Are brands the moral arbiter of influencer marketing?

Influencers, all just having a bit of fun, and no harm done, right? Well, that’s not always the case, and when it isn’t, it seems that the final say on what is deemed as ethical increasingly falls into the hands of the opportunist companies who prop up these social media stars. Brands don’t always get it right, and when they don’t, the consequences can be particularly harmful to those loyal to these influencers: usually quite young and very much impressionable.

The power of influencer marketing

Celebrities singing the praises of a magical tea with detox benefits lacking in any real scientific basis, accompanied by an Instagram snap of them practically cavorting with the said beverage, or those with already dazzling teeth endorsing the wonders of dubious looking whitening strips: the credibility of claims made by influencers is at times laughable. Ironic, given that one of the reasons why influencer marketing has become so prolific in the first place has been the apparently authentic way it connects with consumers compared to other traditional marketing strategies.

However, whilst it is tempting to sit back and laugh ever so smugly at how we haven’t been fooled into believing the ridiculousness of certain influencers falsehoods, are we really having the last laugh? For some social media marketers, they aren’t trying to be serious, in fact, their campaigns capitalise on the very stupidity of it all — and yield results.  One American food brand enlisted the help of mummy bloggers and got them to adorn their homes with decorations made from chicken nuggets. Across social networks, the nugget extravaganza garnered over 8 million hits. Not bad for some coagulated meat gloop.
In any case, regardless of your views on influencer marketing, its power is undeniable. The biggest influencers on Instagram, such as Selena Gomez, can demand up to a staggering $550,000 per post (just over £400,000), whilst the influencer market is expected to grow to a colossal 2.38 billion U.S. dollars (£1.73 billion) in 2019: that is double the size of the 2017 market.
With so much potential profit at stake on social media, it seems that a growing number of brands are beginning to forget about a sense of morality that should be involved in their marketing strategy. What’s worse, their influence completely dominates the digital landscape.

Influencer marketing and the question of morality

As the infographic above on influencer marketing statistics for 2017 shows, the influence celebrities and social media stars have on the young is significant. Brands know this and have attributed their funding into digital media strategies accordingly, but have they done so ethically?
So much of influencer marketing is focused on appearance to a predominantly young demographic, and it’s mainly led by women, for women (or young girls). Instagram is saturated with advertorial posts that all promote a ‘better you’: waist shapers, diet subscriptions, hair extensions, and more but in reality, all these products infer constantly is the idea that whatever you are, isn’t quite enough: perhaps this is why Instagram was reported to be the most detrimental social networking app for young people, especially young women, according to the Royal Society for Public Health.
There is also still a considerable lack of transparency involved in influencer marketing which poses problems ethics-wise. A report by Hopper HQ last year revealed that just 21%  of sponsored posts on Instagram had made it clear that the user had been paid to post products. The consequence is the creation of young followers unrealistic expectations, also aided by the digitally altered images that frequently accompany these ads, and all helping to feed the belief that they too can be just like their favourite influencer, if only they buy that item. However, these expectations only end up leading to disappointment, and potentially a loss of self-esteem.

Should brands have so much power?

The fundamental problem is the lack of regulations in place by authorities such as the Advertising Standards Authority ASA that could force brands to take moral responsibility in an area where their influence reigns supreme. Take the example of the influencer Logan Paul and the debacle that has surrounded him in recent months over his poorly judged comments on suicide. Paul managed to uphold many of his brand sponsorship deals — his main source of income — despite the incident. For the brands who kept their deals with the prominent influencer, it inherently suggests an endorsement of his very obviously unacceptable behaviour, seemingly due to money. Where is the morality in that?
We’ve seen the rise of digital activism with volunteers trying to fill the ASA void in the last few years, such as through the ‘Stop Funding Hate’ campaign to try and encourage brands to pull-out of funding for newspapers that the activists argued were ‘using hate to drive sales’. However, whilst it has helped, nothing has truly stuck. Yet.