The Grey Areas of Influencer Marketing

Caitlin Hall

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Social Media Influencer

Growing up with the internet, as I did, it’s of no surprise to me that traditional methods of marketing are failing to grab the attention of millennials and Generation Z. Many have wised up to the artifice and pretence of the advertisements that would’ve persuaded their parents and grandparents. 


Today, brands must double down on their relatability and authenticity to cater to younger consumers. With an estimated buying power of over 600 billion dollars, it’s certainly within any brand’s interests to market themselves towards millennials.


They are a generation with the highest levels of brand loyalty, but it seems increasingly difficult to earn their trust from traditional marketing. Elite Daily’s study shows that ‘only 1% of the 1300 millennials surveyed said that a compelling advertisement would make them trust a brand more,’ suggesting that, ‘millennials believe that advertising is all spin and not authentic.’


Turning to streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ for their entertainment, millennials are less likely to watch traditional advertisements, and therefore unlikely to be exposed to a brand or product that wasn’t already on their radar. Even the five-minute ad break between television shows appears to be too long to hold the attention of millennials and Generation Z, with the optimal duration for an advert likely to capture their attention being 15 seconds, perfect for scrolling through Instagram or TikTok, or even at the start of a YouTube video. Not all internet advertisements are engaging for millennials, however, with pop-up ads seemingly the worst. 96% of respondents admitted that they disliked them. Around 50% of millennials preferred YouTube advertisements and email updates, possibly because they were easier to skip and ignore.

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Social Media influencer advertising drinks

Social Media influencer advertising drinks

One of the advertising strategies that appeals to millennials the most is influencer marketing—appreciated for its honest and transparent approach. To garner a significant following, influencers must develop a relationship with their audience, by creating a relatable and down-to-earth image. If a product apparently works well for the influencer, their followers are likely to believe that it will work in the same capacity for themselves also. Many influencers claim that they will only partner with a company and create sponsored content that aligns with their own personal brand and values, which only furthers their aura of authenticity.


Instagram appears to be the most popular platform for influencer marketing, with more than 1 billion active users and its emphasis on photo and video content, which allows brands to visually promote their products. Similarly, aside from the skippable ads at the start of their videos, many YouTube creators earn money by taking on sponsorships with a variety of brands—either promoting their product within a section of the video or creating dedicated content to endorse it. Companies seem keen to incorporate social media influencers into their marketing strategies, as ‘two-thirds of firms plan to increase the amount spent on influencer marketing within the next year, and 80% forecast to spend at least 10% of their marketing budget on it’ (Haenlein, et al 2020). This clearly has the desired effect on millennials and Generation Z, who are more likely to purchase a product or service if it’s promoted and endorsed by an ‘admired and respected person’.


However, whilst younger people are adept at discerning the artifice of traditional advertisements, influencer marketing can be more deceitful than imagined. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces rules and guidelines to protect consumers, which includes disclosure agreements, i.e. prompting influencers to reveal their relationship with the brand. The FTC guidelines are fairly vague, so even writing ‘#Ad’ suffices as proper disclosure; however, this is often placed discreetly within the post, and therefore missed by their followers. Whilst these influencers can be fined for not properly disclosing sponsorship, because there are so many posts within the Wild West of the internet, murky advertisements can be missed. One study found that 93% of influencer sponsorships are undisclosed, and therefore violate FTC guidelines.

Social Media Giveaway

Social Media Giveaway

FTC fines are not the only possible consequences of influencer marketing. Their audiences want relatability and authenticity, which can be difficult to maintain after numerous brand deals and sponsorships. Even if the audience accepts that their favourite celebrity is shilling a product to them, there is the expectation that the company they’re partnering with should align with the influencer’s values.


‘Understanding influencer marketing: The role of congruence between influencers, products and consumers’ gives the example of an Instagram influencer who partnered with Volvo to promote a toxic-free car cleaner. Her followers resented this endorsement, as it appeared forced and performative; this eco-friendly, sustainable message was incongruous to her usual jet-setting, travel-related content. Not only did this partnership backfire, wasting money for Volvo, the consequences may have also extended to a loss of followers for the influencer because she’d broken their trust.


Influencer marketing is not as straightforward as it may seem. Something as artificial as product marketing must still be perceived as authentic and genuine. Once an influencer grows and accepts more sponsorships, it’s likely that their followers will realise that they’ve become simply a target demographic. The ‘I’m just like you’ mentality could come crashing down. Whether this happens before the FTC cracks down on undisclosed partnerships remains to be seen.

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