In July 2021, singer Olivia Rodrigo visited the White House as part of a campaign to encourage young people to get vaccinated. The visit consisted of a series of meticulously planned photo ops and social media-friendly content creation, including meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris while wearing coordinating light pink suits and posing with President Joe Biden in matching aviator sunglasses. Rodrigo and Dr. Anthony Fauci made a video of them reading positive tweets about vaccines, drawing on a popular late-night television trope in which celebrities read tweets about themselves.
The entire visit was meticulously planned and openly acknowledged as an attempt to leverage Rodrigo’s status as a “Gen Z influencer” to deliver a message to a targeted population. These sorts of public relations stunts—pseudo-events, as historian Daniel Boorstin called them—have happened for generations. The interesting thing about this one was who orchestrated it: not the usual squad of publicists and managers but a man named Landon Morgado, whom the White House had recently hired for the job of “directing creator partnerships.” That the White House created this role—and filled it with a person from Instagram’s fashion team—illustrates just how far the influencer industry has come in the past decade as a cultural centerpiece.
People and organizations at every corner of society have embraced the idea that anyone can cultivate an audience by providing consistent and relatable content on social media and then leverage that audience’s engagement as evidence of “influence” for social and economic rewards. The industry continues to grow at startling rates (it was recently valued at around $16.5 billion) and greatly affects the way information, goods, and services are conceived of, marketed, and sold. Influencers’ work has become critical to the commercial sphere and in shaping public discourse, but in its current form, the industry makes exploitation—both by and of influencers, brands, and social media companies—too easy.
Influencers’ work creates enormous value for brands and social media companies, but their growing cultural and economic importance has not necessarily changed their precarious positions as workers. The platforms and brands to whom influencers are beholden incentivize them to be always “on,” frequently pivoting their skills and continually sharing personal stories, but in a monetizable way—when the definition of what is “monetizable” frequently changes. Booking campaigns and getting paid for them often happens at the mercy of others, and pay discrepancies and discrimination are rife.
Meanwhile, brands and marketing agencies, while different, both act within the influencer industry to contract and promote influencers’ work. Because there is a glut of aspiring influencers and content, brands and marketers have built tools and practices to figure out who to work with and how. Prioritizing efficiency over nuance, some of these tools systematically devalue queer people and people of color, media researcher Sophie Bishop has found. Over time, internal and external pressures have led to a variety of other consequences, including the speeding up of production and marketing cycles, products increasingly made for short-term use, and minimized creative risk-taking related to the need to “do well” on social media.
In addition, power has shifted away from individuals and toward major social media companies. Under the banner of “helping creators,” giants like Meta buy out or rip off smaller businesses’ tools and services, derailing competitors’ prospects and bolstering users’ reliance on their own apps. Further, the total lack of transparency about how each company’s algorithms work causes many influencers and brands to operate under constant threat of their visibility—and thus, income and potential—tanking without warning. Then, when it inevitably does, they must waste time and resources trying to figure out why. There is no customer service line or HR rep, just thousands of people working in opacity.
There are several potential avenues for protecting influencers that would, in turn, help all of us confronting constant commercialism and misinformation in our feeds. Prioritizing fair pay and transparency in the industry would help incentivize influencers to share better quality products and information. But to even begin, government agencies, lawmakers, and company leadership must understand that shrugging off the influencer industry as a “Wild West”—a term used repeatedly—serves only to obscure its problems and allow them to perpetuate. The industry’s “lawlessness,” at this point, is a choice—one that can be changed.
Legislative attention must be paid to major platform companies’ lack of transparency and accountability to their users, as well as to the imbalance of power between these companies and those who attempt to compete with them. The Federal Trade Commission can shore up its rules and oversight with more consistent consequences for influencers and brands who obfuscate their relationships, so that consumers can clearly identify paid-for content.
This likely cannot be as simple as an #ad hashtag, though “clear and conspicuous” disclosure on sponsored content remains necessary. Influencers sell themselves as experts, as authentic personalities with an opinion. Increasingly, influencers have been identifying themselves as “community leaders,” indicating more consistent engagement with a particular point of view and the people who subscribe to it. Influencers should disclose the nature of their work in their bio; doing so would help users understand that just because one post is not sponsored does not mean the influencer is “just a regular person.” They are part of a new industry of cultural workers shaping our world, as those in older cultural industries like advertising or fashion have done for generations. And like those working in other industries, influencers experience constraints that shape their work.
Another path for change is labor organizing among influencers, but efforts have been limited. SAG-AFTRA’s influencer contract and the development of the American Influencer Council are two optimistic developments. However, the union contract covers only video and voiceover work and thus incentivizes influencers to pivot there, even if photography or text are their specialty. More options are needed. Union and trade groups can help mature the industry into one that broadly recognizes and respects shared professional standards and their role in society, as other cultural industries like journalism and advertising do, rather than simply “what resonates.”
A robust trade organization could also help resolve the disconnect between brands’ desires for creative expression and efficient marketing. Much as the Council of Fashion Designers of America works to support rising designers, a strong professional influencer organization can offer support for early-career creatives and set best practices for marketing firms and brands, including resources for continued internal assessments and policy changes to identify points of inequity and address them. Embracing influencers as valued professional collaborators, contracted under equitable terms, would not only improve influencers’ work lives but should enable and inspire brands to take bigger creative risks in product development and marketing while reducing the appeal of dubious transactional relationships. The influencer industry must work more cohesively internally to find a way to hold on to its benefits—entrepreneurialism, connection, network-building, and creative expression—and reduce its harms.
While (and until) the institutions tasked with solving these issues do something, we must contend with a social media landscape that encourages us all to behave more like influencers every day—to spend more time scrolling, to post more frequently and “authentically,” to shop or make our own lives look shoppable. Studying television in the early 2000s, media scholar Mark Andrejevic famously outlined “the work of being watched”—or the way media that allow us to put ourselves out there still extract value from us. Even nonprofessional social media users should come to recognize the “work” they do to generate profit for big tech—and vote, advocate for themselves, and use social media with that in mind.
Excerpted from The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media © 2023 by Emily Hund. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.