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#sponcon: How beauty influencers are experiencing a crisis of authenticity

Once seen as a genuine alternative to traditional advertising, influencer marketing has experienced an authenticity crisis in the last year. But how is the industry moving forward in a bid to keep consumers buying in?

Kylie Jenner’s recent expansion into skincare caused a stir. Not specifically for the products themselves—which had mixed reviews, walnut scrub notwithstanding—but for a tutorial in which Jenner demonstrated her use of the Kylie Skin Foaming Face Wash. The short video featured Kylie using the cleanser for less than 10 seconds on her face before drying off with a towel, only to leave it soiled with heavy foundation stains. To top it off she used a pink floral filter over the video, drawing backlash for the obvious lack of real skin in a skincare demonstration.

Twitter was quick to drag Jenner before mainstream press jumped on the bandwagon, while Kim Kardashian even poked fun at her sister. What was presented as an intimate glimpse into Jenner’s skincare routine backfired for its obvious lack of authenticity, with many going on to claim that she doesn’t even use her own products. While Kylie’s massive influence and reach propelled this seemingly insignificant scandal into the stratosphere, the issue is just the tip of the iceberg in an industry that’s often plagued by false claims, inauthenticity, and opaque brand partnerships. And while Jenner has graduated to the title of entrepreneur in lieu of influencer, her Kylie Skin blunder is just one of many similar faux pas committed by beauty influencers today.

The rise of influencers has brought about a new wave of advertising known as influencer marketing, with the beauty industry an early adopter. A research report titled Influencing Beauty (IB) was published last year by Influencer Intelligence, in association with Fashion & Beauty Monitor. Its aim was to examine digital media’s impact on consumer buying decisions and patterns, and ultimately its effect on the beauty industry at large. In the report, beauty insiders explain the industry’s predilection for influencer marketing as down to the experiential nature of beauty – whereas fashion can be admired on a magazine page, beauty is a sensory experience that needs to be felt. Or at the very least demonstrated through videos, be it colour swatches, tutorials, or demos. This has evolved into sponsored posts, brand ambassadorship, or luxe instagrammable press trips, in turn redefining the industry.

The success of beauty influencer marketing hinges on an influencer’s ability to demonstrate products and give honest reviews as a ‘real person,’ thus pushing an idea of brand transparency that previously did not exist. What’s ironic is that while influencers did once offer a genuine respite to the contrived celebrity-focused beauty world before, they are inadvertently now facing an authenticity crisis of their own.

Beginning last year, blow after blow has hit the community. First, there were accusations of product-bashing posts paid for by rival brands, arising after an incident where YouTuber Manny MUA filmed a tutorial bashing false lash brand Lashify, only for it to be revealed that he’s on the payroll from competitors Lilly Lashes and Nubounsom Lashes.

Then fellow YouTuber and founder of brand Makeup Geek, Marlena Stell, posted a damning video disclosing the exponential rise in payment demands by influencers, allegedly coming to anywhere between $20,000–$85,000 USD for a single YouTube or Instagram post. This practice has pushed out smaller independent brands who can’t afford to advertise through influencer marketing, giving a monopoly to a small handful of major brands instead. It’s also created a hostile atmosphere where money is valued above all else, leading viewers to wonder if the products are actually good or if the influencer was simply paid enough.

Things get even murkier when it comes to ‘stealth shilling,’ which is the failure in properly disclosing paid endorsements - a widespread phenomenon amongst beauty influencers. The issue with this practice is it sends a false message to viewers. Fans are led to believe an influencer believes so strongly in a product that they will spend their own money to purchase and promote it, of their own accord. When in actual fact they’re being paid by the brand to post about it, while the viewer is kept in the dark about the arrangement. It’s so rife that in 2017 the United States Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to 90+ influencers across various industries, flagging specific Instagram posts that appeared to be sponsored. This included posts by actress and influencer Shay Mitchell repeatedly plugging Bioré, make-up artist and founder of cult make-up brand Dose of Colors, Anna Petrosian, pushing Kat Von D Beauty, Victoria Beckham endorsing her dermatologist Dr. Lancer’s skincare line, and Emily Ratajkowski advertising UK skincare brand Nip+Fab, to name a few. Supposedly not every post was a paid product placement, but the FTC’s message was clear.

The worst culprit, it would seem, is actress Shay Mitchell, who’s been repeatedly outed for apparently shady ad practices, beginning with the FTC’s mention of her Bioré posts (she now discloses her ambassadorship with the brand), her use of stock travel imagery passed off as her own, and most recently a sham tutorial not unlike Kylie Jenner’s. In partnership with Bioré, Mitchell posted a video on Snapchat that appeared to show her removing eye make-up with one of the brand’s cleansing waters. But she was soon called out for allegedly not using the product, instead pretending to remove her make-up with a pre-used cotton pad while a strong filter (very badly) disguised that she still had make-up on. Viewers’ opinions turned from mockery to anger as they criticised Bioré for allowing such bogus advertising, with some deducing that the product probably doesn’t even work.

By loading their videos with expensive, sponsored products, most of which are not even properly disclosed, and some of which, as we saw with Shay and Kylie, are then demonstrated poorly, the influencer community has alienated its viewership – regular people who can’t necessarily afford a full face of high-end make-up, who originally looked to them for honest reviews and inspiration. As a result, for many viewers, it’s culminated in increased scepticism of influencers and a cultural shift against their trade. Comments on the aforementioned videos by Stell and Manny MUA focus heavily on distrust in the community, with statements such as “I don’t believe ONE damn word beauty gurus/influencers say anymore. They’re all full of shit” and “Take me back to 2008, before beauty channels considered themselves gurus, hauls were products purchased from actual stores not sponsors/PR.” On top of this, in the last half-year, various threads on Reddit’s BeautyGuruChatter subreddit have cropped up discussing viewers’ disdain for influencers and their perceived inauthenticity. These include: ‘YouTubers you can’t relate to anymore’; ‘Beauty tubers are out of touch; and ‘Anyone else bored of the entire beauty community on YouTube.’ All of this is not even taking into account the racist scandals (Jeffree Star) and public feuds (James Charles) that have plagued many top-tier beauty influencers, collectively sinking the industry into calamity.

Weary of these scandals, consumers are putting pressure on brands to do better. While the IB report reveals that influencer marketing shows no signs of slowing down – 98% of the industry believe it is successful while working with digital influencers is now the top choice over celebrities (84%) - it also found that 73% of beauty industry professionals are being pushed by Generation Z to become more transparent and genuine, which in turn is encouraging them to be more conscious of the influencers they work with. When asked about the challenges they face with influencer partnerships, 52% said it was ensuring a meaningful and authentic collaboration. It’s clear that consumers want change, while brands are still trying to figure out how to deliver that.

Jane Walsh, managing director of SEEN Group UK, backs this up and suggests stricter advertising rules as a possible solution. “I believe there is soon to be fatigue of #sponsored #ad,” she says. “Influencers were the authentic voice and back in the day there was no skew; their content was personal opinion, and they weren’t accountable to anyone other than their fans. But now they are a mainstream form of media, the constraints of advertising have now started to infiltrate.” Which is something that was highlighted in an independent survey conducted by Bazaarvoice. According to the survey, 49% of consumers believe there's a need for stricter rules for influencer posts. This is certainly on track to becoming a reality. In the last year, the FTC in the US and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK updated their guidelines for influencer marketing, in a bid to better regulate the industry. These updates include using dedicated post tags that clearly designate when something is an ad.

However, there’s a grey area that includes gifting of products and other non-monetary compensation such as brand trips, that don’t clearly fall under advertising. The question then becomes: How do we ensure authenticity in the influencer space while allowing influencers to properly do their job (which inevitably includes receiving products for testing)? Could a multi-level approach to ad labelling be the answer? Alexandra Pinder, director of London-based PR firm Halpern explains: “Brands still want to be able to provide product for review without it being considered bribery – if influencers can’t try it, they can’t let you know what they think. Stricter guidelines in this area will simply make it harder for brands and influencers, particularly those with small budgets to be heard. Regulation is good, it will just take a while to find the new normal.”

According to the IB report, another way brands are looking to improve their authenticity is by working with influencers that are an organic fit for their brand, valuing an engaged audience over a large following, long-term partnerships over one-off transactional collaborations, and stronger reliance on metrics, with 67% taking a data-led approach. This means that social media analytics, including audience insights and measures of engagement, are being used to quantify how an influencer connects with their audience.

Turning to knowledgeable specialists is another possible route, one that Alexandra Pinder confirms: “We believe that the authenticity required to be a true influencer comes from having a certain level of expertise. A qualification or experience rooted in genuine knowledge of a certain field. You might be a hairdresser talking about hair...or a make-up artist talking about make-up, and even if your followers aren’t in the tens or hundreds of thousands, the likelihood is what you have to say is probably more relevant.” A future of beauty where knowledge and transparency are valued? Sounds like what the industry finally needs.