A Dangerous Influence: The Deception of Online Influencer Endorsements

A Dangerous Influence: The Deception of Online Influencer Endorsements

Alexandra Hill explores the misleading and sometimes irresponsible endorsements of online influencers. 

The emergence of social media – YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat – has resulted in no less than a revolution in advertising and marketing. Online influencers, often with hundreds of thousands or millions of followers, are offered large sums of money from different brands to write a promotional post or to publish a YouTube video recommending the brand’s products to their impressionable audiences.

This practice has recently been brought into question by media and news outlets alike, such as BBC Panorama, with qualms raised as to the lack of transparency exercised by influencers when promoting products as well as the type of products and brands influencers are choosing to endorse. Despite UK legislation requiring online influencers to inform their audiences when a video or post contains a paid-for advertorial, in many cases there is still an evident lack of full and open disclosure.

Several YouTubers and online influencers have received warnings by the Competition and Markets Authority over concerns that audiences were not being adequately informed when a post contained a sponsorship or featured a freebie that had been sent by a given brand. Singers like Rita Ora and Ellie Goulding “agreed to change their social media practices” in response to the warnings and YouTubers like Zoe Sugg and Jim Chapman have likewise agreed to change their practices in line with CMA guidance.

Whilst such commitments on the part of online influencers should be welcomed, given the immense impact many of their endorsements have on the spending decisions of their audiences, it appears that in many cases influencers do the bare minimum in disclosing advertorials and do not truly exercise transparency. 

Such is true on many YouTube videos, where mention of an advertorial is often at the very bottom of the drop-down description box, so that many viewers would not even be aware that the content is sponsored. Equally, on Instagram, the words #ad are often hidden amongst numerous other hashtags, so that it is hardly noticeable when you scroll.

Whilst influencers are in many cases following the ‘rules’, they are often discreet in their disclosure so their audiences may not be aware when an influencer’s opinion is potentially swayed by a brand and is not completely authentic or genuine. Consequently, large swathes of followers spend their money based on a hyped-up review, without any conscious knowledge of the significant financial endowment that the influencer has received. 

More concerning however is the type of brands and products that influencers are promoting. YouTubers like ‘Morgz’ (8 million subscribers) have recently been promoting a “mystery box” site to their young pre-teen and teen audiences. 

The site involves users paying money for the chance to win gadgets, gaming consoles and other items from ‘mystery boxes’. The fact his audience are so young makes promoting a site that many constitute as “gambling” entirely irresponsible, especially given Morgz’ position of influence over his followers. In the aftermath of his video, the site received 1 million+ hits and many young teenagers have reported spending their pocket money attempting to win one of the site’s elusive prizes.

Additionally, a group of female lifestyle YouTubers have been recruited by weight loss brand Skinny Coffee Club. Each of them gives the product glowing reports, claiming to have lost however many pounds in incredibly short periods of time, attributing all their success to this supposedly miracle product.  This product is yet another example of a gimmicky weight loss product promising a quick fix solution despite having no scientific credentials to back up the ludicrous claims the ambassadors of the brand make on their social media platforms. Moreover, it is a case of influencers promoting ill-advised products to impressionable audiences, preying on their underlying body image concerns forever perpetuated by a society obsessed with weight and size.

The relationship between influencers and their followers is unique and not merely a commercial one. Many viewers feel connected to influencers through the insights  Instagrammers and YouTubers share relating to their daily lives and often have a high degree of trust in the influencer, deriving significant value from their recommendations.

Considering this undoubtedly atypical relationship, the way in which influencers interact commercially with their audiences is of utmost importance, both in terms of unambiguously disclosing advertorials and in carefully considering the sort of product they choose to promote.  Whilst the large payments offered my brands may be heavily tempting, caution and transparency are vital in ensuring viewers are not misled by their marketing.