Bella Hadid is in heaven. Surrounded by her closest friends and fellow models, she is sitting on the clean, soft sand of a Bahamas beach, staring into the camera. Palm trees peek through the cool white sheet that is shading the 2016 Model of the Year – and although she refuses to smile, we know that she is happy. How? Her Instagram post about this moment says so. “Heaven,” Hadid captions the image on 11 December 2016, complete with a cat emoji.
Lamaan El Gallal is in hell. Surrounded by hungry and thirsty people who have begun to faint, the North Eastern University student picks up her camera and points it around the airport lounge in which she is trapped. The capped heads of security guards are visible just above the crowds – and although we cannot see Gallal’s face, we know she isn’t happy. “We have been locked indoors with no air NO FOOD and NO water,” reads the caption on her tweet, posted 28 April, sans emoji.
— Lamaan (@LamaanGallal) April 28, 2017
Hadid and Gallal are both attendees of the same event. Sort of. Five months ago, Hadid – along with a handful of other Instagram-famous models – was invited to give feedback on a brand new luxury event in the Bahamas. In return for free flights and accommodation, all Hadid had to do was share images of her trip on social media. With the help of her 12.5 million Instagram followers, the model instantly shed light on a then-relatively unheard of musical festival called Fyre.
You’ve heard of Fyre Festival now.
Organised by the rapper Ja Rule, Fyre Festival was billed as a “once-in-a-lifetime” event with luxury food and accommodation. Attendees, who paid anything from $500 to $100,000 for the festival, were instead met with bread and cheese, disaster relief tents, and cancelled musical acts when they arrived last weekend.
— Trevor DeHaas (@trev4president) April 28, 2017
On social media, many gleefully celebrated the comeuppance of what they assumed were rich, spoilt millennials who paid $12,000 to attend a festival. Yet although headlines initially focussed on this price tag, media interviews thus far reveal that many – if not most – of this weekend’s revellers in fact bought the “early bird” ticket for $500. Although Ja Rule – and his Fyre co-founder Billy McFarland – are now facing a $100 million lawsuit, it is mostly not “rich kids” who are suffering. Many of the richest millennials – those who had an instrumental hand in promoting the festival to others – are thus far avoiding repercussions.
I paid for something I wanted to do by working hard and saving money accordingly. I’m not privileged, I’m hard working and not an idiot. https://t.co/TIkPFHxTs1
— dylan (@DylanACOP) April 30, 2017
“What if we reimagined what it means to attend a musical festival?” reads an ironically prophetic leaked document outlining Fyre Festival’s business plan. The document reveals that the company recruited over 400 influential social media users – which they call “Fyre Starters” – to promote the festival, including models Emily Ratajkowski and Kendall Jenner. Allegedly, Jenner was paid $250,000 for a single promotional post. According to Fyre (which is also an app), these posts reached over 300 million people.
If Kendall Jenner told you to jump off a bridge, would you do it? Marketers know the answer is yes. Over the last few years, “influencer marketing” has overtaken the advertising world. Brands pay large sums to celebrities, YouTubers, bloggers, and the simply Instagram-famous to promote their products on social media. In response, the British Advertising Standards Authority and the American Federal Trade Commission have created new guidelines and laws requiring social media influencers to disclose when they are paid. Often they do so with a hashtag, #ad – short for “advertisement”.
— Chris Kardashian (@BaddieLambily) April 28, 2017
Jenner didn’t use the hashtag in her since-deleted post, and nor did most of the other “Fyre Starters” (of the models on Fyre’s December trip, it seems only Ratajkowski used #ad). By pretending to have an organic interest in the festival, celebrities convinced teenagers and young adults into parting with their money. In doing so, they are morally – if not legally – responsible for the Fyre Festival disaster. Yet with the click of a delete button and a few cancelled flights, none of them appear to have suffered.
So that’s the end of influencer marketing as a strategy, right? Wrong. Fyre Festival is, in fact, the ultimate example of just how powerful this type of advertising is. There were hundreds of warning signs about the event – from co-founder McFarland’s previous failed ventures to the fact the location was billed as a “private island” despite also being home to a Sandals resort – but many festival-goers ignored Google in the face of carefully crafted celebrity Instagram posts. A Twitter account, @FyreFraud, was one of the first to notice the luxury event was not as it seemed, tweeting on 29 March: “I’m telling you #FyreFestival is a fraud.”
— FyreFestivalFraud (@FyreFraud) March 29, 2017
Instead of freaking out over the event’s disorganisation, teenagers were assuaged by the Instagram famous. “I did not think that a team that made the beautiful trailers could flop on execution this hard,” wrote one festival-goer on Reddit – referring to the video that was promoted on influencers’ Instagram pages. The Fyre Festival debacle therefore conclusively proves both that influencer marketing works – and that it shouldn’t be allowed to.
After #fyrefestival I’m revamping my future business plan to take advantage of what appears to be a wondrously gullible generation
— LotzaHugz (@micethatroar) April 29, 2017
Some theorise that the models themselves were conned. In her semi-apology posted on (where else?) social media, Hadid wrote: “Even though this was not my project what so ever, nor was I informed about the production or process of the festival in any shape or form, I do know that it is has always been out of great intent, and they truly wanted all of us to have the time of our lives.” At once, the model is claiming that she knew nothing about the event and yet also was sincere in her trust of it. It doesn’t, therefore, seem as though Hadid was scammed, but rather that she didn’t care too much about what her name – or bikini body – was attached to.
— Bella Hadid (@bellahadid) April 29, 2017
Hopefully, the very public and very spectacular debacle that was Fyre Festival will inspire both celebrities and the general public to distrust influencer marketing. It is unlikely, however, to dissaude advertisers themselves. Fyre Festival is an example of inflencer marketing at its most successful. But it was the public who paid the price for its success.