Are influencers the van Goghs of the modern age? Or are they just narcissists begging for attention from their parents' garages?
"All the things that the brands would pay for," a talent agent recently told AdNews, "such as hiring a studio, a model, photographer and stylist, are included in an output an influencer delivers. An influencer is really a creative director, a stylist, a producer, and an editor all in one."
Is that true? Senior agency creatives may have their own ideas about their craft being equated to wobbly videos shot on an iPhone.
An influencer is really a creative director, a stylist, a producer, and an editor all in one.” One of my least favourite quotes of the year. Ridiculous.— Damon Stapleton (@D_Stapleton) October 6, 2019
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And what about the high-profile screw-ups? Or the exorbitant fees some influencers charge for access to their vast audiences?
"The insane price influencer Tammy Hembrow charges for every Instagram post," guffawed a Herald headline just last week.
The point of these stories is to provoke outraged readers to wag their fingers at millennials being paid thousands of dollars without doing the hard graft.
The truth is more complicated, lying somewhere between the views of the evangelists and the cynics.
It's undeniable, though, that some influencers have attracted huge followings – and those numbers have drawn the interest, and money, of New Zealand marketers, including those employed in our government departments.
A 1News investigation this year revealed that 17 government departments have spent about $8 million on social media influencers since 2012. In the grand scheme of New Zealand's overall marketing spend, which exceeds $2 billion annually, this isn't a lot of money, but it attracts a disproportionate amount of attention because of the perceptions surrounding influencers.
Social media influencers have faced numerous scandals in recent years, with revelations of fake followers, fudged engagement scores and Photoshop trickery.
Campbell's Law, which dates back to the 1970s, tells us: "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."
Harvard sociologist Peter Moskos did a good job of explaining how this plays out in the real world by using the example of policing.
In his book Cop in the Hood, he explained that most police understand what it takes to really root out crime at the source. It requires deep investigations, establishing relationships with sources and targeting the kingpins at the top. But when cops are told to meet certain numerical targets, they no longer have the incentive to accomplish any of those things. Instead, they find themselves targeting easy arrests in a bid to boost their numbers.
When an influencer gets caught feigning world travel by photoshopping images of herself all set under the same cloudy sky, this is Campbell's Law in hyper-drive.
But influencers aren't alone in the darker arts of number crunching.
Any corporate environment where staff are driven by KPIs is vulnerable to the type of manipulation that looks great on a spreadsheet but doesn't do much for a business in the long run.
When a kink in the stats is discovered, the usual response is to evolve the way performance is measured – and this is exactly what has happened in the social media scene.
The conversation has shifted from likes, to engagement and now to the new flavour of the month, ROI (return on investment).
But even ROI is now starting to look a bit shaky, with Adidas admitting in October that its intense focus on making sales led it astray and has actually hurt the brand.
It all comes back to the findings of researchers Peter Field and Les Binet, who have been warning marketers for years to look beyond the seductive allure of big digital numbers and consider what effect their marketing is likely to have in the longer run.
So are influencers worth the bother?
Speaking at a recent event hosted by public relations agency Mango, AUT marketing lecturer Dr Sommer Kapitan shared research showing that influencers go toe-to-toe with traditional celebrities when it comes to marketing clout.
Kapitan said the research, conducted by master's student Vrinda Soma, revealed that social influencers rated as equally attractive to celebrities in an endorsement role, and New Zealand consumers report they are just as likely to buy a recommended product whether endorsed by a celebrity or a social influencer.
The theory is that it makes no difference whether a brand decides to use Gigi Hadid and Ashton Kutcher, or Shannon Harris (Shaanxo) and Marques Brownlee (MKBHD) to promote a product.
Entrepreneur Iyia Liu has put this to the test, spending just shy of $300,000 on a single post of Kylie Jenner wearing one of her waist trainers in 2016. Liu's investment eventually paid for itself and she has stuck with using influencers, but the strategy hasn't always gone according to plan.
Late last year, negative headlines started pouring in after customers were disappointed that Liu's Celebration Box products didn't match up to the hype created on social media.
Problems like this come about when conversations happening in niches start to bleed into the mainstream news cycle.
This is when brands are forced to deal with the negative fallout of being associated with the much-maligned social media scene. It's most often the so-called wastage (audiences getting the message who aren't in the target market) that ends up damaging the overall perception of a company most.
The same type of scrutiny is simply not afforded to more traditional celebrities – and this comes down to how credibility is built.
One of the most enduring celebrity endorsement anecdotes from history dates back to Pope Leo XIII's partiality to the coca-infused drink called Vin Mariani in the late 1800s. So enamoured was his holiness with this drink that he appeared in advertisements trumpeting its virtues and "beneficent effects".
This drink would, of course, go on to inspire that little-known brand Coca-Cola.
Stories like these have long been used to suggest that influencers are nothing new, but there's an important difference between a Pope and the average influencer.
The Pope's credibility isn't based on acquiring a huge audience, but rather on his commitment to his cause and craft. The same can be said of rugby players, actors and even of models, who carve out long careers before being made the face of any brand.
It's easy for almost anyone to understand why Dan Carter might be a good choice to sell a pack of vitamins, but that leap of logic is not easy when a person's claim to fame seems to be based entirely on a great set of abs.
That said, rippling muscles and pouted lips have proven quite effective at selling product online – which is why companies keep paying those eyewatering fees to get a spot in a photo.
But how long can this hype last? How many $50,000 pops are worth their price tag? And is there any long-term value in being associated with these individuals?
As an indication of the diminishing returns likely to come from influencers, it was reported this year that Instagram star Arianna Renee (Arii) couldn't even sell 36 T-shirts from her personal clothing line to her 2.6 million followers.
So can influencers really offer much more than a flash of excitement that fades almost as quickly as it arrives?
Great advertising always provokes some kind of emotion, whether through humour, poignancy or drama. This is how it gets ingrained into your head to ultimately shape the way you see something.
It is possible to find these ingredients on social media, but you sometimes need to dig beneath the obvious to find it.
One example is Nayyirah Waheed, whose following of 700,000 has seen her dubbed the most famous poet on Instagram. She's so influential that influencers like Khloe Kardashian and Meghan Markle quote her work free of charge. Reading her poetry provides a hint at why.
The point here is that the poets, artists and musicians tinkering away in the smaller corners of these platforms are where the really interesting opportunities lie.
We've already seen a local brand tap into this.
In 2017, YouTube-famous poet Harry Baker teamed up with Fonterra to produce a breathtaking ad campaign for Anchor that would go on to win international creativity awards when measured against the best advertising in the world. The campaign stands out because of the respect it shows the younger audience by using one of its stars in a way that's a little more sophisticated than having an influencer hold a bottle of milk.
The creative team behind the campaign (at ad agency Colenso BBDO) identified Baker as a suitable collaborator not because he had the most followers (he doesn't) or because he was the most handsome man around (he's not). It was a decision based entirely on his talent.
And you know what? There wasn't a single sneering headline about how much he earned for the campaign.
Who, after all, would have the gall to complain about an artist or a poet earning a few dollars in return for their work?