Is the sun setting on shady influencers?

Image: Invision/AP/Amy Harris
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Whether it’s a beauty tutorial, a shot of sandals on a colorful tiled floor, or a succession of carefully curated hashtags, most of us have encountered the work of influencers. They are social-media marketers who use personal accounts on platforms like Instagram and YouTube to sell products and services, offering brands an “authentic” connection to a group of highly engaged followers.

As the market matures—$2 billion was spent on influencers last year—the brands that employ such personalities are wising up to some of the trade’s shadier practices, and taking steps to protect their investments as well as customers’ trust.

Unilever marketing chief Keith Weed said last week that the company, one of the world’s biggest ad spenders, would no longer work with influencers who pay for followers. Weed referred to influencers as a piece of the “digital supply chain” at Unilever, which owns brands that include Dove, Ben & Jerry’s, and Hellmann’s.

During a panel at Cannes Lions—a conference that brings thousands of media and marketing executives, creative directors, and advertising salespeople to the south of France—executives at eBay, Samsung, and Diageo shared similar concerns about influencers. ”We have to be smarter about tech as it grows smarter,” said Samsung CMO Marc Mathieu. “We have a collective responsibility in what we do with it.”

Just last week, Instagram, a primary platform for influencers, gave them a new outlet in IGTV, a video tool that will surely compete with the product reviews, video tutorials, and unboxing videos already popular on YouTube. But Instagram has also taken steps to eliminate influencers who game the system. In May, parent company Facebook suspended 10 large groups, also known as “Instagram pods,” that essentially served as swap meets for comments and likes that juice an influencer’s… influence on the platform. Instagram and brands that employ influencers are likewise cracking down (paywall) on bots that inflate follower and engagement figures, while the FTC has sent warning letters to influencers who fail to label sponsored content as such.

All that could be welcome news for good old-fashioned celebrity spokespeople. Also at Cannes Lions, PR magnate Richard Edelman suggested onstage to Gray’s Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo that influencers were powerful because of their “authenticity.” Celebrities, he said, had “very little trust” from consumers.

Pompeo scoffed. “The only version of [influencers] you’re getting is what they want you to see,” she said. “True” celebrities, she said, can’t hide their real lives behind flattering filters. “We get followed around.”