Instagram fatigue: Is the death of the influencer near?
This article was first published by nzherald.co.nz on Sunday, 21 October 2018.
The All Black star poses at the juice bar, drink in one hand, lunch wrap in the other. The orange logo recognisable in the background.
"Just picked up lunch from @tankjuicenz and didn't even have to queue up!" he writes beneath the photo.
"TANK's launched an epic app where you can order through the app, and they'll start whipping up your food before you even get there. Check it out through the Google Play or App store."
But some of his 375,000 followers are catching on. And they're over it.
"Didn't que up because his name is Beauden Barrett best 10 in the world and/or sponsored by Tank perhaps," writes one.
"How much did you get paid for this?" another asks.
If you look close enough you'll see the words "Paid partnership with tankjuicenz" written below the second five-eighth's name.
His fiance Hannah Laity this week shared her love of Countdown's reusable bags: "When bae goes off to play in a golf tournament, I go to yoga. These @countdown_nz reusable plastics bags are not only good for grocery shopping, I can fit a change of clothes, a drink bottle and my mat in here!! It's awesome to hear that all of @countdown_nz stores are now single-use plastic bag free at checkouts and online... #lovecountdown #plasticbagfree #sponsored."
Social media is a constant stream of ads disguised as real life, otherwise known as influencing. Food delivery services, skincare clinics, cafes, hotels — it seems everything is being plugged.
Nine times out of 10, if the person has thousands of followers, they're offered to go to the place or try the product because they've been paid, either in cash (one-off posts can earn up to $50,000 depending on reach) or they've blagged a freebie.
They may have an ongoing partnership with a brand, or sometimes companies fire off hundreds of products, hoping they will get screen time. It's left social media users asking what's real.
"Brands and audiences are essentially being played for fools through fake, unrealistic and unattainable displays of everyday life," says Amanda McConchie, owner of Business of Influence.
"These influencers were made famous because of their audiences who rely on them as friends for recommendations — now it is plain bombardment of constant consumerism that has everyday people battling to keep up."
Launched in 2010 as a peer-to-peer photo-sharing network, Instagram - arguably the biggest home of influencers — now has 800 million monthly active users, 1.5m of them in New Zealand.
The influencer industry began about three years ago. Major companies started to dedicate a significant proportion of their advertising spend to influencers, shunning traditional and expensive ad campaigns in magazines and TV.
Like Barrett, many Kiwi Instagram stars are known for their talents outside the platform. Riverdale star KJ Apa has 10.8m followers (his mother, former model Tessa Apa has 34,600 and best friend Boston Ridge has 24,300 *known as the Apa effect).
Lorde has 6.2m, Daniel Carter 883,00, model Georgia Fowler 638,000 and Taika Waititi has 595,000.
But others started as hobbyists, fitness or travel bloggers (also known as micro-influencers) — and capitalised as their followings grew. The non-celebrity Kiwi influencer with the biggest following is probably (Instagram wouldn't provide a list) beauty vlogger Shannon Harris (Shaaanxo), who has 1.5m followers.
Others include bodybuilding model Amy Lee Summers and Simone Anderson, who is known for documenting her 92kg weight-loss experience. They both have more followers than Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's 258,000.
Brands have been known to prefer the regular people over celebrities to flog goods. Scrolling through pictures of an All Black, with the weight of major sponsors linked to the team behind him, most will think it's a life unattainable. If it's someone who looks a bit more like you however, consumers might feel more inclined to pay attention.
It is difficult to know how many commercial influencers are out there says Bodo Lang, an Auckland University senior lecturer in marketing, whose expertise includes word-of-mouth communication through social media.
"In some cases it is fairly obvious whether there is a commercial arrangement between a brand and an influencer. Celebrities are a good example of this as they tend to be remunerated for their activities, particularly online. However, it is much more difficult to know how many micro-influencers are out there."
There is strong evidence that the practice had impacts on brand awareness, product liking, purchase intentions, sales and companies' share price.
More primary schoolchildren now want to be influencers than they do doctors, scientists or artists, according to a survey backed by University College London and the OECD.
Influencing has created spin-off jobs, like their managers, or dedicated influencer PR agencies.
McConchie says she started The Business of Influence after becoming frustrated with "dirty tactics around misleading engagement, essentially fraud, and other dishonest practises that are often ignored or not properly investigated into".
"Influencers don't love the image of selling out and audiences don't appreciate unwanted ads in their feeds, so it's up to the PRs, agents and the influencer to find a creative but clear way to disclose all partnerships."
Newspaper journalists have found themselves next to influencers on travel junkets or events, instead of other journalists invited to write about the trip or event.
A Herald journalist says he was once offered a TV by a major electronic company in exchange for 20 social media mentions a month for three months across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. He laughed and sent their TV back.
Even the police have used influencers — The Bachelor NZ stars Art Green and Matilda Rice recently took over the Auckland police Instagram account during a ride-along, although police insist they weren't paid for the partnership.
And William Wairua — known for his futuristic eyewear and catchy dance moves — starred in a police recruitment video last year.
Last year, McDonald's teamed up with Auckland dad Jordan Watson, behind the "How To Dad" parenting videos, to collaborate on a video explaining how to take kids to a restaurant.
While some have been accused of not being genuine with what products they endorse — and endorsing too many — Barrett's manager Greg Dyer says the sportsman is more of an ambassador than an influencer and is loyal to four brands: Tank, Adidas, Tudor and Panasonic.
"We want his four partners to feel special and not be one of hundreds of brands he is promoting. You will not see Beauden on any talent agency website where he is on offer to brands to use his social network. This is unlike the many influencers we see flooding today's social channels and, yes, most not declaring whether their posts are paid or not. Like you, I sometimes ask myself the same question, are these Bachelor-type influencers getting paid to promote that?"
He wouldn't disclose what Barrett is paid for the partnerships but said he didn't do one-off paid posts.
The front row at New Zealand Fashion Week has previously been filled with influencers, who have no experience, expertise or relevant job, according to Caitlan Mitchell, editor of New Zealand fashion magazine Apparel.
But this year's show saw a drop to about 10 per cent influencers at shows. The rest were stylists, retailers, buyers and media.
"It was disheartening to see the few influencers that did attend, laugh at garments as they came down the runway or not even pick up their phone at all," says Mitchell. "Do they not know why they were invited? It wasn't their shining personality, it was for their followers. Being invited to a show, especially if you are front row and media, is a silent mutual agreement to produce some kind of post or story.
"I don't think influencers understand what events such as NZFW are about and therefore cannot make the right decisions other than what outfit to change into at lunch."
Influencing doesn't necessarily translate to sales, says Mitchell. If someone is sharing content from a show, it is immediately seen by consumers who want the product now but fashion week showcases collections for an upcoming season — items which aren't yet available.
"You would be better off treating loyal customers who buy your clothing to a show, at least you would get some sales out of it."
Holden became one of the first big brands to publicly distance itself from influencers, with the Australian branch reportedly ripping up some of the free car contracts it had with professional Instagrammers. It has worked with model and Kylie Minogue's ex Kris Smith.
Swiss watch brand Longines recently suddenly departed with its "friend of the brand" Shaun Birley, who turned a forklift driving job into a career as a globetrotting Instagram star, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
And one of the worlds biggest advertisers, Unilever, which owns Lynx, Dermalogica, Dove and Rexona, has taken a stand against influencers who buy followers.
In a report carried out by UK digital marketing agency Zazzle Media, of 10,000 British marketers none planned to focus on influencer marketing over the next 12 months.
"I think that brands are very slowly seeing that the consumer is reacting somewhat negatively to influencer marketing in the broader sense," says senior partnerships manager Laura Haden. "By and large, the general feeling is that there is no authenticity with a lot of the influencer marketing."
She is leading a Marketing Association discussion on Wednesday for industry leaders, titled "Digital Conversations: Influencers — Silver Bullet or Unethically Leveraging their Status?"
"There is almost no thought going in to these campaigns beyond unboxing (literally taking the product out of its box on video) or seeing an influencer in their bathroom applying (insert brand here) and declaring that this is their favourite product despite using it for all of 30 seconds. It is all very transparent to me."
She has noticed a trend lately in influencers feeling the need to disclose their genuine love for a product as "not paid".
"That alone tells me that even they are aware that there is some pretty disingenuous content that is being put out."
Her major worries are wasteful packaging, and the effect on young people.
"You are literally taking people from as young as, say, 10 years old, on a path to purchase ... There is a huge amount of responsibility in that. Should you really be giving your impressionable followers a swipe-up link to purchase something in the bat of an eye, when in reality you know almost nothing about the product apart from the fact that a courier dropped it off in a pretty box with lots of unnecessary packaging?"
Haden often shares commentary on her own Instagram, when she notices brands saturating her feed, in what she calls "Unfluencing".
"It started when I was being influenced to go and purchase a bag of frozen peas. I couldn't help but laugh that that was where we had finally come to and thought a majority of people would enjoy the light-hearted take I had on it ... I get people sending me eye-rolling influencer unboxing stories every day."
Even influencers themselves predict the online phenomenon which has made them money, may soon run its course.
Josh Ostrovsky, aka the Fat Jewish, who has 10m followers, said recently the end is nigh and people should have more of an entrepreneurial spirit. He has launched his own brand of wine.
"Everybody just wants to be an influencer now. Nobody wants to get a job," he told CNNMoney. "People are starting to experience a little bit of social media burnout. How many times can I look at your baby? How many times can I look at a blazing, pink LA sunset, or your açaí bowl ... So we wanna give people real things.
"Eventually there will be too many influencers, the market will be too saturated and the value of influencer posts will continue to plummet."
Instagram success hasn't translated into enough money to buy a house in Auckland for one of New Zealand's biggest influencers, former Bachelor star Matilda Rice, who has 154,000 followers.
The 27-year-old last year quit her TVNZ advertising sales job to be an online brand and has said she now makes more money. But she recently told Next magazine she and fiance Art Green were still renting because they couldn't afford to buy.
And it emerged on October 1 that Green needed to raise $1 million or be forced to sell his company Riot Foods, which supplies products to supermarkets across New Zealand.
Kiwi influencers for the first time have guidelines to follow under the Advertising Standards Authority .
In February it outlined transparency for social media advertising and states that the advertiser of the brand has the primary responsibility for complying with the ASA.
But it is yet to be tested — ASA chief executive Hilary Souter says it has not yet received any complaints.
"The use of influencers is a relatively new platform for advertising and I think advertisers, influencers and consumers are still learning about how the codes and the law apply to it."
Barrett's agent says he had discussions with the ASA around the new guidelines but in Barrett's case as an ambassador (he also features in TV, radio, digital, bus-back and billboards advertising) the advice is that there is no real need to put #spon, #paid or #ad on social media posts.
Instagram has its own rules. Last year, it introduced its paid-partnership tool, which allows a creator to tag a business they are working with. Beforehand, consumers may have seen partnerships declared with #ad, #spon or #sponsored on a paid post. Or nothing at all.
When Instagram detects branded content is not using the tag, creators are sent notifications with an option to edit the post to add the tag, a spokesman says.
Facebook, owners of Instagram, has the same policy.
Instagram has a staff of about 10,000 working on safety and security, which it is planning to double in the next year, the spokesman says. Across Facebook and Instagram, millions of fake, inauthentic or automated accounts are removed each day.
Lang says the only sure fire way to curb the use of influencers would be to legislate against it.
"However, this is unlikely to happen in the short-term because there may not be enough evidence to prove misconduct by influencers or misleading consumers systematically to warrant legislative steps."