Is the world subject to one big popularity contest? Everywhere we turn, we’re forced to make decisions and pledge allegiance to one side or another; with each choice enacting a reflection of our own personality. We see it in politics. We recognise it in the brands we buy, over and over again. It’s in the style of clothes we wear and in the image we endeavour to portray of ourselves. It’s in the people and places we choose to associate ourselves with, and it’s in the social influencers we follow online.
But why does it all matter so much… and why now more than ever?
Social Media and influencer marketing seems to have an increasing amount to answer for.
One quick look at the short history of influencer marketing and it doesn’t take long to find that it’s already awash with scandal and loyalty politics. One such online spectacle to recently unfold comes from the public breakdown of the relationship between James Charles and Tati Westbrook.
Charles, 19, has denied using his fame and money to manipulate someone’s sexuality, while Westbrook, 37, accuses him of making inappropriate comments about wanting to ‘hook-up’ with a straight waiter. She has also called him out for being unsupportive (Charles promoted a rival brand of hers), whilst also condemning him for lying and saying hurtful things about other people in the beauty community.
Charles, who is worth an estimated £9 million has collaborated with celebrities including Kary Perry, Kim Kardashian and Demi Lovato. In 2016, he made history at the age of 17 when he became the first ever male to pose for beauty brand CoverGirl. Having lost almost 2 million subscribers throughout the whole affair, he now has 14.2m, where his previous figure was 16m (according to website Social Blade).
The fall-out started back in April, when Charles posted an ad for Sugar Bear Hair supplements to his Instagram story, in exchange to access for Coachella. As it happens, that brand is a huge competitor for Westbrook’s supplement brand, Halo Beauty.
Having been his mentor throughout his inflencer career of , Westbrook has now accused him of being unsupportive and said she felt betrayed. Charles later apologized to Westbrook in a statement posted to his Instagram story, however, on Friday, Westbrook broke her silence to post a 43-minute video on YouTube, explaining the feud and her decision to cut off her friendship with Charles.
But where are we going with all this?
Among the he-said-she-said of it all, hidden within the contours of the drama, this dispute highlights just how the right influencers can have serious sway with consumers, and unknown brands can become mainstream with just the click of a button. While the power of public figures is especially strong online, persona and product endorsements become dangerously intertwined.
The fact that Westbrook’s furor caught on with the public, in such effect, is a sign of the dubious and murky ethical issues of influencer marketing, not to mention the general confusion which can come with sponsored influencing – an industry estimated to be worth around £2 billion. Since 2017, FTC Guidelines have stated that an influencer is liable for false product claims, but it still remains unclear as to how this is actually being enforced. Even today, it seems that influencer posts are rarely compliant with the guidelines, and without enforcement, influencers are accused of violating both terms and loyalty code.
Westbrook’s public and expressive outcry – and Charles’ equally emotional response – emphasise the personal stakes of what is essentially a battle of the wealthy over a sponsorship deal. As a direct consequence, business turned personal (or whichever way round you look at it) and respective fans acted accordingly, with memes and celebrity break-aways. It was time to pick a side.
Whilst it’s true that the Kardashians remain seemingly ‘scandal-proof’, most vloggers and Instagrammers don’t retain anywhere near that kind of loyalty. Charles’ plummeting follower count proves that millions of fans aren’t afraid of jumping ship following a micro-controversy. Because both follower count and engagement can mean the difference in hundreds, sometimes thousands of £££’s in sponsorship; some of the biggest influencers can charge £100,000 for a single endorsement, so a rapid drop in following can change actual fortunes.
This case wasn’t the first (and certainly won’t be the last) time that YouTube mega-stars and social influencers have suffered at the hands of their own fame, as that which first drew the masses swiftly pushes them away. Brothers and YouTube celebrities Jake and Logan Paul, with roughly 38 million followers between them, faced similar consequences for their inappropriate behaviour. Another beauty vlogger, Laura Lee (4 million followers) lost multiple brand deals when she was caught up in some complicated drama, as one of her old racist tweets resurfaced last summer.
For Charles, perhaps the most damning consequence of the feud for his brand so far can be found on his website, which currently appears to be down. It’s possible that brands predicted issues when signing with the young star, as in 2017 he tweeted, “I can’t believe we’re going to Africa today omg what if we get Ebola?” When called out for this, he first defended it and blocked angry fans. He later tweeted that he would “learn and do better”.
In today’s world, people regard the influencers you follow as a kind of character reference, and even as an indicator on your politics. As an all-encompassing personality, following an influencer not only infers that you like their style and the products they endorse, but also the lifestyle they lead and the ethics they believe in. While on one hand, it now seems that business has taken a turn into the ‘people is power’ train of thought, wherein businesses relies on some sort of majority-rules ‘popularity contest’, it’s also worrying that influencers with such rapidly elevated stance can hold such power over so many people.