By now, surely, you’ve heard about the disastrous flop of a 2017 luxury music festival gone terribly wrong….
It was called Fyre Festival.
To sum it up, 5,000 tickets were sold for an elevated, exclusive Coachella-esque experience. Among the endless lofty promotions and promises were luxury villa accommodations surrounding a scheduled set list of well-known musicians and music artists were promised. The blissful backdrop was to be a private caribbean island in the Bahamas, one rumored to have once been owned by Pablo Escobar. Event-goers anticipated exclusive beach parties, high-end resort experiences, and superfluous celebrity encounters.
Get an idea of what attendees were expecting by watching the viral promotional video released by Fyre Media in January 2017. It’ll go down as an internet relic, no doubt.
However, when the folks showed up, a similar narrative to that of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies ensued.
(Image courtesy of slashfilm.com)
Luxury villa accommodations turned out to be FEMA tents and porta-potties, far from any white sandy beach. The meals, advertised as being prepared by celebrity chefs, were handed out in styrofoam carryout boxes. To the surprise and dismay of event-goers, the boxes contained two slices of sandwich cheese on wonder bread with a handful of lettuce on the side:
(Image courtesy of Twitter @trev4president)
Infrastructure was non-existent and not a single musician showed up. Booze was served, but water was scarce. Lacking the means to lock away valuables, looting, theft, and vandalism rampantly took over as night fell and the reality of the situation became apparent. Those spent hours at the backed up airports, many without access to food or water, in attempt to return home and escape the disaster.
The fiasco was so egregious, both Hulu & Netflix promptly produced documentaries about the debacle.
And to finally top it all off, the local Bahamian community was left to clean up the disaster, without the pay they were promised by Fyre Media.
So, how’d it get to such proportions?
Don’t get it wrong, the festival was built by master extortionists, or, irresponsible cheats at the very least. But they couldn’t have done it without the power of internet culture. By nature, social media has proven to be a hugely-dynamic driver of social change, supported by a degree of reach that facilitates content going viral. Yet, on the darker side, it’s also served as an aid in connecting violent and reactionary subgroups.
Together with a twist of artful videography and a keen understanding for what appeals to a wealthy Millennial demographic, Fyre Media employed a strategy heavy on influencer marketing.
Not only did Fyre Media present popular culture icons like Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner in the video ad for the festival, they also used them to disseminate news of the event, utilizing Instagram especially.
The celebrities were asked to create an Instagram post with curated copy, and a blank, Fyre Media orange tile:
(Image courtesy of thefashionlaw.com)
This strategy goes beyond the basic “social proof” nature of Facebook & Instagram, as these elevated influencers were paid top-dollar to hype-up the event.
For all the money Fyre paid various celebrities– supposedly, Jenner received $250k for a single post– they could have run a variety of ads to generate interest. It’s reasonable to say they would have reached a comparable number of people in their target audience.
However, the exclusive appeal of “celebrity” was the catalyst in this situation: the power and visibility of the elevated influencers that were sharing the news. In-hand with the suggested opportunity to join them.
What’s so wrong with getting paid to post about Fyre Festival?
But it’s about trust and ethics, right? Perhaps stirred into a solution of transparency and authenticity. That’s what we certainly expect, anyway. I mean, wouldn’t you prefer a restaurant recommendation from someone who has actually consumed a meal there?
One could reasonably expect minimal disclosure that you heard it was good, in any case.
We’ll throw a dog a bone and acknowledge that Jenner, Hadid, and the other celebrities employed by Fyre Media indeed believed they would be in attendance, enjoying their own perks above and beyond what was promised to the rest.
Fyre Media was absolutely exploiting the trust of the select influencers in their ploy. But even with 20/20 hindsight, shouldn’t the multiple red flags flying all over the place have triggered some kind of hindrance to the catastrophe that occurred– before kick off? Before the real wreckage could propagate?
Consider this interpretation by entrepreneurial speaker and businessman, Barry Moltz:
“One of the biggest problems with using these brand influencers for the Fyre Festival was they were not really influencers; These people were paid to attend a photo shoot at a promotion party on a beach and post their involvement on Instagram. This was simply a paid transaction for limited participation and there is nothing wrong with it.
Where it got fuzzy was the suggestion through their posts that these influencers would be participating at the festival. (They were nowhere to be found.) While this looked like an influencer campaign, it really was just paid advertisement.”
Fyre Media is beyond lucky there were no lives lost to the chaotic nightmare.
We believe that when a brand is getting paid to publish something, it agrees to a degree of responsibility for the product. Brand influencers should be acknowledged as cooperative members of a partnership, endorsing a brand they’ve been attentive to, and genuinely engaged with.
It’s only in the endorsing brand’s best interest to protect their consumers’ trust. After all, they’re profiting from that trust. Millennials, particularly, prefer brands that engage with them personally; when the communication isn’t always about pushing sales. Hence the success and growing prevalence of “lifestyle brands” in recent years.
We like how Erin McPherson, chief content officer for Maker Studios’ (now, Disney Digital Network), put it in 2015 at the Interactive Advertising Bureau Annual Leadership Meeting:
“This generation doesn’t dislike brands. What they don’t like is advertising,” (Castillo)
What does influencer marketing ethics and accountability look like?
Well, It’s no longer an objective topic, the days of undisclosed endorsements are reaching an end. Consumer protection organizations have activated to warn influencers who are pushing products for brands in exchange for payment. According to an article by The Guardian,
“Analysis of the 50 most-followed celebrities on Instagram by the US marketing firm Mediakix in May found that 93% of posts promoting a brand were not compliant with the [Federal Trade Commission] guidelines.”
That’s right, 93%.
As the boundaries between what constitutes an advertisement versus an impassioned review or recommendation continue to prove cryptic, it’s no wonder that the FTC has increased focus on enforcing explicit disclosure. That means, the inclusion of “#ad” or “#sponcon” buried in a hashcloud isn’t enough.
And we agree, getting influencers to clearly declare their relationships with brands is in the best interest of the consumer.
The essential legacy of Fyre Festival?
Guard your trust, and authenticate what you see.
(Image courtesy of Instagram @fyrefestival)
To reduce it down, the lesson that Fyre Festival has revealed about all parties involved is how susceptible we are to manipulation via the internet. The alternate dimension of digital content, it’s evermore facilitated mass-consumption, and its relationship to cash flow has morphed a beast:
“Where a hashtag and a finely cropped image can cause us to lose all sense of caveat emptor.” (Lapowsky)
Setting aside the FTC guidelines and efficacy of legal enforcement, we remind you of the principles by which social media was originally modeled. If personal profiles were considered in the same way as a brand, posts are little different than any professional or high-performance ad campaign: Curation of appearance and presentation to an audience.
We’re all advertising ourselves at any given time– no different from reality.
Also no different from the classic advertising is noting that content will exist forever somewhere once it’s published. After the data scandal between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica in early 2018, it’s worth remembering that ownership of that record is, indeed, trivial.
It’s easy to forget what your Facebook timeline looked like last month, and we all have Facebook Memories feature to thank for reminding many of us that we’ve been a part of the community for 10 years, but it should serve as motivation for influencers, consumers, and the digital advertising market to more carefully place trust.
Accountability has the full potential to fall in the laps of individuals who take on an influencer marketing roll carelessly. It’s well worth taking responsibility for what you endorse now by doing the required due diligence to save yourself the expense of paying double for it later.
Take our word that the Fyre Festival, Fyre Media, & all nameable associated parties will go down in advertising history.
Count on it.
By Polly Burge