2019 has been an immensely successful year in influencer marketing. We’re seeing a rise in authenticity and organic partnerships, with many brands moving towards sophisticated software that allows them to discover, vet and measure the impact of influencers according to advanced content and audience criteria.
We’ve also witnessed continued success with micro and mid-tier influencer activations, resulting in stronger brands and increased sales. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve seen the proven success of value-driven marketing campaigns.
But at the same time, 2019 was riddled with some pretty outrageous influencer moments culminating, we believe, in a bubble bursting. We don’t mean that influencer marketing is going away, it’s the opposite. More dollars than ever are pouring into this practice. However, companies that are willing to adapt to this rapidly evolving world will thrive, whereas those who refuse will be left susceptible to fraud.
So without further ado, here is a round-up of the most jaw-dropping, disgraceful and just plain confusing influencer moments of the year. Let’s break them down and explore what they can teach us for 2020 and beyond.
In 2017, America was drawn in on the story of Fyre Festival; watching several documentaries on the topic of a failed music festival put on by Billy McFarland and Ja Rule. While 2018 was all about Anna Delvey, the fake heiress that took the New York social scene by storm and Elizabeth Holmes, a media darling and founder of Theranos.
This year, we saw the explosion of Caroline Calloway. Originally made famous in 2015 when she secured and later lost a book deal, the true downfall of Calloway didn’t occur until early 2019. In December of 2018, Caroline began to promote Creativity Workshops that she planned to bring around the country. She intended to supply each attendee with a personalized care package, a garden in a mason jar, and an orchid flower crown.
Then things began to crumble. In January, Calloway started to complain that she had no space to store the 1200 mason jars she purchased for her seminars. In her instagram stories, she shared that she regretted not charging more for her seminar, as she believed she undervalued herself. Though the show did go on, in DC & NYC, guests were left disappointed by the lack of substance. There was no care package, no flower crown and no handwritten notes. Attendees took to reddit, declared it a scam, a label that Caroline now wears as a badge of pride.
Aside from that, there was also the scandal of people impersonating influencers online in order to get the free stuff that influencer would have access to. Yet another reason influencer vetting and playing the long game in developing influencer relationships is so crucial!
In June, an influencer named Marissa Fuchs (aka Fashion Ambitionist) achieved viral fame, but probably not in the way she intended. Her boyfriend Gabriel Grossman proposed to her in what is now an infamous Instagram story. Afterwards, she ventured off on a scavenger hunt that took her to Montauk, Miami and Paris. At first, the internet was enamored–it was all anyone on the internet was talking about. But then a pitch deck surfaced that implied she had planned her own engagement and secured sponsorships for the event. Though Marissa has repeatedly denied her involvement (which I’m inclined to believe), the damage was done and covered by major publications.
Late last summer, an influencer named Tiffany Mitchell was accused of staging a motorcycle accident, having someone photograph it, and later posting it to instagram. It was, without a doubt, the most bizarre influencer scandal of the year. What took the incident over-the-top was the spectacularly awkward Smartwater product placement. Though she insisted the post wasn’t an #ad, and Smartwater confirms that to be true, Tiffany is still remembered for the Smartwater sponsorship that never was.
In May of 2019, long-time Youtuber Tati Westbrook released a vlog entitled “Bye Sister,” formally ending her friendship with James Charles; the mega-influencer and first male face of Covergirl. Though her video goes on to talk about a plethora of inappropriate sexual behavior coming from Charles, what REALLY ended the friendship was his partnership with SugarBear Hair (a competitor of her supplement brand Halo Beauty.) At first, people rallied to support Tati. James Charles lost 3 million subscribers within days, Tati gained 4 million in the same time frame. Jeffree Star called him a “danger to society.”
In response, James released an 8 minute makeup-free apology video that received over 40 million views in just a few days. Later he posted a string of other videos that framed Tati as a liar, and addressed the claims against him; but the impact of those was minimal compared to the initial blast. Six months later, he’s returned to his former follower count; all of the videos associated with the feud have been deleted--but the cultural impact of the great beauty war remains!
We started off 2019 with the endorsement that broke the internet. Kendall Jenner was the new face of Proactiv, and people had a lot of things to say about it-- namely that they didn’t believe for a second that Kendall Jenner actually used their skincare products. Despite the controversy, Proactiv claimed direct subscriptions were up 30%, and unlike the Pepsi scandal of 2018, they had no intention of ending the partnership. They say “any press is good press” and in this instance, I think Proactiv would agree.
At the end of 2018, beloved YouTuber Olivia Jade announced that she had created a highlighter palette in collaboration with Sephora Collection. The partnership was a success, resulting in a sellout and eventual restock. Then in March the most talked about scandal in the U.S. happened–an event now known as “Operation Varsity Blues.” With her B-list parents at the center of it, Olivia went from being a mid-tier influencer to a household name. Within days, Sephora and Unilever dropped her as a partner, and she hasn’t promoted a product since.
In some instances, it’s impossible to foresee when an influencer on your roster may become a liability. Unless you have connections at the FBI, it’s unlikely you’d know Olivia Jade was going to find herself at the center of a nationwide scandal. In that case, it’s important to end the partnership as soon as possible. Otherwise, you risk your brand being boycotted.
Regardless, it’s critical to vet your influencers before committing to work with them. Using a value match tool in these cases can be helpful for categorizing certain words and phrases to be flagged. This can be as harmless as promoting a competitor or as serious as using offensive language. Vetting influencers takes seconds, and can prevent major PR disasters.
In February of this year, Dani Austin excitedly announced the launch of her new handbag collection Keely D. Though the handbags quickly sold out, she had a much bigger issue awaiting her. The problem was, as @dietprada pointed out, the bags were blatantly Valentino knockoffs. The internet called for her cancellation, she closed down her shop and posted tearful apology videos. Since then, she has relaunched the shop as a t-shirt boutique, and called for an end of “cancel culture.”
Perhaps worse is what happened in May with “influencer” Ariana Renee aka @Arii. Despite having over 2 million followers on Instagram, she was unable to sell 36 t-shirts required for a dropshipping company to produce her products. In a now-deleted Instagram post, Ariana complained that those who promised to buy her products hadn’t been ordering, and friends that she gifted apparel to had not been promoting her line. Many suspect the reason the product didn’t sell was because it didn’t look like anything the influencer would typically wear. Regardless of why this happened, Arii became the face of the influencer bubble.
In July, famed YouTuber Jaclyn Hill released a highly anticipated line of lipsticks. The issue was these lipsticks had black markings in them (possibly mold), uneven texture and even white hairs. Over half of the products produced were compromised. Customers were horrified, her apology fell flat, and as a result many deemed her cancelled. Despite the drama, her follower count has remained in tact.
Perhaps the most wild influencer story of 2019 happened just last week. A man with 1.5 million Instagram followers and a bustling college party lifestyle brand was sentenced to 14 years in prison for hiring a hitman to go after someone who owned the domain name he wanted.
From awkward ad placements, weddings created for content, and simply editing the sky, 2019 was a crazy year. While the Internet is sure to provide no shortage of outrageousness next year, we do believe the influencer industry is largely growing up.
Influencers are, on the whole, more aware of how hard it hurts to fall from grace and work to protect their reputations and audience. Consumers are becoming more savvy and reward authenticy. And brands have more in their toolkits to minimize the likelihood of scandals including:
Lastly, in the unlikely chance your brand finds themselves a viral sensation, make sure you’re partnering with influencers who can roll with the punches.