Over the last three years, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has cracked down on Instagram influencers, forcing users to disclose sponcon and brand partnerships with a simple hashtag (#ad or #paid are preferred) or built-in branded partner ID tools. Business is booming regardless, with even teens getting a piece of that that sweet sweet sponcon cash. However as the industry matures and companies grow more dependent on the insidious form of advertising, it seems like the real money, and shenanigans, might not be in glowing reviews, but brutal takedowns.
An Instagram post by Kevin James Bennett, an Emmy Award-winning makeup artist and cosmetics developer set the beauty influencer community aflame on Tuesday. In it, Bennett describes the “mob-like behavior” of high-profile beauty influencers and the management teams he was in touch with to reviews for beauty products he was releasing under his own name. Bennett claims the influencers offered to trash a competing product in comparison to Bennett’s products in exchange for $75,000 to $85,000. Bennett also called out the all-too-common practice of skirting disclosure requirements and urged the FTC to start issuing fines:
A brand I consulted with asked me to inquire about working with a top-level beauty influencer. The influencer's management offered me these options:
1) $25K - product mention in a multi-branded product review.
2) $50K-$60K - dedicated product review (price determined by length of video).
3) $75K-$85K - dedicated negative review of a competitor's product (price determined by length of video).
4) A minimum 10% affiliate link or code to use on IG and YT.
Yes, option #3 is legit - payment to damage the competition's business. I told you it was mob-like behavior.
The demands and threats of "influencers" and their management have GOT TO STOP. The lack of disclosure by top-level influencers is FRAUD and it's time for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to step in, start charging fines and shut this bullsh*t down.
To the followers/subs who STILL refuse to believe their idols are thugs - pull your head out of your favorite beauty influencer's ass and SEE what's actually going on in this industry.
The post was in response to a viral video by Marlena Stell, owner of Makeup Geek cosmetics and a popular beauty influencer with over two million followers on YouTube and Instagram. In a video entitled “My truth regarding the beauty community,” Stell admits that her company has struggled over the past year with finding influencers to rep her products.
“We don’t have $60,000 to pay someone to do one video — and that’s the rates that we’ve been given,” said Stell. She went on to mention that she’d heard the owners of “multi-billion dollar companies” have similar concerns about influencers charging obscene rates without providing much traffic in return.
“I’m not hating anyone’s hustle,” Bennett told The Outline over email. “We all work hard and deserve compensation for our hard work. What I find upsetting is the pervasive lack of transparency and ethical behavior. Legally (as per the FTC), you must disclose if you are being sponsored or compensated for a published review (print or online).”
Bennett’s response post went viral after James Charles — an insanely popular beauty influencer — attacked it on Twitter. “I’ve NEVER heard of this happening and believe what you want, but most of us DO disclose sponsorships,” wrote Charles. “I can’t wait to talk about people like the man who posted this in a video very soon. 😒”
Charles’ comments have led other popular influencers to come to Bennett’s defense. “This is very real and happens every day,” wrote the woman behind PrettyPastelPlease, a fashion and makeup blogger with over 200,000 followers on YouTube and Instagram. “I'm glad that James has never experienced it first hand, but as someone that has seen it themselves in their role in marketing and in their time as an influencer, I hope I can help shed some light on this for you.”
“People are spending their hard earned money on products glorified by beauty and fashion influencers,” said Bennett. “It’s dishonest not to alert your followers/subscribers that the vendor is compensating your review… Unfortunately, many influencers don't, because they know people wouldn’t be so quick to trust their recommendations if they were aware that the glowing review was in actuality a compensated sales pitch.”
In a lengthy video entitled “GETTING PAID $85,000 FOR A NEGATIVE REVIEW,” PrettyPastelPlease breaks down the secret world of influencers, using Bennett’s post as a jumping off point to describe her experiences on both side of the industry.
"That is all 100 percent true,” she said, in reference to Bennett’s post. “And I know that's true because I have seen exactly all of this from two standpoints: I have seen it from an influencer point of view as an influencer myself, but I also worked in marketing in my full time job and I have actually been on the end of the marketing companies that work with the influencers that charge this sort of money. And I have seen exactly what he said where companies are willing to pay people to put down other products to make theirs look better.”
Influencers with massive followings, like James Charles, generally don’t negotiate their own sponsorship deals with brands and other potential partners, PrettyPastelPlease explained. They pay a management team to sift through the requests and streamline the process. Smaller influencers generally can’t afford such a luxury, and instead flock to a host of gig economy-esque digital marketplaces that are designed to connect brands with wannabe sponconers.
“There are websites like that we can log on to and there’s hundreds if not thousands of brands that are posting things there like: We want an influencer to talk about our new skinny weight loss tea, or we want an influencer to talk about our makeup mirror, or we want an influencer to talk about our nail polish,” said PrettyPastelPlease.
In the video, PrettyPastelPlease mentions that she’s seen brands offer higher rates for influencers who agree to “compare” the company’s product to a specific competitor, with higher paychecks available for those who emphasize the particular company’s superiority. While explicitly positive reviews are more likely to be tagged as sponsored content (#ad, etc), takedowns rarely ever are.
These exchanges take place on a variety of apps and websites — FameBit, Tribe Influencers, CrowdTap, NIch, Adly, Amplify, and Markerly, to name a few — however information about a particular site’s legitimacy or usefulness remains a closely guarded secret within the influencer industry.
“A lot of YouTubers won't talk about the websites … ,” said PrettyPastelPlease. “The whole influencer landscape is very very competitive and people don't like to tell other people where they can go to get paid… They keep it very very close. If they've found an app where they make money off of they don't tell people what that app is.”
Updated at 08/29/18 4:40PM ET : This article was updated to include comments from Kevin James Bennett.