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A Phony on your Feed? A Look at Influencer Ethics

Social Media Influencer Marketing

According to Influencer Marketing Hub, an influencer can be defined as a person who has two consistent traits: the power to affect purchasing decisions made by consumers because of his or her position within a specific audience, and a following within a ‘distinct niche’ with whom there is consistent interaction. The current digital climate and the rise of social media within the last decade has increased the amount of social media influencers and the influencer marketing industry as a whole. Haenlein et. al (2020) reported that “influencer marketing represents a $10 billion dollar industry (…) few firms in the fashion, beauty, travel, food, or beverage industries are running marketing campaigns these days that do not include, to some share, a collaboration with popular users on platforms such as Instagram or Tik Tok” (p. 5). Social media influencers often share private or intimate details about themselves, their personal life, or their opinions in order to gain a strong and substantial following base. PR News Online explained that when using influencers, brands can expect to see a return on investment up to eleven times higher than other traditional marketing and advertising techniques. Some of the most widely followed celebrity influencers are Selena Gomez (144 million followers), Kylie Jenner (118.5 million followers), Cristiano Ronaldo (145.3 million followers), and Kim Kardashian (191 million followers). Although influencer and social media marketing has become a profitable trend, there are some ethical issues that need to be highlighted. Specifically, the idea of a social media influencer’s authenticity and transparency about product usage, product benefits, and opinions of products. The overarching question that should be looked into further, is whether or not it is ethical for a social media influencer to portray an image to enhance popularity?

Authenticity

It is worth noting that portraying an image could include an influencer acting as though they use a product when they do not, or acting as though they like a product. Audrezet et. al (2020) explained that a social media influencer’s intrinsic motivation to create and share content regarding passions that they may have, or things that fall within their interests, have the potential to be averted because of commercial opportunities to promote certain brands and products that they typically would not be interested in or use. More social media users are more interested in understanding the benefits of a product or even more information about the brand, and less about whether or not the social media influencer is being paid for the content that they are posting. A study by Bazaarvoice, indicated that consumers feel like influencers take advantage of their audiences by being materialistic and not giving a fair representation of life. The study also indicated that many customers are tired of viewing influencer content that is not, or does not appear to be authentic. This calls into question the motivations of social media influencers and the transparency that they are giving to their audiences. As quoted in Wellman et. al (2020), “to remain authentic while working within commercial spaces, influencers seek to develop credibility with both audiences and commercial brands, a potentially difficult task as these stake-holders have different expectations about their relationships with influencers” (p.5). For example, some brands may be more concerned with post engagement, or the percentage of fake interactions, rather than the personal interests of influencers. Elaboration is needed on real examples where the authenticity of social media influencers is questionable.

Kim Kardashian

Kim Kardashian (@kimkardashian) is the epitome of what it is like to be a social media influencer. While Kim has not fully disclosed how much money she makes from sponsorships and endorsement deals on Instagram, some sources report that her fee ranges anywhere from $300,000-$500,000 for every post. In specific situations, the fee has even been up to $1 million dollars for one post. Kim’s success on Instagram has not come without controversy or backlash. In 2018, Kim received backlash for posting an Instagram ad of herself sucking on an appetite-suppressing lollipop. Many people attacked Kardashian, including The Good Place actress Jameela Jamil, calling her a terrible influence to young girls. Kim has promoted other products that have been deemed by doctors to be an unhealthy practice. These include corset waist trainers, flat tummy teas, and meal replacement shakes. It is interesting to consider whether or not Kim’s brand endorsement deals are authentic. With the fortune that Kardashian has, it is unlikely that she doesn’t have personal trainers or private chefs to ensure that she is healthy and able to maintain her figure. In 2015, Kardashian also faced backlash because of a promotion for the drug Diclegis. In her Instagram post, Kardashian ‘misbranded’ the drug and made it seem safer than what it actually is. Although it was a drug designed to help with pregnancy morning sickness, Kardashian failed to post all of the risks associated with the drug. Kardashian removed the post, however in 2017 highlighted Diclegis again on her social media account. She was not pregnant with any children at the time, but did include all of the necessary components required by the FDA. Kardashian is inherently portraying an image to enhance her own popularity. She is portraying that she takes Diclegis and uses harmful products such as Flat Tummy tea, etc. Not only is it wrong for her to promote these harmful products, but it calls into question her authenticity and whether or not she is promoting because she believes in and uses the products, or wants the paycheck. Another social media influencer that pushes the boundaries of authenticity is Miquela Sousa.

Miquela Sousa

Miquela Sousa (@lilmiquela) is the first computer generated social media influencer. Robinson (2020) reported that “since Miquela’s conception in 2017, she has gained over 2 million followers and makes a considerable amount of advertising profit for her creators by modeling the clothing of brands including Prada, Samsung, and Calvin Klein” (p. 2). An obvious issue of Miquela is that she is neither a person, nor a robot. Photos of Miquela are artificially created via a computer and there is no physical person that is posing in these advertisements. It is worth noting that Miquela has her own identity, supporting transgender right and the Black Lives Matter movement. While Miquela is transparent about not being ‘real,’ it isn’t right for her to promote products that she cannot physically wear, use, or try. It is also interesting to look at those who are profiting from Miquela, which are her creators. Miquela is obviously portraying a specific image, one that could be for profit only.

Ethics

It is important and crucial to evaluate the ethics behind social media influencers and their transparency to their following. It is also important to consider the values of all the parties that are involved. For example, followers or viewers of content value trust, authenticity, and product quality. Social media influencers value engagement, money, success, and their online reputation. Lastly, companies and brands value success, money, and shareholders who may invest. The overarching issue with influencers is the lack of transparency in the image that they are portraying. Kant’s categorical imperative can be applied in this situation. It states, “act on that maxim which will become a universal law.” The universal law in this case would be for social media influencers to always tell the truth. One could argue that both Kim Kardashian and Miquela Sousa are in violation of this maxim. Both are not being authentic about product usage to their followers. In order to resolve this ethical dilemma, social media influencers should be honest and transparent in all of their posted content. They should be transparent within their partnerships, only partnering with brands that they actually use products from. In Miquela’s situation, she should continue to be transparent about not being real. Because virtual influencers are not actually able to wear or use the products they endorse, they can be considered unethical.

Conclusion

As social media marketing continues to grow and evolve, the ethics of influencers should be addressed. Specifically, the transparency and authenticity that social media influencers show to their audiences. This could be in the products they endorse, or overall in their attempt to solely make a profit. Evaluating this situation with Kant’s categorical imperative would show the importance of always telling the truth and being honest to your audiences. Future research should be done over virtual influencers and the ethical dilemmas that they impose.

Wellman, M. L., Stoldt., Tully, M., & Eckdale, B. (2020) Ethics of Authenticity: Social Media Influencers and the Production of Sponsored Content. Journal of Media Ethics, 35(2), 68.

Robinson, B. (2020) Towards an Ontology and Ethics of Virtual Influencers. Australasian Journal of Information Systems, 24. DOI: 10.3127/ajis.v24iO.2807

Haenlein, M., Anadol, E., Farnsworth., T., Hugo, H., Hunichen, J., & Welte, D. (2020). Navigating the New Era of Influencer Marketing: How to be Successful on Instagram, Tik Tok, & Co. California Management Review, 63(1), 5–25.

Audrezet, A., de Kerviler, G., & Guidry Moulard, J. (2020). Authenticity under threat: When social media influencers need to go beyond self-presentation. Journal of Business Research, 117, 557–569.

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