Thousands of influencers post content online with one goal: getting a brand deal. It’s affirmation that they’ve “made it” as an influencer, that they’re interesting enough to be paid to post, and that content creation could be a job. It’s usually a good thing — until, of course, it blows up in your face.
It’s not clear to me why anyone involved in Shein’s recent PR campaign thought it was a good idea to send influencers on a free trip to try to beat the labor exploitation accusations that plague the company. There’s an unseriousness to sponsored content — the cheery, upbeat music, the approval process videos go through before they can be posted — that makes it an insufficient response to workers who say they’re subjected to illegally long workdays and withheld wages.
But that didn’t stop Shein from tapping a handful of creators to visit Guangzhou, China, for a multi-day guided tour of Shein factories and facilities, fancy dinners, and photo ops.
“I expected the facility to be so filled with people just slaving away, but I was actually pleasantly surprised that most of these things were robotic,” one influencer who went on the trip said in a video. “Everyone was just working like normal, like chill, sitting down. They weren’t even sweating.”
Shein got what it wanted, but the influencers quickly realized this wasn’t a typical brand deal — followers and strangers alike were furious over content that seemed to brush past widely reported troubles with the brand. The backlash was swift, primarily directed at a creator that goes by Dani DMC, an influencer with nearly 300,000 TikTok followers whose videos were reshared on Twitter. In a matter of a few days, content from the Shein trip was deleted, defensive responses shared (and then also deleted), and apologies issued.
It should be yet another good lesson for anyone trying to make money through content creation: brand deals will sometimes come back to bite you. And it’s often the individual content creator — not the advertiser — that gets the most heat while having the least amount of support resources.
The incentives to make ads for brands have never been higher. Fueled by breakaway stars like MrBeast, the D’Amelio sisters, and Alix Earle, young people the world over don’t just dream of creating a viral presence out of nothing — many of them live it. Acting like an influencer is so easy it doesn’t even feel like pretending; shilling products and services online to a following of a few hundred has become a tenet of being online.
The work of converting content creators into an army of micro-advertising firms is becoming increasingly streamlined and frictionless. Platforms like Instagram offer creator marketplaces where brands can find influencers to hire for sponsored content. And on TikTok, a new program encourages creators to submit branded content for a chance at making some cash if their video performs well, without guaranteed returns.
Making a living online can be tricky — for most content creators making shortform videos, the payout from the platforms themselves is paltry. Earnings from creator funds, which pay viral personalities out of a pool of money set aside, often come out to be just a few dollars for millions of views. Other rewards programs for shortform video that were introduced to compete with TikTok have now dried up. Apart from potentially lucrative ad revenue sharing programs, many creators rely on brand deals to pay the bills.
The eagerness to make content for brands — and for brands to tap popular creators — has repeatedly backfired. Influencers boosting crypto projects made thousands of dollars, only for projects to turn out to be a scam. Even Kim Kardashian paid a $1.26 million fine after sharing sponcon for a crypto token without properly disclosing it was an ad.
Last year, TikTok and Instagram were littered with sponsored content made for a little-known app called Nate, which claimed to use artificial intelligence to autocomplete online shopping transactions.
Fashion and lifestyle influencers earned thousands of dollars in shopping credits by getting followers to sign up for the app. But the “AI” reportedly ended up just being human workers in the Philippines — users’ checkout information was manually entered by strangers. And in December, Nate ran off with influencers’ earnings, abruptly suspending its influencer program. Creators who had been using and promoting the Nate app aired out their frustrations and announced they would no longer be using the service — in the end, they lost out on what they were promised.
It’s often the individual influencer who becomes the center of the maelstrom
When brand deals go awry, it’s often the individual influencer who becomes the center of the maelstrom, as was the case with the Shein image rehab trip and others. Last month, a different influencer came under fire for referencing a school shooting that happened at her university in a sponsored video for skincare company Bioré. The brand apologized, too, saying it reviews all influencer content but doesn’t “edit or censor” material creators submit. I’m less outraged that a young person who experienced a campus shooting would mention it when asked to create content about mental health. But if you work in marketing for a major brand and don’t see how this could cause problems for everyone involved, you are bad at your job. Content creators are responsible for what they put their name on, but it’s up to the brand to make sure they don’t look like a fool.
Even worse is when a brand partners with an influencer and throws them to the wolves when there’s a public response, as was the case when Bud Light partnered with trans creator Dylan Mulvaney. When Mulvaney was subjected to an onslaught of transphobic vitriol and attacks, Bud Light doubled down, putting marketing executives on leave. As recent as this week, Mulvaney said the company had not even reached out to her since the abuse began.
In hindsight, hiring a smattering of influencers to convince the public you are definitely not violating labor laws was a bad idea. But if it wasn’t this group of people, it would have been another. And without the traditional stopgaps to tell creators how to navigate deals — editors, advisors, or someone to put out the fires — the rest of us will have to keep enduring the ill-conceived sponcon and resulting public outrage cycle.