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At one time, social media influencer programs seemed to be the future of social media marketing. Get a product into the hands of a top celebrity or Internet personality with hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, and the product will practically sell itself, right? Who can resist, for example, when someone like Kim Kardashian is sharing her latest beauty secret, or when a prominent actor or sports celebrity is hawking a new product?
But now we’re starting to see the shady side of social media influencer programs. Brands have gone too far with these programs, often disguising the fact that they are advertisements at all. (A big no-no in the digital marketing world). And, given the amount of money at stake, many influencers are all too willing to promote a product, a service or an experience without doing any real due diligence. Just Google “Fyre Festival” to get an idea of how social media influencer programs can go really, really wrong.
The curious case of Philip Morris
Along the way, social media influencer programs have also been caught up in some significant ethical controversies. Recently, for example, tobacco and cigarette Philip Morris suspended a social media campaign for its new IQOS (“I Quit Ordinary Smoking”) vaping devices. Despite pledging that it would never, ever, ever market these devices to teens and young adults, guess what? It turns out that Philip Morris was partnering with young social media influencers around the world to portray the IQOS e-cigarette as cool, hip and sexy.
The good news, if there is any, is that Philip Morris was at least requiring these young social media influencers (including beautiful actresses and celebrities in places like Japan and Romania) to use the hashtag #IQOSambassador with every new Instagram post. Alongside a picture of a glamorous, seductive woman holding an IQOS, you could also find hashtags like #PaidAd, #Ad and #NotRiskFree. OK, that’s great, but the damage has already been done, right? Once you’ve seen an image of a sexy, barely clad woman in a cloud of vapor, can you ever “un-see” it?
Those hashtags, ultimately, became the downfall of the social media influencer program. Reuters started digging around, and found that these posts were worldwide in nature. And they found that the same types of people – young, attractive, hip – were always in the social media posts. This, despite the fact, that Philip Morris promised federal regulators at the U.S. FDA that it would only market the product to an older, mature audience of former cigarette smokers.
Controlling and regulating social media influencers
Of course, there is no state or federal law that specifically addresses the use of social media influencers. If anything, the regulation of these programs would be the responsibility of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which regulates unfair and deceptive advertising practices.
But even if the use of influencer programs are not regulated, there should be some clear ethical guidelines for companies to follow. Companies should bear responsibility for making sure that they are not pitching products to the wrong people using social media. And that means all companies, if they do not have a social media policy already in place, should establish one immediately. And, right within that policy, they should clearly spell out the appropriate uses for social media influencers as part of a broader digital marketing strategy.