Beware social media ‘influencers’ who trade good reviews for free stuff, writes Stephen Jardine as he welcomes the global backlash sparked by an ice cream seller in Los Angeles, who has sworn neer to give free ice cream in exchange for publicity.
All good food reviewers live by one simple rule. They always pay their way. The best book a table anonymously and do everything possible to make their visit a fair representation of the experience offered by that restaurant. That is why we trust what they tell us.
At the other end of the scale are the new breed of Instagram influencers. Some take the same approach as traditional reviewers, posting their visit in an open, fair and honest way. Others are less scrupulous but they are now being served their just deserts.
This week Joe Nicchi went viral in a way Instagram influncers can only dream about. However Joe isn’t a millennial with a shiny new laptop. Instead he runs a popular retro ice cream truck in Los Angeles. Sickened by endless approaches from so-called influencers eager to endorse his brand online in exchange for free ice cream, Joe decided to settle the matter for once and for all with his own instagram post.
“I will never give you a free ice cream in exchange for a post,” he vowed. Instead, from now on, “influencers pay double”. It was a bold move in a city obsessed with image but as Joe pointed out, online likes don’t pay the bills.
His tactic paid off big time with messages of support from other business owners around the world. His social media following has shot up to the point where, ironically, he now has more followers than many of the Instagram effluencers who pestered him for freebies. For some big brands, a relationship with someone on Instagram who has a large following in their target market can be a useful marketing tool. Unfortunately small brands without the budget or need are also now being targetted by hucksters who buy fake followers from China and Russia and spend their days trawling the internet dangling meaningless exposure in exchange for free things.
Thankfully the world of Instagram influence is already starting to eat itself. Earlier this year a vegan raw food blogger with two million followers was branded a fake after a video caught her happily sitting down to eat a plate of fish. Last month we had the influencer who shared her apparently surprise engagement which was then shown to have been part of an elaborate marketing campaign to have her wedding paid for. On Instasham, much is not quite what it seems.
Ice cream Joe has been one of the first to break the culture of silence around all this but he won’t be the last. This week two UK wedding photographers shared online a remarkable exchange they’d had with an influencer seeking £5,000 worth of photography and video in exchange for endorsement. When they declined the opportunity, they were branded unprofessional and a lot worse.
At the end of the day, a few online narcissists seeking free ice cream or wedding photos should generate more pity than resentment. However there is something more worrying about all this. In a world where fake news is a growing problem, who we can trust and why we can trust them is more important than ever before. Your reputation is everything except when it can be bought.