Redefining Influence

As I’m sure most of you are aware of by now, 2018 decided not to give us any time off from the shitstorm cycle, thanks to YouTube celebrity vlogger Logan Paul. During a recent visit to Japan, Paul decided to visit the ‘Aokigahara’, a forest located at the northwestern base of Mount Fuji which has become known as the ‘suicide forest’ due to the high number of people who visit the forest to end their lives every year.

After a short while walking through the forest, Paul and his friends come across the still-hanging body of someone who has recently committed suicide, and proceed to point, laugh, make jokes and so on. I’m not going to go through the labour of rehashing the whole debacle – those of you who’ve visited my blog in the past twelve months will hopefully know my thoughts on mental health and suicide, and I’d like to believe my audience is generally comprised of people who don’t need it explained to them why Paul’s actions were so wrong on multiple levels.

A few days after the scandal broke, The Fashion Law posted an article (Dear Brands, Your Celebrity Spokesmen, Influencers, Designers Can Cause Real Damage) addressing the issue that extremely popular, heavily monetized individuals such as Logan Paul present when they become embroiled in scandal. Other examples cited by the article include Johnny Depp and allegations of domestic violence made against him by his now ex-wife Amber Heard and John Galliano’s notorious anti-semitic rant in 2011 during his tenure at Dior.

At the crux of the piece is an attempt to explore the other side of the influencer phenomenon; more specifically, when influencers go rogue. The term ‘influencer’ is, itself, a bizarre and oft-confusing term. In many senses, its definition is precisely what it isn’t. Influencers aren’t really important to brands because of their ability to influence in any grand sense; they’re important for their oft-abstract ability to make people buy things.

The problem seems to be that for many brands, particularly the larger ones, that ability to shift units is the only quality they’re really interested in. Naturally, there’ll be some alignment here and there – sportswear brands need athletes, obviously – but for the most part it’s a simple case of A + B = C.

This is no more obvious than with the Kardashian-Jenner family’s endless list of sponsorship and endorsement deals which exist, for the most part, purely on the basis that they’re a Kardashian/Jenner. This is no criticism of Kris Jenner’s clan, either. They’re incredibly good at monetizing themselves. But it is rather revealing of what brands are looking for when they partner up with an influencer and eventually release the familiar press release about ‘joining forces in the spirit of shared values’.

And the problem is, there are a number of instances where the questionable values of certain influencers have been laid out in the open for a long time, but simply never created the media backlash that is apparently necessary for their partner brands to reassess their partnership. At the time of writing, for example, a tweet by Logan Paul from 2013 in which he makes jokes about 9/11 at the expense of his muslim roommate is still online.

That’s kind of the thing with influencers, though. Even if their roles as influencers intersect with their actual craft (as is the case with Johnny Depp and other celebrity endorsements), the influencer isn’t like other collaborative partners such as actors, artists, musicians, writers, and so on. When a musician is commissioned to write a song for a brand, or perform at an event, they are, effectively, being hired to do something. But with influencers, they’re being hired to do very little at all, the occasional social media post and ‘thanks, @brand’ aside. Just look good, and sell product.

You see it in the way brands select their influencers and weed out their seeding lists. How many followers do they have? Do they post regularly? How much do they cost (if anything)? There’s rarely any substantive investigation into the individual’s core values. If there is, it’s usually in the context of the deliberately obscure and ethereal marketing language that brands use to define their own values; buzzwords of the moment, like ’empowerment’, ‘awareness’, ‘progressive’, and so on.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case in the world of sales and commerce, brands get blinded by the potential sales and outreach, and overlook painfully problematic issues. It’s an issue that is quietly bubbling away in the streetwear and men’s fashion industry right now, particularly in the light of the sexual assault scandals that have rocked Hollywood and are now making their way into other corners of the industry such as in the New York Times’ exposé on Vice Media and recent allegations against fashion photographer Bruce Weber – not to mention the announcement that the NYPD is finally investigating sexual assault allegations against Terry Richardson, only 16 years after the accusations first surfaced.

Over the past few years we’ve seen numerous individuals accused of sexual misconduct in various forms. For a few weeks, the thinkpieces flow expressing outrage and disgust, the navel-gazing articles ask what we can do to make things right, potential collaborations are cancelled, and those accused seem to vanish from public eye.

And then a few months later, they reappear on the scene, collaborating on an installation, showing up at fashion shows, hanging out at huge in-store launches for certain sportswear collaborations. For all the espousing of values that brands, designers and their affiliates like to do in this age of social awareness, things really seem to go quiet when it comes to doing something as simple as putting your foot down.

I suppose the issue, in the context of influencers is, as I’ve said, they really don’t do much for brands other than shift product. In the superfast environment of social media, a new star is born almost every hour. And while I don’t expect every one of these individuals to be a fierce, vocal advocate of every social movement shaking the world up right now, it would at least be nice to see brands not partnering up with individuals who stand for so little that they’ll float through life saying absolutely nothing of substance about anything – or worse still, individuals who carry with them a list of accusations and allegations so long that you could use it to burn down the manifesto of values and principles the brand claims to be built upon.

At a recent launch event for a particular designer’s collaboration with a global brand in London, one of these individuals accused of sexual misconduct was in attendance, supposedly due to association with the designer. Many of the women I spoke to who had attended expressed their discomfort at being in the same room as them, and apparently when PR representatives for the brand were approached about it, their response was along the lines of a shrug and, ‘The designer wants them here.’

To be clear, I really have no issue with the concept of influencers itself. I work with brands who partner with artists, musicians and so on, and the fact is that influencers serve a different and necessary role. I would, however, like to see a deeper engagement with the notion of what an influencer can be, and what should be expected of them. On the few occasions I’ve been consulted by brands for my opinions on potential collaborations with individuals, I try hard not to mince my words.

‘Yes, you’ll get good exposure, and it’ll open you up to a new audience. However, this individual has done X, might do Y and has been known to do Z, so you should be aware of that, and don’t say I didn’t warn you if it arises.’

‘However, there is also this person. They’re not as well known, but they do great work, they’ve got strong values, and I could see them doing some amazing work with you. You might not get the results you’d get from the other person, but you’ll keep your nose clean.’

I’m realistic enough to accept that it’s perhaps too optimistic to want every single brand-influencer partnership to stand for something. But I’d like to see an end to ones that, when it comes down to it, stand for nothing.

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