Over the past few weeks, I have been writing about several issues that have arisen from our modern world of social media. Today I want to discuss some of the concerns that have arisen from the career of being what is now termed an influencer. I have approached several influencers and asked them to share their views with me, sadly they all declined to participate. I find it somewhat telling that none of the influencers I approached, were willing to go on record about their careers. These influencers know the quality of my writing and they know that I always aim to give an honest, well-balanced and thoughtful discourse. Furthermore, I have worked in education for nearly thirty years now and I have nothing but pride for the work that I do. If someone asks me anything concerning my career, then I am always happy to present my views. It is almost as if being an influencer is a secret club and it needs to be guarded. In all honesty, what do they have to hide?
Whilst studying for my A Levels, I can recall my fascination with the Book Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. The play retells the story of Dr Faustus who, dissatisfied with his life, makes a pact with the devil for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. This story was originally based on a German legend and has been the idea behind many subsequent works of art, films and music. A deal with the devil is frequently struck, where someone gives up their moral integrity in return for eternal youth, knowledge, wealth, fame or power. Of course, the dénouement is always tragic. The story serves as a moral tale, as relevant now, as it was in Medieval times.
Moral integrity is ingrained within us from an early age. It decides how we live our lives, how we behave professionally and how we respond to others. It is our own principles and ethics. Over the years, our sense of what is right and what is wrong may change, based upon experience. My profession of teaching has frequently thrown up ethical issues. I came out of working in schools because of my own moral integrity. I didn’t agree with the Government’s view that one size fits all in education. Constant target setting, rigorous assessment and budget cuts, were all against what I believed in. When parents would complain, I found myself agreeing with their concerns and thus my moral integrity meant that I was not able to be the person that my profession expected me to be. The pay did not compensate for the myriad of dilemmas that I faced. In fact, even ten times the salary would not have been enough compensation.
As a writer, I also face issues of moral integrity. When my blog became successful, I was bombarded with requests from companies to advertise their products. I would be invited to ‘free’ events at new restaurants and bars, with a view to writing a favourable write-up on them. I would be asked to review books, try out new products. In short, I could have made quite a lot of money. My first issue of integrity came, when someone sent me their book for free to review. I thought that I would enjoy reading the book, but I didn’t. It was badly written, and I struggled to get through each page. I discussed this with my husband. Did I review the book in a good way and thereby lie to my loyal readers or did I choose not to review the book and risk upsetting the author? In the end I went with what I felt was right and I returned the book. I choose not to feature advertisements or paid editorials on my blog. If I like something, then I buy it with my own money. This gives me incredible freedom and it means that my readers have trust in my opinion.
So, what does this have to do with the new profession of influencers? What are influencers and why are we considering their moral integrity?
Influencing is a profession still very much in its embryonic phase. There is no consensus on just what an influencer is or indeed should be. There is no rule book. There are few regulations. Many influencers have no PR behind them and so they are pretty much operating without any professional advice. However, I believe that it is a career noted mainly for the sheer number of ethical questions that it raises. Many of these issues have yet to be properly considered and addressed. The time to do this is way overdue.
Surprisingly, the profession finds its roots in social anthropology during the mid-Twentieth Century. Sociologists such as Paul Lazersfield, researched the issue of survey methodology and the persuasive elements of mass media. He also developed the two-step flow of communication showing that people form their opinions from the influence of opinion leaders who are themselves, influenced by the mass media. Opinion leaders, who are held in high esteem by others, interpret media messages about commercial products, innovations or ideas and diffuse this information onto lower-end media users.
A further sociologist, Elihu Katz, discovered that opinion of these leaders is far more influential than the media, since as individuals they are seen to be more trustworthy. The lower-end media users do not feel tricked into thinking positive about a product since the information is coming from someone they know.
Inevitably this research led to advertising becoming far more personal. Thus, advertising went from merely telling someone that a product was good, to a huge advertising campaign in which a make-believe character would demonstrate how effective the product was. Advertising agencies shot up all over, employing people whose sole job was to create an imaginative advertising campaign that would make people believe that they could not live without a product. There were strategies within these campaigns. The use of effective devices such as alliteration, catchy jingles, an empathetic backstory, statistics, images and clever word play. Think of the Shake and Vac lady, Ronald McDonald, the Coca Cola truck. These are all cleverly thought-out advertising campaigns, designed to appeal to our ability to relate to likeable characters. Advertising was originally seen in print in newspapers, publications and magazines. Then, as technology spread, it moved to radio then television and film, and it is now all over the internet. Targeted advertising uses our browsing histories to personalise advertising to suit our own likes. How often have you looked for something on a site only to find yourself bombarded with every conceivable version or brand of that item when you next log-in?
Influencers originally started out as normal, un-sophisticated people merely wishing to document part of their lives on video. The Mummy vlogger influencers grew, because the process of raising children can be isolating and at times, monotonous. There would be the odd video upload of someone going about their daily life and sharing their experiences and shopping habits. Some of it appealed to that part of our instincts that likes to nosey into people’s lives. I am sure that in the early days, many people who were sat at home raising children with sparse adult interaction, would find these videos reassuring. Suddenly, advertisers started to realise that people who invited these vloggers into their homes, would listen to the vlogger’s advice, more so than anyone else. If a Mummy vlogger was given some nappies for free, then she might want to promote the brand, thereby enabling advertisers to reach people who were no longer watching television or who no longer had time to read magazines. Brands soon became aware of this new advertising platform, and it was not long before more and more brands started to seek out mummy vloggers and other influencers to promote them for a fraction of their usual budget. After all, there is no better recommendation than to have a real person promote your product rather than an actress playing a role. The trouble is though, that many of these vloggers became greedy as the advertising spread. Nowadays there is little brand loyalty amongst the influencers. Most will promote anything.
The ASA and CAP are the two bodies who set standards and regulate how vloggers advertise. Recently the conditions changed so that all influencers must now make it clear when they are advertising a product or when they have been gifted something for free. Of course, not all influencers follow these rules correctly. There are some who still declare an ad on a post in white lettering with a clear background to try and conceal the fact that it is an advert. This includes affiliate links. Affiliate links are where an influencer posts a specific URL link to buy a product. If the viewer clicks on that link for a period up to thirty days, then the influencer receives a commission. Influencers claim that this costs the viewer nothing and is simply as one influencer recently wrote on her Instagram page,” A win-win. I get asked about items multiple times … and if I can earn a little something to treat my girls… I’m absolutely going to take that opportunity.”
Influencers may claim that there is nothing wrong with affiliate links. However, I am not so sure. Affiliate marketing is astoundingly lucrative for influencers and businesses. As much as an influencer may claim that this does not cost the viewer anything, it cannot be denied that someone somewhere must foot the bill, and it certainly isn’t businesses or influencers. These affiliates have cookies which store information for up to thirty days. If you purchase anything from an affiliate site within a time frame, then the influencer can make commission on all your purchases. So, if an influencer recommends a product at ASOS or Amazon and you click on that link, in a few days’ time you return and make several purchases, the influencer benefits from all your purchases, even if they have only recommended one product. This is not something that influencers tend to mention; many will claim that they only make pennies. There is also an increasingly deliberate strategy by influencers to post a recommended item without saying where it came from. This means that people will often need to click on a link to see where to buy it from. Influencers make money from these clicks as well. Something that again, most fail to mention.
To me, lack of transparency is underhand and some of the tactics employed seem dishonest. On one day this week an influencer posted an evening routine video with ten affiliate links on YouTube. This influencer has about thirty thousand viewers on average per video. If only 1% of those viewers click on these 10 affiliate links and it is about £1 commission each time, then that could work out at £3000 for just posting links. Hardly pennies is it? When questioned on this practice, influencers are becoming increasingly defensive and we hear accusations of troll and bullying. One influencer spoke out this week by declaring, “Apparently there’s beef with affiliate links now. Is this really a thing?”
I think the main issue that people have with influencers making money from affiliates and advertising is that in society, we do not tend to admire people who get something for doing nothing or very little. Think of the professions that we admire the most: nurses who work in the NHS. Most nurses receive a comparatively low wage for working long shifts, it currently stands at about eleven pounds an hour for a newly qualified nurse or between £1300 and £1500 a month. We admire them because they have chosen to do this vocation. It is similar for teachers and other low-paid professions. Compare that to influencers, who can on average gain £1000 per 100,000 followers per advert, and we see why so many people think that influencing is morally wrong. We have all met that person at work or socially, who likes to brag about how they have acquired something for nothing or how they are better than you. No one likes people like that and so why do we permit a culture of people who do that for a living?
There are further questions of integrity to consider regarding influencers. Many of these vloggers sell their entire personal lives online with minimal censoring. They film their children, their friends, other family members and so many special family moments have the ubiquitous camera recording every second. Influencers seem quite happy to sell every aspect of their life online in order to make money without considering the consequences. I know how my own older children feel if I try to take a picture of them for my personal use. Goodness knows what the outcome will be when these children become aware that their every moment has been shared and sold online, including any toddler tantrums or meltdowns! Last week a vlogger posted a picture of her very young son in a skirt with a comment about PRIDE. Is no private moment off-limits? What about the possible ramifications when her son goes to Secondary school? These issues remind me of a film from twenty years ago named The Truman Show. The plot concerned a man named Truman who had no idea that his entire life had been filmed on a television set. The film came at a time when there were only a few reality television shows, however, it asked some very pertinent questions concerning filming someone’s reality and it has since been considered one of the most prophetic films ever made.
Furthermore, we really need to consider the message that this sends out to our children about the future. It appears to be suggesting that there is no need to work hard at exams and in training, because you might just get lucky and become an influencer. You can make videos, sell your entire life online and get lots of freebies. What about the moral messages – sell your integrity and personal life for a lifetime of freebies? It just doesn’t sit right does it? Influencers might consider themselves fortunate to gain eight free holidays a year, but what is the true human cost in terms of relationships with friends, family and your own children? Not to mention your own sense of self-worth and inner peace?
There also appears to be a trend amongst influencers now to claim that their work is tiring, and they feel overwhelmed. Parenting is hard. But most of these influencers do very little real work. They are not working a twelve-hour shift in a chicken factory. They also have cleaners and nannies. What about the satisfaction that comes from the hard work involved in earning your own money? Filming every second of you in the supermarket, at a soft play and at the school gates is not going to give the same level of satisfaction is it? Of course, not all influencers should be tarred with the same brush. I know some who do their job well. Demi Donnelly is an example of someone who is happy to discuss how she earns money and she does appear to have an ethical approach to advertising since she only works with brands that she likes and uses. There are other influencers who protect their children by hardly filming them and they offer something educational – such as early years’ play ideas or house renovations.
I am sure that I might be accused of being bitter or envious, but that is far from the truth. I have worked and earned my own money since I was sixteen and my job in teaching and writing have given me rewards far more valuable than something as palpable as cash. It is too great a generalisation to say that influencers lack integrity, but I do feel that the profession needs a radical shake up and urgent regulation.
Dr Faustus may be a morality play from the Sixteenth Century but as we have seen, the questions it asks are as pertinent to our modern age, as they were to a medieval audience, especially concerning selling one’s soul for conspicuous and inexorable consumption. In short, it asks something that every influencer should ask themselves, what price integrity?
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