Influencer culture must stop lying following the, still relatively recent, advent of social media celebrities that are now able to become 'influencers' for brands in a more nuanced and seemingly personal way than ever before. The basic idea is that celebrities have followers on social media platforms and brands want visibility for their product, so they pay these celebrities for the use of their advertising space. Recently more than ever I've been having an issue with how this influencer culture operates in South Africa and I really don't think it's healthy.
Over the past few years I've become involved in the world of the South African celebrity. I don't consider myself famous, and frankly barring maybe a handful of people, I don't think anyone in this country genuinely is. Nevertheless, there are many people who work in entertainment with above average social media followings, who I think would be very happy to identify with the term 'celeb', and through connected networks of parties, events and appearances, I have come to have a collective sense of what these people are about and what this culture looks like.
For the most part, this culture is made up of creatives who work in entertainment, socialites, hot people and most frustratingly - a few politicians. I fall into the category of the creative. Collectively, we are members of an industry, competing for a piece of a relatively small pie. It's a highly competitive space where jobs are limited and security is scarce. Most of us are heavily taxed freelancers that rely on flimsy contracts and gigs for bread.
For the purpose of this article I'm going to use the term 'celeb' to refer specifically to people working in the creative space who brands are willing to pay to promote their products. I have no interests in socialites and famous politicians and as much as they annoy me, I'll write about them some other time. Brands consider these celeb type folk to be influencers under the assumption that buying their affiliation is good for business. The logic makes sense, but I feel like the intended results are seldom achieved.
Celebs are often intentionally disingenuous about these endorsements. They post about lifestyles that in fact are far above their means. Typically, celebs aren't wealthy. Well, at least not as wealthy as they attempt to appear. A successful career in entertainment can earn a decent wage and it's not as though all artists are one cancelled gig away from being on the streets, but in reality most of these people are earning modest wages. More than that, I often get the sense on social media in South Africa that a lot of our celebs are quite obnoxious about their fake wealth. This fake wealth is often presented in a 'I have and you don't so wah for you' sort of way. I really don't get why it's seen as a good idea to do that to your own followers, I imagine it's just ego.
What we also have to be wary of, is what kind of climate we are perpetuating with this influencer driven culture. It inaccurately elevates the perception of what celeb lifestyles are like and makes unrealistically inflated expectations the norm. The result of this is that celebs feel they need to appear successful, because that is how you stay relevant. I know from personal experience that this is the case. Already in 2017 a good Instagram account is probably more likely to get you gigs as a DJ than your skills behind the decks. Many people are given jobs on radio and TV, not because of how competent that are in their craft, but because of how many followers they have on twitter.
As an industry, we should work together to provide better concepts, that prioritise creative thinking over the nonsense we're saturated with right now.
Think of how often celeb types are trying to remind you how hard they are working and how blessed they are to have so many nice things as a result of all their work. Surely if they were actually working, they wouldn't have as much time to constantly be telling you about it? Consumer culture is changing, celebrities aren't perceived the way they use to be. When people are so over-exposed to social media, it's less likely that they are going to fall for smoke and mirrors. Endorsements are so easy to pick up, because there's no effort involved. No attempt at content creation.
As far as I can see, the general strategy has been, we want to sell alcohol, so let's pay a celeb to do a post where they are drinking our product. Also, many of the endorsements we're seeing on social media are not well married to the brands they are trying to advertise. How these decisions are made by marketing teams is a mystery to me. Who in a board room at a luxury car company thinks that giving the latest car to a singer is going to make people buy that vehicle is beyond me.
I'm not advocating for bringing an end to influencer culture. Even if that's what I wanted, I know that it would never be achieved. I just wish that we would be more critical of how celebs and brands work together. I've personally been involved with some really cool campaigns and would love to continue doing so. I'm saying that for the sake of authenticity and engagement, we need to offer people content. Consumers aren't stupid and the longer we continue lying to them, the less trust they are going to have for both brands and influencers. As an industry, we should work together to provide better concepts, that prioritise creative thinking over the nonsense we're saturated with right now.
I believe that it's inevitable that over time the current model of loaning lifestyles to famous people, who then exhibit it as real wealth to an audience that wants to be them is going to implode. International trends also suggest that we need to move away from how we are currently doing things, towards a more authentic, creative status quo. Our artists should be allowed to be honest about the realities of the industry, its vicissitudes and we should always consciously be trying to breed a culture where artistry is the first priority.
We don't want young kids who have aspirations of being musicians, artists, etc. to be polluted by the pseudo-wealth, egotistical nonsense we are allowing to flourish in 2017.