The life of an Instagram influencer is glam - until the 'likes' stop coming

21 October 2018 - 00:00 By REA KHOABANE
L'Oréal fired black transgender model Munroe Bergdorf after she posted some controversial tweets about white privilege.
L'Oréal fired black transgender model Munroe Bergdorf after she posted some controversial tweets about white privilege.
Image: Instagram/Munroebergdorf

They populate social media with their fulfilling lives, expensive shoes and exotic holidays. But what effect does the pressure of this 24/7 perfection have on those who are paid to create it?

Life on Instagram is always beautiful for social influencers who are trying to attract brands to sponsor them, but in the process they become bland ambassadors instead. True thoughts and honest opinions have to be suppressed and concealed.

Zoe Msutwana, founder of Guide to Celebrity, a website that aims to "inform, educate and highlight the behind-the-scenes action of celebrity brand alignments", says the strategy of using influencers to market brands is founded on authenticity.

Msutwana says brands and influencers tend to forget that the consumer is diverse.

"While the need to appeal to the inspirational market is great, there is something quite special about being relatable.

"We need an environment that encourages people to, at least, honour their voices."

She says brand ambassadors should align only with products with which they share similar values.

"If you make everything about money, you run the risk of career burnout and you become easily replaceable. If we're being honest, no-one has ever become memorable for being bland."

Clinical psychologist Hlengiwe Zwane agrees that promoting a brand purely for money can affect people negatively.

"Accepting business that's against their values leaves them confused and anxious, which makes them unable to function in the real world.

"And when they don't get the 'likes' then they question their self worth."

Brand specialist Jay Badza Founder says he looks for influencers with their own opinions.

Bronwyn Williams of Flux Trends says many social media influencers shy away from giving an honest opinion, and this has resulted in "fake positivity".

"Fake positivity may result in short-term wins but in the long run only authenticity will win out."

She says consumers are not stupid, they see through fake reviews and "shameless influence-whoring".

"This has resulted in influencers having a false incentive to inflate their follower numbers using bots or even paying for likes and follows from 'click farms' in order to land lucrative brand deals.

Consumers are not stupid, they see through fake reviews and 'shameless influence-whoring'

"Influencers who fill their feeds with mindless promotional punts soon lose their audience," says Williams.

Last year, L'Oréal fired black transgender model Munroe Bergdorf after she posted some controversial tweets about white privilege.

"It was a bad PR move on L'Oréal's part, mainly because it should never have hired an openly controversial, outspoken ambassador if it wanted to maintain a safe brand position," says Williams.

"The L'Oréal fiasco didn't end there; they made the same mistake shortly afterwards when they hired a Muslim spokesperson, Amena Khan, and then fired her for anti-Israel tweets.

"If you are going to pick religious representation for your brand, make sure you are sure of your choice. No company can be all things to all people," says Williams.

Amena Khan was fired by L'Oréal after she posted anti-Israel tweets.
Amena Khan was fired by L'Oréal after she posted anti-Israel tweets.
Image: Instagram / Amenakhan

Some brands consciously work with controversial influencers. For instance, Nike has chosen American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick as its brand ambassador.

The 30-year-old American had protested against racial injustice and police brutality by kneeling during the US national anthem at games. Critics hit out at the deal, using the hashtag #JustBurnIt.

Critics burnt Nike trainers and clothing in protest at Nike's choice. However, the sportswear giant also received plenty of support.

A Twitter user countered: "To everyone who is planning to #JustBurnIt, might I suggest you donate your @Nike merch[andise] instead? Plenty of people in need, including vets and families of active duty military, would be more than grateful to wear it. #JustDoIt."

Williams says that this "brand activism" is a risky yet also a potentially rewarding strategy that will draw a company's true brand citizens closer, "provided you pick the right cause".



Two years ago Colin Kaepernick sat down during the US national anthem before a pre-season game, afterwards telling reporters: "I'm not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting away with murder."


San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sits during the national anthem.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sits during the national anthem.
Image: John Hefti-USA TODAY/Reuters

In the final pre-season game, instead of sitting, he went down on one knee during the anthem, describing it as a sign of respect as well as a protest on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The gesture caught on with other National Football League (NFL) players but it aroused a furious response from the soon-to-be-elected president of the US, Donald Trump, who, once he was in power in 2017, called upon NFL team owners to fire players who followed Kaepernick's example.

Kaepernick was runner-up as Time's 2017 Person of the Year. Time noted that he was set to become the first star athlete since the Vietnam era to lose his career because of his beliefs.


Transgender model Munroe Bergdorf was fired by L'Oréal last August for making comments about systemic racism on social media.

Bergdorf was sacked after making the comments on Facebook in the wake of protests in Charlottesville in the US that left several people dead.

Bergdorf's Facebook post asked that white people become aware of any unconscious racism: "Most of ya'll don't even realise or refuse to acknowledge that your existence, privilege and success as a race is built on the backs, blood and death of people of colour. Your entire existence is drenched in racism."

Bergdorf said of the L'Oréal racism row: "It puzzles me that my views are considered extreme." In a clever marketing strategy, British cosmetics company Illamasqua announced it had signed on Bergdorf to front its new campaign based around gender fluidity.


Just days into her role, the British Muslim model quit L'Oréal's campaign after right-wing media outlets published tweets from 2014 in which she criticised Israel's war in Gaza.

Amena Khan had become L'Oréal's only hijab-wearing model to front its hair-care campaign less than a week before.

Fashion bloggers and fans on Twitter had lauded L'Oréal's inclusion of Khan, but racists and Islamophobes sent her abuse on social media.

The story was picked up by far-Right social media activists, and Khan announced her resignation over the controversy: "I deeply regret the content of the tweets I made in 2014, and sincerely apologise for the upset and hurt that they have caused."

Khan's 2014 tweets lamented the killing of Palestinians and the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, and praised world leaders who had spoken out against Israel.