Under the Skin: Calling to Question the Ethos of Influencer Culture

Kaitlyn by Justin Fox

Kaitlyn by Justin Fox

Hey Friends. Kaitlyn here. Recently, I’ve been noticing an uptick in my Instagram feed of accounts with modest followings promoting obscure brands with their “discount codes” nestled towards the end of their captions. These are accounts that, should I reduce things down to a pile of data, are just like mine. They’re girls from cities like mine with interests like mine, and they, too, have a following consisting of a friends, relatives and various ex-boyfriends (lol).
Have you ever wondered how sponsored content happens, and what consideration goes on behind the scenes? I did, but I never thought it was my domain until brands like this approached me to “collaborate.” A few weeks ago, two accounts approached me via Instagram Direct Message. Their overall formula was similar, coupling a vague compliment on my Instagram feed with the notion that they wanted to ‘work’ with me. I’m going to relay some of this conversation here:

Brand “A”

A streetwear brand akin to Thrasher:

“Hey! Love your style and was wondering if you’d be interested in being a rep for my brand @**********, check it out and let me know if you’re interested :)”

Brand “B” 

Brand with clothing similar to Forever21, Pretty Little Thing, etc.

“Hey Kaitlyn. You are gorgeous. Did you have a minute to discuss a possible partnership opportunity with us?”


As someone who has had a successful brand partnership that is ongoing, I know what a good partnership looks and most importantly, feels like. I am currently a Goodwill Thrift Ambassador, meaning that Goodwill gives me gift cards for their stores to shop and post about my finds, promoting secondhand shopping while giving me something for my efforts. My relationship with Goodwill also began with a DM from one of their staff, in which we set up a face to face meeting to discuss what this partnership would look like, as well as to create a plan for this to be mutually beneficial. The entire meeting reflected Goodwill’s values, while promoting their Thrift Ambassador’s on Instagram.
So, I’m sure a few of you might be wondering how this interaction differs from the ones I had with the other brands who approached me. There is a vast (in fact, a complete 180 degree) difference.
The first difference is that both of these brand’s “representative” programs would have required me to purchase their clothing with my money at a 20% discount “exclusive” to their representatives, in order to “work” with them. Brand A offered no commission, while Brand B offered a 10% commission on the people who used my discount code on their website.

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The second difference that became very apparent to me, was that these brands were willing to make me an affiliate or brand representative without much of a conversation in getting to know me, which set off a red flag. If this partnership was so important to them, would you not think they would invest time in getting to know me, and making sure I was a correct fit for their brand? Because of this, I got the vibe that these particular partnerships were less about spreading their message through influencers they believed in, but instead garnering new customers through the disguise of “being cool enough to be selected.”

Because of this, I got the vibe that these particular partnerships were less about spreading their message through influencers they believed in, but instead garnering new customers through the disguise of “being cool enough to be selected.”

How should an ethical partnership work? What does it look like?  What should it feel like?

Those questions, though important, are difficult to look at holistically; as the social media marketing realm is so incredibly new and uncharted (Think Narnia but without Aslan to guide and save us all). However, no matter what the partnership ends up looking like in terms of compensation and perks, you should always check with a friend, family member, or someone you trust to determine if the partnership is fair and you are not being taken advantage of. (Many professional influencers, models or actors have agents for this reason, so they can look at the situation objectively and give an honest review of the partnership).
Su suggests being wary of any partnership that asks you to purchase anything, as noted before from my experience. It is important to remember that the company you are posting for and creating content for would have had to pay thousands of dollars to have a professional do the same thing. While this personal opportunity might seem “one in a million” – the reality is that the only benefit you might receive is a repost and a few new followers, while the company makes thousands off of a picture you essentially paid to take.

The ethics of consumer created marketing – who is the real beneficiary?

Yet another issue in this ‘influencer culture’ is the increasing trend of brands relying on customers to take pictures of their products, be it makeup, clothes, or accessories – to populate their social media feeds. Brands such as Anastasia Beverly Hills, FashionNova, Jaclyn Hill, and others are some of the largest ones that come to mind – encouraging their followers to buy their products and post about it. While this might seem like an immense opportunity for an individual trying to grow their online brand, the true intent of consumer marketing must be called into question.
Are these brands truly trying to promote and help out growing creatives by reposting them, or are they simply manipulating people into purchasing their products? An ethical partnership between brands and creators must be equally and mutually beneficial, and the aforementioned circumstance - of consumers purchasing items for the chance to be reposted - is not. More often than not, it is framed as an “opportunity” for creators while brands (and as I experienced with Brand A) expect marketing materials for free.

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Let’s take the example of a makeup brand relying on the model of their followers creating makeup looks, posting them, and garnering a repost from said brand’s social media feed. If the consumer purchases a full face of makeup from the brand, it can cost them upwards of $500 in makeup stores such as Sephora or ULTA, or around $150 for lesser expensive but quality brands such as Nyx or ColorPop. The creative then has to spend the time creating the look, while not being paid for time spent. They may even videotape this process, which increases their time invested in the single post, still unpaid.
Next, the creative posts the look, alongside hundreds and possibly thousands of other consumers, all vying for visibility and a repost. In this example, the brand has to do nothing but repost the free content, and is the one making thousands of dollars off of a single post they did not have to invest any money directly into asides from the staff member who found the post, as well as any overhead costs for technical equipment (including this to be fair, although these are costs the brand has already taken on from well, existing).
Now, let’s examine the cost of the brand to shoot a look like this. Their cost of acquiring the makeup is far less, as they acquire their product at the cost it takes to produce it. The brand then has to cast for a model or series of models, in the process paying a casting director and other employees to find the model(s) that are right for the look, and once this is done they have to pay the model, their agency, and any travel costs associated with hiring these individuals. Next, the brand must hire a photographer, possibly a photography assistant, makeup artist, possibly a makeup artist’s assistant, hair stylist, and possibly technical crew to work with the lighting and props. Further adding to this cost may be studio costs and rentals, and travel to the location. In addition to this, the brand is also paying their own in-house staff to coordinate this entire project. An entire shoot like this to achieve multiple looks for a brands website and social media can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.
It can be seen why brands are so quick to defend their use of user generated content, as it, in addition to the provision of free marketing, is something which allows for brands to connect with their users.

So, where do we go from here?

Honestly guys, it’s unclear.
This entire issue is nothing but confusing – on one hand, we have ladies (and guys) making money and living their lives, which is awesome. But on the other hand, it is important to take a deep look at these products and practices and ask what the intentions are behind them.

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While this editorial in no way aims to shame creators who make money off of Instagram, people who purchase products and tag the respective brands with the hopes of being featured, or brands who use consumer generated content as an advertising medium, it does, I hope, call into question the ethics of the practice. At what point is it unethical for brands to consistently benefit off of the free marketing its followers provide, without paying or supplying creators with product? At what point does the practice of requiring your ‘influencers’ to buy the product at a discount in order to be featured become exploitative, rather than collaborative? At what point should we call to question sponsored content, to be what it is, a paid advertisement?
If anything, I hope this can start a conversation about social media marketing and the ethics of ad content. With the rise of consumer generated marketing and influencer culture, we must continue to ask the questions that need asking, and look beyond what is presented to us at face value.

We want to hear from you, have you noticed, experienced, or participated in consumer generated marketing, #SponCon, or anything else we’ve discussed? How did it make you feel? What did you gain from it? Let us know by sending us a message on our social medias, or a good ol’ fashioned email.
As always, stay curious, and stay Su.

Kaitlyn Tyschenko is a recent graduate and environmentalist working in Sustainable Construction. Her focus is on how systems work both for and against human and environmental health, and how we can change them for the better.