A French controversy
An important controversy is taking place at the moment in France about influencers. Several elements have recently put them at the center of attention. It started when Booba, a very famous French singer, violently accused them of scamming and manipulating young teenagers. He created with his lawyers an e-mail to collect all the complaints. He says he has already received hundreds of them, which will be given to the police soon.
The main « victim » of Booba is Magali Berdah, the CEO of the most important influencers agency in France called Shauna events. She claims that she receives hundreds of threats every day on Twitter since Booba has begun to attack her. Moreover, a famous French investigative programme (complément d’enquête) focused on this business in its last broadcast. The journalists gave evidence of illegal practices and emphasize how unethical some parts of this business are. These recent developments led us to reflect on these practices which are nowadays at the center of both marketing and political strategies.
A new form of advertisement ?
Even if this phenomenon is recent, it can hardly be said to be new considering that it only represents a new way to advertise. Influencers are nothing but very famous people paid to promote products. TV advertisements, radio advertisements and billboards have followed the same principle for years. The value of influencers for brands simply depends on how famous they are because the more famous they are the more people they reach, hence the more they will be profitable. Nonetheless, it is very clear that this new form of advertisement has some specific features which need to be highlighted.
The most important feature is that it blurs the line between advertisement and reality. Influenceurs are often talking about their lives, showing their personal lives when they suddenly incorpore some sponsored products, for instance some food supplement when it’s time to eat. They pretend to use the product themselves in their daily lives and sometimes show it through videos. It appears more as a piece of advice from a friend than as a true advertisement. This is all the more insidious with very young people who can admire some of these influenceurs and trust them as a member of their family or as a real friend.
A true problem of regulation
The nature of this influence is such that it is very hard to regulate. The format of stories, mainly used by influenceurs to advertise, is by nature ephemeral (it lasts 24 hours) and as a consequence terribly hard to control. Moreover, social networks are sort of a jungle crowded with people and influenceurs. Controlling every publication is simply impossible as it would require enormous human and technological resources. On top of this, regulators are lagging behind the constant mutations of this phenomenon and adapted laws don’t exist everywhere in the world. In this context, some illegal activities and criminal promotions can easily appear. Let’s quote some scandals.
Disposable e-cigarettes which are now used all over the world (and especially in the UK and the US) have become very popular thanks to influencers, which is very problematic for several reasons. First, tobacco advertisement is now prohibited in various countries. In spite of this regulation, influenceurs keep widely promoting the use of such products which contain nicotine, a substance known to be terribly addictive, especially to young people. Moreover, a large part of influencers’ followers are young teenagers who are clearly younger than 18. Paying influenceurs to promote such products clearly means that industries target teenagers, which is an absolute scandal. Far from being a fruity pleasure, e-cigarettes are nothing less than a wide-open entrance into smoking.
Another scandal is plastic surgery. Lots of medical operations have been done in dreadful conditions and had horrible consequences on young girls. These medical surgeries are very often lauded by influenceurs.
Lots of people also push their followers into trading while they have absolutely no financial knowledge, which could result in dreadful financial losses.
All these issues are tackled at the moment by agencies and regulators and we may expect a change in the next few years. Nonetheless, one never calls into question the fundamental features of this business.
A philosophical danger
The problem of the influencers’ business doesn’t only lie in its illegal practices. Some are completely abiding by the law, but are still very far from following ethical values. One of the main problems is their influence on young teenagers. Today, the role-models of the youngsters are influenceurs. Teenagers spend most of their free time on social networks, and influenceurs are now extremely powerful in their education.
Then let’s ask the question : which values are promoted by these young stars of social networks ? I’m afraid it is mainly about appearance, money and consumerism. Which ideal do they promote ? Let’s be a bit caricatural : to be successful is to become very rich thanks to stupid sponsored advertisement, to live in Dubai to escape taxes and to look like Kim Kardashian or a fitness coach. Are our children going to be happy following this path ? Of course not. Is it a terribly out-fashioned way of thinking ? Of course it is. And still, it is the prevailing one (even if it is not the only one).
When it comes to climate change, influenceurs are promoting dreadful ways of living to the younger generation, which will make the required big changes even more difficult to implement. How can we expect the young generation to evolve when their models happily claim « climate change ? I don’t care, I have a swimming pool » (Mohammed Henni, a famous French influenceur) or are flying in jets all the time ? Who is responsible for that ? The influenceurs of course, but also the brands which pay them to promote an overconsumption of their products.
So let’s be very clear : the values and the way of living that mainstream influencers promote are not responsible. It is not only about abiding by the laws. Their whole business needs to adapt to our current environment and social situation. We shouldn’t let our children dream about this superficial and theatrical world that they want to sell them. We shouldn’t let them become as self-centered and materialistic as their models. We shouldn’t let them follow the example of a world that doesn’t exist.
This power of influence is huge, no one can deny it. So, let’s use it differently, to make our world more sustainable and more equitable. In a word, better.
Illustrated by Victor Pauvert