The term “influencer” may be a fairly recent addition to our lexicon but it’s certainly not a new concept. For as long as the cult of celebrity has been a part of our culture, brands have capitalised on its key players in order to sell us an aspirational lifestyle in the form of overpriced products. And society at large – sometimes terrifyingly similar to a school playground – has gleefully enjoyed the schadenfreude of turning on its former idols.
The latest victim of our collective desire to see the mighty fall is blogger Elle Darby, who sent a polite (if not particularly professional-sounding) email to a hotel owner asking if they’d be interested in a collaboration whereby she was afforded a free stay in exchange for featuring it on her social platforms.
Instead of declining her offer, or even ignoring it altogether, the hotel decided to publicly post her email on their own social media channels, along with a snide, cruel response for all the world to see. In her video describing the situation, Darby says she was out shopping with her friend in Primark when she suddenly saw hundreds of notifications on her phone calling her a “freeloading b***h” an “awful person”, a “f****ing brat” and worse.
Not content with turning a 22-year-old woman into an internet pariah, the hotel went further, publishing a fake invoice listing all the “publicity” she’d received as a result of the original post going viral, and billing her for it. This can only be described as cyber bullying – intentionally humiliating and inciting abuse towards Darby, for no apparent reason (although the hotel has certainly secured more publicity than they could ever dream of as a result).
The response from the public – while sickening – is not surprising. There’s nothing we love more than the collective takedown of someone successful in their field, particularly when the person is young, attractive, female and seemingly undeserving of their accomplishments.
The world of “lifestyle blogging” – and by extension YouTube and social media “influencers” is alien to many who aren’t immersed in that area of business. It can seem bizarre and superfluous, and as this previously insular industry is increasingly seeping into the mainstream through high-profile deals with brands, retailers and media platforms, we’re seeing more and more instances of cruel and unfounded backlash towards its stars.
These influencers are often young and somewhat naive, without the benefits of professional PR teams, agents and handlers which more traditional celebrities have always enjoyed. They’re attractive, charismatic, and have that je ne sais quoi – X factor, if you will – that means that the little blog they started in their bedroom amasses tens of thousands of impassioned followers.
While it may seem that they have plucked success out of thin air, it is in fact an incredibly competitive and tough industry. These influencers are constantly working, they live their entire lives in public through social media and vlogging. They are self-employed and have to hustle as much as the next person for work and opportunities.
Darby – like many others on the internet – has managed to make a living doing what she loves without the benefit of family money and connections. Social media has certainly not levelled the playing field, but it has opened up opportunities to people who would previously have been shut out from certain career options because they don’t live in London or New York, because they can’t afford to complete unpaid internships or spend years going on auditions in the hope that one day someone will pick them over the person who went to the same private school as the talent scout’s kid.
Asking for freebies may feel icky to people who do not work in the industry, but don’t kid yourself – this is how PR works. When you see a film star on the red carpet talking about the designer who “dressed” them, they didn’t pay for the gown; when you see a review of a five star Caribbean resort in a magazine it’s very unlikely that the journalist writing it paid for the holiday themselves. If anyone is constantly being asked to produce work for free it’s usually the content creators, not the brands. I doubt there’s a single blogger, journalist, filmmaker, music producer or any other person in a creative industry who hasn’t been asked to work for free in exchange for “exposure”.
The balance of power in this situation is hugely problematic – saying no could mean missing out on future (paid) opportunities, which are often implicit in such arrangements, while saying yes means still having to find a way to pay rent – often essentially working two full-time jobs to survive.
Brands on the other hand are free to say no to a PR agent, an advertising executive or a blogger if they don’t have the resources to undertake whatever form of marketing they’re offering without having to worry about backlash or negative consequences to their business.
If you search for “PO box opening” on YouTube you get more than 4m hits. These are videos of influencers opening the outrageous amounts of free products they get sent on a regular basis by savvy marketing teams in the hopes of a mention in their video, because the brands know exactly how valuable this kind of publicity is.
Darby wasn’t asking to stay at the hotel for free just because she thinks she deserves it, she was asking to stay there in exchange for creating content which would serve as an ad – something the hotel would likely have to pay more than the cost of a room for a couple of nights if they wanted to secure on a billboard or magazine. They weren’t interested – fine. But to repeatedly publicly shame a young woman who is trying to forge a career in a new and ever-evolving industry is an outrageous response.
This horrific trend for undermining and disparaging social media influencers is as hypocritical as it is ignorant. We all enable the capitalist celebrity hamster wheel in one way or another – Darby was just doing her job.
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