Megan Cassidy explores the push for perfection online.
In the summer of 2019, mega-influencer Arii was at the top of her game. Having amassed 2.5m followers on Instagram, her grid was a candy-coloured dreamworld of perfectly distressed wooden backdrops and shiny lollipops. Her feed was a parade of heavily produced shots of untouched hotel breakfasts, roadside ‘candids’ and crop tops. The natural next step was for Arii to launch her own clothing line.
One would have presumed that a stylish young woman with millions of adoring followers who copied her every move was perfectly positioned to move units. But on May 17, Arii took to Instagram to share some difficult news with her fans. She had failed to sell 36 t-shirts (the number required to produce a line), and therefore the brand was shuttered before it even began. Lashing out at her own followers in an Instagram post, Arii wrote:[restrict]
‘I was getting such good feedback that people were gonna buy it. No one has kept their word.’
In her disbelief, she also called out her fellow influencer pals who had failed to promote her new brand, even though she had supported their projects in the past. She despaired at the work and planning that had gone into the brand launch, including ‘a huge photo studio’ and photographers and make-up artists flown in especially for the day.
But in her anger, she inadvertently unveiled the inherent flaws and unspoken rules of her profession. By condemning the Influencer community for not returning the support she had shown them, the embedded suggestion was; ‘I support your work, not because I like it, but so that I can cash in the favour later.’
She rails at the people who didn’t play by the rules, and instead of emphasising the thought that went into the product itself, highlights the work that went into the promotion of the product – the assumption being that someone with 2.5m followers and a perfect aesthetic is enough to sell 36 units of anything. Arii was banking on an expensive photoshoot, followers and favours doing the job. But people just didn’t like the clothes.
Arii’s rant was a rare and candid insight into the unpalatable side of influencer marketing, and was a jarring admission that life for Arii was not always perfect. The post, along with all evidence of the clothing brand’s existence, has now been deleted. Arii’s feed is ‘perfect’ once more, but the incident was a stark example of the growing disconnect between these picture-perfect influencers and their followers.
Twelve years ago when YouTube was in its infancy and influencer marketing was not a thing, out-of-work make-up artist Kandee Johnsonrandomly decided to pick up a camera and share some tips on ‘how to get perfect eyebrows’. It was a low-res, poorly set up video filmed on a cheap camera in her bedroom, but the content was great. Kandee knew what she was talking about, and the comments were flooded with requests for her to share details on the products she was using. I stumbled upon the video in a Google search and didn’t know I was witnessing the beginning of a phenomenon that would change the marketing world forever. But I soon found myself frantically searching YouTube for videos on how to cover acne and the best products for sensitive skin. I wanted to see real women documenting their honest experiences with the products. It was all about authenticity and candid recommendations, and my make-up bag is still to this day full of products I discovered during this ‘golden age’ of YouTube. The rise of the ‘online make-up guru’ was the antithesis of the high budget, super-produced TV and radio ads we were used to. This was real, the recommendations came from people we felt we could trust, and these experts had influence in the truest sense of the word. Media was finally disseminating, there were so many new voices and almost zero barriers to entry, and we were getting access to better information with which to inform our shopping choices.
But as with any market, supply eventually outweighs demand, and as the online world became more and more saturated, vanity metrics took over and the authenticity that was once at the core of the audience/influencer connection was shattered. A relationship that had been built on trust was now clouded by filters, expensive cameras, and ‘formulas’ for success.
We’ve now arrived at a point where we’ve all seen our favourite influencers break the fourth wall in desperation with posts like ‘The algorithm is hiding my content, please tell me if you can see this’ or the even more brazen; ‘please like my sponsored content so that I can keep doing this’.
People who make a living from leading seemingly perfect lives are frantically googling caption templates, engaging feed post ideas, and even paying serious money for content plans that will ‘resonate’ with their audience. The most popular online personalities are afraid to put a foot wrong in fear of losing a contract. Their content is produced to broadcast standards, their affiliation with the brands they push has diminished, and the ‘human’ aspect that drew us to follow them in the first place is completely lost behind an aesthetic.
What does all this mean for you and I, scrolling through our feeds when we’re having a bad day? Well, we naturally begin to compare our own internal experience (feelings of failure, inadequacy, etc) with someone else’s completely false external projection of perfection.
This is the commoditization of happiness, and it comes at a huge cost. Influencers who make a living on their aspirational lifestyle are understandably hesitant to share their negative experiences or show vulnerability. And although in our rational brains, we know that no one’s life is perfect all the time, comparison culture prevails, and we instinctively want to compete and/or align ourselves with the positive images we’re seeing. And thus the positive projections continue at the expense of a well-rounded human experience being represented online.
Robert Caldini coined the term ‘social proof’ in his 1984 book, Influence. It’s the idea that ‘people will conform in order to be liked by, similar to, or accepted by society’ and has been the cornerstone of marketing since day dot. Influencers with carefully curated feeds and fabulous lifestyles reinforce the capitalist idea that perfection is what makes money, and money in turn buys more perfection. It’s easy to see why it’s hard to break the cycle.
The good news is that the tide appears to be turning and a new wave of content creators with authentic voices and real brand affinity are coming to the fore. Creators like Rosanna Purcell are pushing back against the perfection paradox with unashamedly real content, and monetising it, too. Authentic content that reflects the genuine ups and downs of human experience is resonating more deeply, and content creators with small but engaged followings are prevailing. Brands are looking towards ‘micro-influencers’ and niche audiences in an attempt to foster real connections. Pictures of bloated bellies and difficult days are popping up more and more. Having a bad day is gradually being normalised, and now we, the end users, feel more accepting of these bad days without an added layer of shame for feeling down. As with any social trend, the brands are catching on and while many of these ‘raw’ posts are definitely not what would be traditionally considered ‘brand-safe’, the clever brands are following the audience to where they’re engaging more meaningfully. I personally wish Arii left her real feelings about the failed clothing brand on her Instagram feed. If nothing else, she probably would have flogged a few pity t-shirts.