Over 250 years ago, an English potter named Josiah Wedgwood changed marketing. After opening his workshop in 1759, he faced a problem. Wedgwood had to stand apart from the competition in an oversaturated market. But while his production system and goods were boilerplate, he went on to earn over £500 million in modern pounds¹. In the end, Wedgwood owed his success to clever advertising.
Even though Merriam-Webster didn’t adopt the word “influencer” until 2019², Wedgwood pioneered the strategy. After presenting a tea set to Queen Charlotte, he capitalized on his status as “potter to Her Majesty.” By advertising his “Queen’s Ware” range to wealthy and influential English families, Wedgwood saw unprecedented success. And in the 260 years since Queen Charlotte embraced his brand, this form of promotion has only gotten more popular.
As of 2021, influencer marketing has gone from a fringe advertising tactic to a 14 billion dollar industry³. But even while social media platforms and digital marketing campaigns feature influencers, certain questions remain. With every stride influencer promotion takes, its definition grows more nebulous.
Estimates on the number of influencers worldwide range from 3.2 million to 37.8 million⁴. On top of that, industry definitions further muddy the waters. Some define influencers as anyone who affects the way people behave⁵. Others argue influencers are defined by their internet following. But whether influencer status requires a thousand followers or one million remains to be seen.
Even if we can’t define influencers, there’s no doubt they play an important role in our media landscape. Amidst global pandemics and nationwide lockdowns, we find ourselves turning to social media and apps for meaningful interaction. And in these spaces, influencers reign supreme.
Forbes reports that traditional advertising methodologies no longer entice Americans⁶. Meanwhile, performance-based influencer marketing is on the rise. With promotion, creative content, and basic entertainment all mediated by this emerging field, calling them merely influential is an understatement. In a landscape where the media we consume shapes us, we must interrogate influencer marketing. To do so, we will ask:
Who gets to be an influencer?
FX’s The New York Times Presents investigated the world of influencers in its seventh episode. The documentary turned much of its attention to “collab cribs,” rented spaces where social media creators live and work together. In practice, splitting rent and collaborating is a pragmatic choice. But by looking at different collab cribs and drawing comparisons between them, the NY Times was able to point out certain trends.
Chief among them: influencers are disproportionately white⁷. This isn’t to say that influencers are themselves perpetrators of virulent racism. Rather, the algorithms fueling their success are to blame. For example, Instagram’s algorithms prioritize lighter, more colorful subjects over darker ones⁸. And on Tik Tok, black creators note how they are shadowbanned for posting content their white peers upload without repercussion.
While race plays a large role in an influencer’s success, it isn’t where the conversation ends. As Hadley Freeman noted in 2019: breakout social media stars don’t appear out of the blue. Oftentimes, they are the children of wealthy and famous parents⁹. Because influencers can’t earn a return on investment until they’ve accumulated several thousand followers, the industry favors those who don’t have to worry about making rent.
Fame doesn’t only come into play off-camera, either. Looking rich is so important that some companies now offer the veneer of financial success to content creators. Vice reports that social media stars invest much of their savings into the “fake wealth” industry¹⁰. By editing themselves into pictures of vacation hot spots, buying empty luxury brand cases, and uploading stock videos of luxury cars, aspiring influencers thrive on the illusion of monetary abundance.
To be clear, the disparity of race and class paints a vivid picture of who your average social media star is. But if an influencer’s success relies on their parents’ standing, investment in fake wealth, and social media algorithms outside their control, to what extent are they successful on their own merits? Are they self-employed and self-sufficient contractors? Or to put it another way:
Who owns the influencers?
Here’s an idea: influencer marketing succeeds because social media content appears more authentic. Whereas traditional ads are focus-group-tested, premediated, and shaped by marketing executives, Instagram and Tik Tok allow for comparative sincerity. The most successful influencers foster parasocial relationships. As such, they speak to viewers as friends and peers. This is especially true when selling you on a product¹¹.
Because of this, it was only a matter of time until influencer promotion was brought in-house. Contracting already-popular social media giants is effective. But a company that builds its content creators from the group up is even more cost-efficient. This has led to a phenomenon Vox coined as “fictional influencers”¹².
With increasing regularity, agencies hire actors to play the role of content creators. These “characters” play out fictionalized stories and advertise products along the way. Not only do these narratives boost engagement and earn hundreds of millions of views, but they are indistinguishable from nonfictional influencers.
The implications of fictional influencers could fill a dozen op-eds. But rather than focus on their rhetorical implications, let’s take a hard look at what they do, and what their core purpose is. Fictional influencers and their scriptwriters¹³ reign in the relatively open social media landscape.
Ilan Benjamin, a founder of the entertainment startup FourFront, pioneered this strategy. He describes fictional influencers in filmic terms. Benjamin says his cast will form their version of the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe. In an interview with Fast Company, he explained: “We can see them working with the traditional creative economy, expanding to YouTube, Instagram, and other platforms … that would allow them not only to continue to generate more content, but also to monetize that content long term.”
Fictional influencers look like their nonfictional counterparts, perform the same economic function, and similarly entertain thousands of viewers. However, they trade in the DIY independence previously inherent to social media marketing. This means traditional advertising structures retain a grip on the popular imagination. Thus, we are forced to ask:
Will influencers herald a brave new world?
If my opening Josiah Wedgwood anecdote wasn’t any indication, influencers have been around as long as marketers needed them. Though the word itself is new, influential people have always held commercial sway. And yet, since this term gained popularity, the number of aspiring influencers has skyrocketed.
No shortage¹⁴ of think pieces¹⁵ ask the question¹⁶: why do young people want to be influencers? Their reasons for choosing this path aren’t hard to ascertain. In a tight job market¹⁷ full of stagnant wages¹⁸ and poor working conditions,¹⁹ it’s no wonder that young people want a viable alternative.
But as we previously discussed, influencers aren’t separate from the commercial realities we all face. Economically privileged groups — especially children of the wealthy — tend to find the most success. On top of that, up-and-coming social media giants are often the product of corporate strategy. Just as it was the case for Queen Charlotte and Josiah Wedgwood, a particular social and economic order allows certain influencers to make waves while others drop off the map.
Influencers are only “new” in the sense that their advertising function is now formal. They achieve what print and TV advertisements once did. And in our cynical digital era, consumers are ready to cut through the artifice of conventional marketing. As such, influencers seem like a revolutionary alternative to standard promotion and employment. However, that perception is pure artifice.
So, who are the influencers? They’re a more cost-efficient and successful means of implementing old marketing strategies. While the internet once offered the promise of a democratized media space, influencers prove it is anything but. Going forward, we can only ask who holds the real power in online interactions. And the longer internet culture develops, the less it seems it’s people on our side of the screen.
You know what they say: the more things change, the more they stay the same.