Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Rise and (Maybe) Fall of Influencers

I never really expected to write these words, but: It was Kendall Jenner who did it for me.

Or, to be fair, not Kendall Jenner herself — or not entirely Kendall Jenner — but rather the 10th-anniversary Indian Vogue cover that featured Kendall Jenner, as conceived and photographed by Mario Testino. When released last week on the magazine’s social media accounts, it almost immediately became the center of a storm of social media ire, most of it along the lines of this : “Disgustingly inappropriate. Were ALL the Indian women unavailable??”

Which was then followed, as these things so often are, by a host of headlines like’s “Vogue India Cover Lands Kendall Jenner in More Trouble.”

But here’s the thing: Was it really Ms. Jenner’s fault? Was she in any way culpable for this bad choice? After all, she was being used as work for hire: a body and a face to sell a magazine.

Or was she?

Therein lies the problem. Because the obvious assumption — the one made by all the worked-up folks in the Twittersphere — was that she had been employed not just as a clothes hanger (as models used to be known), but, at least in part, as herself: a public figure with an immediately recognizable name and face and family back story, along with approximately 80.3 million Instagram followers. An — and I cringe at the word, but it is in the Cambridge English Dictionary — Influencer. And that influence was part of what Indian Vogue was paying for by paying her to be on its cover.

It’s the same thing that the Fyre Festival, the famously failed music festival in the Bahamas, was paying for when it paid Ms. Jenner, along with Bella Hadid (12.7 million Instagram followers), Hailey Baldwin (10 million) and Emily Ratajkowski (12.8 million), to drum up excitement via promotional posts with said women cavorting in bikinis on a beach. It’s what, to a certain extent, Pepsi was paying for when it hired Ms. Jenner (sense a theme here?) and put her in an ill-conceived ad in which she uses a soda to soften up a police officer at a riot. It’s what Vogue Arabia was paying for when it put an only-semi-veiled Gigi Hadid on the cover of its first issue.

Whether it is obviously an ad, whether a Federal Trade Commission-required hashtag admission goes with it or not (and the F.T.C. is increasingly cracking down on influencer posts, recently writing to 45 celebrities to warn them about necessary disclosures), there is, as Lucie Greene, the worldwide director of the Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson, said, “an implied individual choice.”

And that means that those involved are perceived as having a personal — not merely professional — relationship with the thing they are selling. Which in turn means they bear some responsibility for it. There is a downside to the upside of being an influencer.

Sometimes it’s literal: The Fyre Festival is now facing a class-action lawsuit in which the defendants include not only the organizers, but also a number of “Jane Does” who helped promote the festival.

Sometimes it’s reputational: After Selena Gomez, the proud possessor of the most Instagram followers badge (she had 120 million as of Wednesday), signed on to represent Coach — after having been an ambassador for Louis Vuitton, a brand with a very different aesthetic, one nonfan : “Selena Gomez, the previous face of Coca Cola, Louis Vuitton, Verizon, and the current face of Pantene and Coach … a joke to the industry???”

Either way, it’s real. As with all slippery slopes, it’s easy to hop on but also easy to end up in a heap at the bottom. Which raises the possibility that we are on the verge of a new (hopefully more considered) age in the evolution of Influencer culture.

by Vanessa Friedman, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Vogue, Mario Testino