Traditionally speaking, marketing has never been about ‘being truthful’. Now, marketing in 2019…that is the epitome of forgery. New technological means produce new ways of doing things, and advertising is the perfect example of this statement. Today’s marketing practices carry the scars left by two very contemporary elements – social media and social inequality.

Everybody is talking about influencers as if it is something new. There may be new players around, but influence is as old as time. Social influence, when it takes the form of persuasion, is one of the bases of advertising.

Every human being has the psychological need to be both liked and right, something that leads us to conform other’s expectations. Humans are inherently social, and these biological calls are partly responsibly for that infamous need to “fit in”. There are other mechanisms behind social influence, such as identification (a change of attitude to immitate someone who is admired) or conformity (a change of a attitude to align with normative standars).
The advertising industry has been profiting from these psychobiological mechanisms since its inception. This is how it has always worked. And now it is getting ridiculous.

Psychologist Alex Lickerman offers that, in lieu of control, we all have influence in abundance:

“ (…) the power of which seems to function linearly: the closer personally and physically others are to us, the greater our influence over them, and vice versa. Even more interestingly, unlike our attempts to control, our attempts to influence don’t require our conscious intent. Which is why our ability to influence others is so much more important than our ability to control them; we’re always exerting influence simply by being who we are, saying what we say, and doing what we do. The only real choice we have in the matter is whether or not the influence we exert is good or bad. “

Which brings us back to the influencers. These are the kids that brands reach to help promote their products, right? Well, yes and no.

Both brands and users are making money with social media, yes. Companies approach users with a considerable following base, and offer products or money in exchange for promotion. As this practice became more usual, users started contacting brands to offer their service. So far, so good.

Being sponsored in 2010 was equal to selling out: your opinions would not be as valuable or reliable, since you were being paid for sharing them. Less than a decade after, sponsorship is exactly the opposite: working with brands means ‘you’ve made it’. It certainly is a sign of success, and it adds credibility to your online persona.

If this kind of advertisements work – and they do – is because they look less like ads and more like word of mouth. Every single social network has monetizing potential but, when it comes sponsored content, Instagram is the weapon of choice. Its visual quality and its spectacular user base growth make it the perfect display window for any product. Also, some people are more prone to buying products when they are offered by “people like them” – someone they can relate to.

However, the insidiousness of the current marketing system is taking its toll. Infuencers have built an image of success that reached every corner of the world, and they have not just sold products to their fans – they have also interested them in a certain lifestyle. Everybody else is doing it, so why can’t we? Monetizing your content and living off corporate sponsorship does sound enticing, but it is easier said than done. Aspiring influencers claim that the first deal is the hardest to strike, because sponsors equal credibility…and zero sponsors equal no influence.

Since getting started is proving this hard, aspiring influencers are starting to post fake sponsored content.

That’s right, people are actually promoting products they get on their own dime. A nice pic with the right caption and (of course) the proper hashtags may give the appearance of a paid partnership. The consensus is that, if companies see these posts, they may take the bait and trust the user with a deal.

This modus operandi has become so frequent that users just cannot tell fake from legitimate sponsored content anymore. On the other hand, some companies are getting a lot of free promotion. Some have even ceased paying influencers altogether, since they are getting all the buzz anyway. However, this wave of free promotion can backfire on them. Although there is no such thing as bad publicity, many brands end up being captioned under low to mediocre quality pictures and they have no control over the situation.

Be that as it may, one thing is certain: on Instagram, authenticity is at an all-time low.

Seems to me that influence on social media works like a Ponzi scheme. You know, that old fraudulent investing scam promising high rates of return with little risk to investors. The only difference with the Instagram scheme is that every player acts of their own accord, just by immitation. It all starts with a very beautiful, young and successful person who posts promotional content to his or her millions of followers. Sooner rather than later, these people will find themselves trying to do the same thing. Why? Because social media in general (and Instagram in particular) is the land of aspirationalism.
Influencers have a way of seeming so close to their fan base, of making it look so easy, when it is actually quite the opposite. They inspire others, yes, but the power they hold can also do a lot of harm.

In the very beginning of this discussion I mentioned social inequality, which I think is the most pressing issue we face today. Well, social media provides the tools to bridge the gap that separates the poor from the rich, the insignificant from the influential …even the old from the young. If you don’t trust me, just google ‘Instagram + fake holiday’ and you’ll get dozens of results like this.

Source: Refinery29.

If social media is quickly turning into this make believe game where everybody loses – well, everybody except the ones at the top of the food chain…is it still worth playing?

I guess we’ll find out soon enough.