Under the influence of influencers

Updated: Aug 13, 2019

A big YouTube story hit the headlines last week, the chaos surrounded Brooke Houts, a YouTuber with over 300,000 subscribers.

The controversy was around an unedited clip of footage mistakenly uploaded to her channel, which appeared to show Houts abusing her Doberman puppy, Sphinx. In the footage, it appears Houts spits on the dog and grabs and pins him to the floor, applying force in the process.

I am not suggesting that Houts’ following would obediently follow her into animal abuse - but with a following of perhaps not epic proportions but a fair amount, her actions are viewed by many impressionable young viewers.

There has been many strong reactions and opinions to the latest YouTuber scandal with PETA calling for Brooke Houts’ channel to be removed:

Houts isn’t the only YouTuber over the last few years to reach headlines for all the wrong reasons - YouTuber Logan Paul issued an apology after he uploaded a video of the Aokigahara forest known in Japan as 'suicide forest' - he filmed a dead body and uploaded it to his YouTube channel as part of his vlog - I mean, talk about lack of respect - not only for his impressionable YouTube audience but the person filmed and their distraught family.

Before the video was removed it had garnered over half a million likes and 6.3 million views.

With Paul's subscribers mainly made up of teens and tweens, it's worrying that children are accessing this content without their parents' knowledge. Logan Paul states that his demographic is supposed to be early to mid twenties. And whilst he accepts that his suicide forest vlog was unacceptable, a lot of his other content isn't really aimed at the younger generation.

In an interview with Good Morning America he said:

"I'm gonna be honest with you, Michael. I think parents should be monitoring what their children are watching more," Paul said in the interview. "Every parent I meet whose kids are under the age of like 12 I go 'Hey, you let your kids watch my stuff?'" 

Some responsibility has to lie with the parents, particularly when content such as this is accessed at home. That said, it’s fair to say that these so-called ‘influencers’ are influencing in all the wrong ways.

There was even a bit of Insta-controversy recently in the UK with TV Personality Scarlett Moffatt supposedly abusing her position in the public eye. She had approached My Suitcase Boutique and asked for a custom-designed tulle skirt, costing £150, to wear to New York Pride. In exchange for exposure, the designer had made the skirt and received tracking confirmation that the TV star had signed for the garment.

After many messages from the brand to the star, the brand owner was blocked and unable to further contact Moffatt to retrieve the skirt or ask for the exposure promised. The incident has since been resolved and labelled a misunderstanding - the skirt has now been sent back to the brand.

So, it begs the question, are influencers influencing the younger generation correctly? And what measures are currently being taken to protect the impressionable viewers from potentially destructive or incorrectly persuasive content?

Let’s start with a definition - what exactly is influencer marketing?

For once, Wikipedia has nailed the definition:

Influencer marketing is a form of social media marketing involving endorsements from influencers, people and organisations who possess an expert level of knowledge and/or social influence in their respective fields.

It’s fair to say that many brands would jump at the chance to get their products in front of a large target audience who hangs off every word of an influencer. If you had the budget, why wouldn’t you? It's guaranteed sales and exposure.

Take Love Island, for example, the 2019 series has just wrapped up and each of its stars has been plunged into the ‘influencer’ sphere. With runner-up Molly-Mae Hague having now amassed a whopping 3 million followers. 3 MILLION.

Over previous series, no one has ever come out with so many followers. With many averaging around the 1.2 mil mark. But 3?? That’s a lot of influence she has at her fingertips.

I'm not saying she would, but if she decided to be reckless with which items she promoted - what’s in place to help control this?

ASA and CMA bring out an official guide for posting ads

In September 2018, the Advertising Standards Agency and the Competitions Market Authority together released official guidelines around transparency and influencer marketing. The story was covered by The Independent - and it stated that any user being paid for promoting a product or taking part in any kind of promotional marketing, had to use labels including either “ad,” “advertising” or “advert.”

Basically, influencers are responsible for making it clear that the content uploaded is clearly an ad. No longer are labels like ‘spons’ and ‘in partnership with’ tolerated.

If a user has to hunt for signals that the post is an ad - it’s not acceptable.

“If they do not label their posts properly, fans or followers may be led to believe that an endorsement represents the star’s own view, rather than a paid-for promotion,” the Competition and Markets Authority says.

The ASA pointed out that they have in the past banned a number of influencer posts for failing to make clear they were ads, including those by reality TV stars Louise Thompson, Millie Mackintosh and Marnie Simpson.

Reporting content on YouTube

YouTube relies on its community to report content that is offensive or breaching their community guidelines. It is estimated that there are 200 million illegal videos on YouTube - including full-length albums and movies. But once a video is reported, it is not automatically removed.

If the reported content is found to have violated the community guidelines, the content is removed. Or, if it's appropriate for the platform but not for younger viewers, an age restriction is implemented.

Read more about how to report video content on YouTube.

If you're worried about what your children are accessing on YouTube, this video from TechBoomers shows how you can manage parental controls:

The rapid increase in ‘influencer marketing’

Since 2014, the search term ‘influencer marketing’ has increased in popularity, as you can see from the below Google trends data. This graph shows the increase in searches worldwide - so it’s not just a country-specific increase - this is a global takeover! Argh.

Source: Google Trends

When I first started working in marketing agencies, I don’t think I ever really came across this term - it was usually dubbed ‘blogger outreach’. Now there are all kinds of terms that sit alongside influencer marketing - there are also micro-influencers. These influencers have fewer followers, obviously, but they might have more of a dedicated and engaged following - they’re also cheaper to work with for brands with smaller budgets.

Fast fashion brands are perfect for the influencer community - they can showcase the product easily in beautiful, sunny and usually ‘perfect’ images - they’re selling a lifestyle, not just a new wardrobe.

It's easy for impressionable teenagers to get swept up in the influencer world - they're shown new products every day that their new social idols are promoting so they want it all too.

In fact, someone I know asked his children what they wanted to be when they grew up and they both said YouTubers. Influencer marketing is now a viable career for many growing up with this technology at their fingertips.

Instagram’s latest changes could negatively affect influencer marketing

Last month, Instagram announced it was trialling the removal of likes and comments on its posts. The trial is currently taking place in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Ireland, Brazil and Italy.

Mia Garlick of Facebook Australia and New Zealand said: "We hope this test will remove the pressure of how many likes a post will receive, so you can focus on sharing the things you love."

Now that the pressure of likes and interaction has been removed - what will happen to those who make their living through Instagram paid promotions?

It will be interesting to see the results of this trial period - now that users can’t see how much attention a post is getting, will it become as popular or the content as viral as it once was?

Will this new stance of putting the emphasis on sharing content you love as opposed to content that will garner the most interest and likes negatively affect the paid promotion side of the platform?

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see!

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