The influencer economy is real. And it is not just the Kardashians selling appetite-suppressant lollipops. Take the exceptionally savvy and smart Sara Tasker of meandorla.co.uk. The former NHS speech therapist now earns six figures from her Yorkshire cottage, thanks to her talent at taking beautiful pictures and her ability to cultivate a community online. Today, big brands – from banks to bath salts – want influencers, not models, to help sell their products.
Brands, for example, like Listerine mouthwash, who worked with British blogger Scarlett London to reach her 45,000 Instagram followers (which, in context, is not a huge number – but smaller numbers often result in higher engagement and, as a result, these “micro-influencers” are becoming increasingly desirable). Twenty-four-year-old London did what was expected of her by the brand employing her: she posted a picture of herself on Instagram with the product in shot. If you have a look at any of her other Instagram posts, it’s very much in keeping with her “Disney Princess” aesthetic – all smiles and long wavy blonde hair with bright colours and a sanguine filter that my seven-year-old self would have really been into.
And the Listerine post isn’t any different. The campaign seems to be about promoting her morning, which apparently consists of heart balloons and strawberries and “endless cups of tea”. Her hair and make-up is perfect. Her smile looks set in stone and there’s a bottle of Listerine on her bedside table (her teeth are very white, after all). And, no, it obviously doesn’t look like anyone else’s morning, but her post is clearly labelled: “#BringOutTheBold | This is a paid partnership with Listerine”.
And, yet, this carefully contrived image, like the *millions* of images out there, sent the internet into a meltdown (possibly not the type of viral sensation Listerine had been after). London received death threats. She was mocked by thousands of people. In response, she wrote on Instagram: “In the last 48 hours, grown men & women, MP’s, women’s equality representatives, journalists, actresses and broadcasters have discovered my Instagram feed and decided to pick it apart online, in front of thousands. Each time I refresh my page, hundreds of new nasty messages pour onto my Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, some of which have contained malicious death threats. There are now hundreds of thousands of tweets circling the internet, shaming me.”
Make no mistake, I am no fan of influencer culture and the layers of lies that Instagram permits – the unmarked advertising, the pressures it puts on us all, the way it reduces our worth to a single selfie, the untruths about perfect lives that make us all feel rubbish. On Instagram, women are back to being pretty faces, silent clothes horses, selling products via their bodies and their femininity. (Interestingly, nobody seemed to complain about this element of Love Island.)
To hate on individuals is to refuse to see the bigger cultural problem and instead pick off easy targets
Yet, it’s all too simplistic, lazy and misogynistic to only blame the influencer – to accuse this lone 24-year-old of tricking millions of girls into a false sense of what life is like; that Scarlett London is solely responsible for the toxic social-media culture that is thriving around us. Why, after all, are we not also shouting at Listerine and the dozens of people who signed off that post? Or Instagram and its inadequate attempts to monitor advertising? Surely, an unmarked post is more harmful? Or the images of beautiful women wearing expensive clothes who claim they do no exercise, love hamburgers and #wokeuplike? I’d go as far as to suggest that the vitriol towards London is not just about the falsity of the image, but a snobbery towards her aesthetic. If she wore some battered Levi's, sat on a beach in Malibu with barely-there make-up and a bottle of Listerine poking out of her Dior saddle bag, would we be calling her out in quite the same way?
Either way, the backlash also indicates a gross misunderstanding or deliberate refusal to accept what actually goes on in influencer culture. As the fascinating Brooke Erin Duffy, an assistant professor in the department of communication at Cornell University, has pointed out in her book, (Not) Getting Paid To Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media And Aspirational Work, there is an innate misogyny when it comes to female influencers. Because their work is explicitly feminised – often selling products to women in feminine areas such as beauty, fashion and lifestyle – the work is deemed less important, not “real” and therefore there is outrage that they should be financially compensated for this labour, just like the domestic work and caring that women do has historically been received. Yet, to be as successful as London, you are running your own small business – there are negotiations, contracts, styling, building relationships, keeping yourself in a condition that is most commodifiable.
To hate on individuals is to refuse to see the bigger cultural problem and instead pick off easy targets. These young women are trying to play the game they’ve found themselves coming of age in. Kylie Jenner was just named as Forbes youngest self-made billionaire. It is impossible to deny how problematic this world they are arriving into is. And in the shadows are the agents, the marketers, the managers – who take a cut, make money and never receive a death threat in their lives. Yet, in the foreground, at pelting distance, are young women who are trying to be #girlboss and #leanin and all the other things we’re telling them to do. Not only do we refuse to acknowledge the work, but we blame them personally for the toxic nature of influencer culture. Yes, they are adults and they have a degree of responsibility (London uses her platform to talk candidly about living with IBS), but why won’t we also see the whole ecosystem that profits off these young women, while simultaneously shaming them?
There’s a big conversation to be had on influencer culture and a hell of a lot of regulation that needs to be implemented. Hating influencer culture is one thing. Bullying, silencing and shaming young women online is something very different indeed.