Are brands the moral arbiter of influencer marketing? // January 12, 2018


Influencers, all just having a bit of fun right, and no harm done? Well, that isn’t always the case, and when it isn’t, it seems that increasingly the final say on ethics falls into the hands of the opportunist companies behind them. Brands don’t always get it right, and when they don’t, the consequences can be particularly harmful to those loyal to these social media influencers, most notably the young and impressionable.

The power of influencer marketing

Celebrities singing the praises of a magical tea with detox benefits that lacks in any real scientific basis, or those with already dazzling teeth endorsing the wonders of teeth whitening strips: these are just a couple of examples that show that the credibility of claims made by influencers is at times laughable, and ever-dwindling as we become savvier about social media marketing tactics. This is particularly ironic given that one of the most important reasons why influencer marketing became so prolific in the first place was the way in which it spoke to consumers in an apparently authentic way compared to other traditional strategies.



However, the comical aspect isn’t completely lost on all influencer marketers, for some, it is entirely the point: one American food brand enlisted the help of mummy bloggers and got them to adorn their homes with decorations made from chicken nuggets, all in the name of marketing. It worked: across social networks, the nugget extravaganza garnered over 8 million hits.




In any case, regardless of how much you hold influencer marketing in high regard, its power is undeniable: the biggest influencers on Instagram such as Selena Gomez, can demand 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: double the size of 2017. With so much at stake, it seems that a growing number of brands are beginning to forget about the morality involved in their marketing strategy. What’s worse, is that their influence completely dominates the digital landscape.


Influencer marketing and the question of morality



As shown in the infographic above based on influencer marketing statistics for 2017, 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 do they do so with a conscience?

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, but in reality, all these products infer constantly that you aren’t enough: perhaps this is why Instagram was reported to be the most detrimental social networking app for young people, especially for young women according to the Royal Society for Public Health.




It could also be that there is still a huge amount of lack of transparency involved in influencer marketing. 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 ethical problem that poses, is unrealistic expectations by young followers who believe they can be just like their favourite influencer, if only they buy that product, this goes also for the digitally altered images that frequently accompany these ads. They say expectations lead to disappointment, and this has never been more so the case when it comes to certain types of dubious influencer marketing. These issues raise the question as to just how much moral responsibility brands should take.

Should brands have so much power?

The fundamental problem is, is that there is a lack of regulations in place, by authorities such as the ASA, that forces brands to take moral responsibility in an area where their influence reigns supreme. We’ve seen the rise of digital activism, with campaigns led by volunteers, such as the ‘Stop Funding Hate’ campaign that encourage brands to pull-out of funding for newspapers they argued were ‘using hate to drive sales’, but nothing has truly stuck.

Furthermore, if more brands decided to use their power for good: for example, dropping partnerships with disgraced influencers – such as Logan Paul, numerous reporters have commented how that it would be this withdrawal of funding that would be most likely to penalise him for his actions with the greatest effect – given that most of his income is made through sponsorships and brand deals. By upholding brand sponsorship deals, it inherently suggests an endorsement of his very obviously unacceptable behaviour. Where is the morality in that?