interests that define them as a person. It’s also an excellent low-pressure sales tool and platform to showcase merchandise for brands. So what’s the natural marriage of both of these traits?  Personalized, curated content of people who are showcasing brands they like. I think the biggest reminder out of all of this is that the majority of people who follow influencers on Instagram know what they’re getting themselves into. They know these people find the coolest brands and showcase them for their fans, that’s the whole point of following them – disclosure or no disclosure.

Jason is a Digital Strategist at 88 Creative. Follow him on Twitter @Jasegiles .

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