by Charlie Stewart (@CStewart_ZA) In the same week in late January 2019, two documentaries were released about the disastrous Fyre Festival; the Federal Trade Commission updated its guidelines on advertising; and the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority censured a group of social media stars. The common thread linking these three happenings is a growing concern about the power of influencers.

If you haven’t yet watched Fyre Festival: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, then make a gap in your schedule — sooner rather than later.

While the event has been in the news ever since January 2017, when Kendall Jenner announced it to her tens of millions of Instagram followers, the release of the two doccies has shone a spotlight on one of the most egregious uses of influencer marketing.

Lighting up Instagram

The festival organisers commissioned a bevy of models to light up Instagram by posting an orange tile and a hashtag. The hope was that the simple image would go viral. They weren’t disappointed. Within 48 hours of the official event commercial being launched, 95% of the festival’s tickets had been sold at prices ranging from US$1 500 to US$250 000.

After all the hype, it was almost inevitable that the festival would be a dud. The organiser is in jail and there’s an ongoing class-action lawsuit against 100 of the influencers who were paid to punt it to their communities.


And it’s not just wannabe party goers who are being duped by misleading posts; celebs are punting everything from face creams to cars without disclosing that they’re advertising the products.

Last year, research firm Neoreach reported that a mere 3.1m Instagram posts carried hashtags denoting that they were adverts. By my calculations, that’s around 0.01% of the content published on the network, which I’d imagine is a massive underrepresentation of the advertising that’s actually carried on the platform favoured by the majority of influencers.

The worrying thing is that, although we all know we’re being hoodwinked, we just don’t know what (or who) is conning us.

Oscar Wilde once famously described fox hunters as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable”. Were he alive today, he’d doubtless be coining an equally disdainful aphorism about celebs and their social media followers. But, while it’s tempting to scoff at people’s gullibility, the scale of the abuse is shocking and it’s evident we need to protect ourselves from ourselves.


Yet, as an industry, it seems we’re stuck somewhere between acknowledging we have a big problem and wringing our hands.

In the US, the FTC has some very clear guidelines on what constitutes a paid-for promotion and should thus be disclosed. The UK’s advertising watchdog has its own set of rules. Even here in South Africa, our new Advertising Regulatory Board published draft guidelines in October. There’s an extract on the IAB’s website. It runs to all of three pages.

But, for all their talk, these regulatory and industry bodies have the appearance of toothless tigers. Or timid sheep. When they do take action against abusers, it’s generally in the form of a gentle slap on the wrist and perhaps, as in the case of the UK’s CMA, minor piece of public censure.

Notably, it wasn’t those who’re supposed to look after us who instigated the lawsuit against the Fyre influencers … it was the poor consumers who’d been duped.

In keeping with the debate around programmatic advertising, fake news and brand safety, it feels we need to look to the advertisers themselves to put their house in order. While there are some positive murmurings from the likes of Unilever, too many continue to abuse their social media presence. VW is a case in point. Earlier this year, it made an ass of itself with its #VWDriveDry campaign, when Nomuzi Mabena failed to disclose that her faked car crash was actually a paid-for stunt (it was only after public uproar that her Instagram post was updated with hashtags marking it as an advert).

It’s time for advertisers and their agencies take note of Fyre, #VWDriveDry and the legion of other social media fails and curtail their irresponsible use of influencers.


Charlie StewartCharlie Stewart (@CStewart_ZA) is CEO of Rogerwilco, a multi-award-winning independent digital agency best known for its expertise with Drupal, SEO and content marketing. A Scot by birth, he moved to South Africa in the early 2000s in his quest to support a winning rugby team — a search he’s reluctantly forsaken. Together with Mark Eardley, he co-authored Business to Business Marketing: A Step by Step Guide, (Penguin Random House, 2016) and may be found on LinkedIn. Charlie contributes the monthly “Clicks ‘n Tricks” column, which looks at how brands are using digital channels to engage their customers, to MarkLives.

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