The New Frontier
June 10, 2021
In one of the early episodes of Futurama, shortly after Fry gets transported to the future, he discovers that while he’s sleeping, there are advertisements being projected into his mind. His coworkers have long since gotten accustomed to this bizarre situation and urge him not to be so precious about the sanctity of his dreams. After all, wasn’t advertising practically everywhere in his time?
Thankfully, the cutting edge of marketing schemes hasn’t reached this frontier yet. It’ll probably be a long time before we arrive there, and yet it’s interesting to examine some of the recent innovations in advertising, especially in the context of platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube that so masterfully blend in with authentic expressions of self.
Influencer marketing is old hat, having been around at least since the time of Edward Bernays, (one of) the pioneer(s) of the field of public relations. This was a prominent tactic in his famous 1929 “Torches of Freedom” campaign for the American Tobacco Company, in which he recruited young debutantes (i.e. influencers) to march in New York’s Easter Sunday parade while smoking cigarettes, ostensibly as a way to assert their equality with men. Bernays had his secretary pose as a feminist and send telegrams to select young women encouraging them to march with their torches of freedom “to combat the silly prejudice that the cigarette is suitable for the home, the restaurant, the taxicab, the theater lobby but never no never for the sidewalk.”
As he states in his own account of the situation, 10 young women agreed to march, and the campaign resulted in broad publicity, helping to dismantle the taboo against women smoking in public. The takeaway for Bernays was that “age-old customs…could be broken down by a dramatic appeal, disseminated by the network of media.” For a technique deployed in the distant year of 1929, the resemblance to the social media marketing landscape of today is uncanny.
With a few slight exceptions, the mechanism functions in pretty much the same way now. Bernays, through his secretary, approached a group of influencers, and leveraged their appeal in order to shape public opinion to align with a certain corporate interest. Of course, he was not transparent about his motives, and the women involved had no idea they were acting in the service of an ulterior agenda, but this is essentially how influencer marketing functions today. The primary difference is that the debutantes get paid.
Being a debutante is looking more and more like a viable career these days, according to a 2019 report by Morning Consult. Aggregating data from 2,000 survey interviews with 13-38 year-olds, the report summarizes the findings in a few key points, notably:
- Influencers are more trusted as spokespeople than celebrities: 50 percent of Millennials trust influencers they follow on product recommendations, compared to 38 percent for their favorite celebrities.
- Authenticity is the key trait people want to see in influencers they follow: 88% say it’s important for influencers to be authentic and genuinely care about their interests.
- The potential micro-influencer market is massive: Young Americans of all stripes are willing to post sponsored content, and a majority of them are likely to organically post about brands they like.
In short, people trust influencers to recommend good products. They also really value authenticity, more than any other quality in an influencer. Young Americans (and we can assume young people in other countries) are aware of this and are interested in becoming influencers and posting sponsored content (clearly, Bernays had happened upon this insight some time ago, and it informed his PR techniques).
The data here lends itself to some worrying speculation. If you know that you have influence over people, and you also know there are entities that are willing to pay you for your influence, how long will your authenticity withstand the temptation to accept lucrative sponsorship from companies that you don’t care about?
In a recent article, Barrett Swanson sheds some light on the state of the influencer marketing industry with some very compelling field reporting from a TikTok “content house” - a physical house where influencers (in this case boys between 18 and 20 years old) live together and create TikToks. What stuck out to me was his description of the boys’ occasionally Stepford Wives-esque personalities. Having a vested interest in being likeable and charismatic, they are so perpetually friendly that it becomes difficult to judge how authentic their authenticity really is:
But it’s especially discomfiting to realize that the influencers have a tendency to treat virtually everyone in their social orbit with the same kind of backslapping effervescence with which they have treated me, and that this stems from their inexorable online habit of entreating their viewers to like and leave comments on all their social-media posts, not because they’re sincerely interested in what their followers have to say, but because this kind of “engagement” with their content is the sole barometer by which brands—i.e., their employers—determine their online relevance.
That this is a chilling contradiction to the claim that TikTok is a platform for authenticity seems obvious. But I think the issue here is even more mysterious and complex. After all, these kids were very young when their parents gave them iPhones and tablets—they’ve never known a self that wasn’t subject to anonymous virtual observation. And so it may well be that whatever we mean by “authentic” here isn’t the standard definition that Rousseau and the Romantics first fathomed—a true effusion of your unvarnished personality—but is “authentic” in the sense that their identities have been made in perfect, unconscious sympathy with whatever their mob of online followers has deemed agreeable and inoffensive.
This is the most substantial difference between the earlier conceptions of influencer marketing and today’s version. Selling out to corporate interests is not the worst outcome, in the event that one is honest with oneself about what one is doing. It would be more worrying to become the kind of malleable, amorphous being capable of conjuring up authentic love and enthusiasm on demand for the products one is asked to advertise. And 54% of those surveyed by Morning Consult say they would become an influencer given the opportunity.
Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, the brilliant investigation into the phenomenon of the brand, offers us a very poignant articulation: “The biggest change since No Logo came out is that neoliberalism has created so much precarity that the commodification of the self is now seen as the only route to any kind of economic security.” Being a high school student in this climate has an element of tragedy - there is enough on their plates without the additional effort required to run a brand. Figuring out what kind of person you’re going to become is already difficult without also having to worry about what your followers might think, and how that might potentially affect your would-be sponsors. But with the branding tools freely available to anyone with a smartphone, and the irresistible glamour of the influencer lifestyle beckoning people to join, why wouldn’t they?
In the same No Logo, Klein documents the marketing industry’s discovery in the 80’s that the secret to commercial success was to make brands, not products. To sell products effectively, what mattered was not the quality of the product, but that the product was associated with certain aesthetics or cultural ideals. In this scheme, the product is merely a vessel through which consumers can partake of the essence represented by the brand. And in order to become an ever more faithful manifestation of those ideals, brands must perpetually seek out and cannibalize culture in all its forms in order to transform it into an extension of themselves. To quote one of Klein’s interviewees, “Consumers are like roaches — you spray them and spray them and they get immune after a while.” So the disciples of branding remain on the lookout for the next uncharted cultural frontier.
What’s concerning is that, having outgrown merely branding objects, clothing, physical spaces, and pretty much anything else you can think of, we’ve reached the point where personhood itself is on the chopping block. As is the case with the boys at the TikTok house and legions of others like them, their affability, charisma, humour, and intelligence are themselves the ideals that brands would appropriate. Previously, branding was forced to use the conventional means of paid actors and other artifices to broadcast its message. Now it travels freely in the gilded palanquin of organic, user-generated content, having offloaded the creative work to an army of eager influencers. The next frontier is the very thing that makes us human. In a way, there is something more honest and transparent about the power dynamic of splicing advertising into dreams.
But the profits are too compelling, and our habits too entrenched to even consider the prospect of abolishing these platforms. And in many cases we wouldn’t want to. If it weren’t for branding and sponsorship deals, many of our favourite creators wouldn’t be in a position to create the content we love and would move to more sustainable occupations, an outcome we also are not willing to accept. Until we as a public leave free platforms for good, this state of affairs is here to stay. Newer generations are presented with the unique challenge of identifying authentic authenticity. As humans we have evolved lie detection mechanisms in the past, so it is up to us to do it again in the context of navigating the shrinking divide between entertainment and advertising. Similarly we have to continue in the tradition of developing an identity that defiantly exists as a distinct alternative to the commodification of the self. I only wonder what we will get sprayed with next.
Amos, Amanda, and Margaretha Haglund. “From Social Taboo to ‘Torch of Freedom’: the Marketing of Cigarettes to Women.” Tobacco Control, vol. 9, no. 1, 1 Mar. 2000, pp. 3–8., doi:10.1136/tc.9.1.3.
Bernays, Edward L. Biography of an Idea: The Founding Principles of Public Relations. Open Road Media, 2015.
Brandt, Allan M. “Recruiting Women Smokers: The Engineering of Consent.” Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association, vol. 51, no. 1-2, 1996, pp. 63–66.
Hancox, Dan. “No Logo at 20: Have We Lost the Battle against the Total Branding of Our Lives?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 11 Aug. 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/aug/11/no-logo-naomi-klein-20-years-on-interview.
Klein, Naomi. No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Vintage Canada, 2009.
Morning Consult, 2019, The Influencer Report - Engaging Gen Z and Millennials, https://morningconsult.com/influencer-report-engaging-gen-z-and-millennials/. Accessed 6 June 2021.
Mostegel, Iris. “The Original Influencer.” History Today, History Today, 6 Feb. 2019, https://www.historytoday.com/miscellanies/original-influencer.
Swanson, Barrett. “[Letter from Los Angeles] The Anxiety of Influencers.” Harper’s Magazine, Harper’s Magazine Foundation, June 2021, https://harpers.org/archive/2021/06/tiktok-house-collab-house-the-anxiety-of-influencers/.