J-Lo's Milan Fashion Week appearance shows we're in the era of inescapable sponcon

Sponcon is no longer just on our screens, but infiltrating our most exciting physical moments.

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On Friday afternoon, the world witnessed an iconic moment. At the end of Versace’s Milan Fashion Week runway show, Jennifer Lopez appeared in a reimagined version of the jungle dress she wore to the 2000 Grammy Awards – the one that, it came to light a day before the show, was the spur for Google to launch its Image Search. Already at the peak of a new J-Lo mania in the wake of her film Hustlers, the internet was full of people obsessively sharing, retweeting, and spamming clips and images of the dress.

On Saturday morning, Vogue uploaded a YouTube video telling the story of this runway idea; interviewing J-Lo about picking the original dress back in 2000, and how she and Donatella Versace’s intimate relationship sparked them to reimagine it, again, in 2019. Within 24 hours, the video had racked up over a million views, with more than 1,000 comments, most of which screeched about how J-Lo had killed it and noted the sweetness of the relationship between Donatella and the actress that made this beautiful moment a reality.

The things is, though, this wasn’t what happened. Yes, Donatella Versace re-designed the 2000 Grammy dress. Yes, J-Lo agreed to walk in it. But it would appear that the whole magical moment of two old friends coming together for the purposes of surprise and nostalgia was nothing more than Google-sponsored content, if Google's post to Instagram revealing it had “partnered” with Versace to recreate and update the moment is anything to go by.

While the J-Lo-Versace dress appearance turning out to be sponsored content for Google will disappoint those hoping for some more authentic magic, it’s hardly surprising for anyone who’s been half-awake for the better part of the past two years. What was once a marketing ploy used creatively and sparingly, sponcon has now solidified itself as our unrelenting, inescapable reality, and the latest stage of our capitalist nightmare.

Examples from the last few months alone are numerous and hellish in their own special ways – ranging from adults selling fake love stories to literal children pretending not to be schilling for products. In June, The Atlantic published a viral story about influencer and Goop executive Marissa Fuch’s dream wedding proposal, which took her around the western world in pursuit of the final ring. The whole thing was sponsored.

In March, Olivia Jade (a YouTuber with nearly 2 million subscribers and the daughter of Lori Loughlin, one of the actresses caught up in the university bribing scandal), gave a bizarre, Amazon-promoting interview to Teen Vogue about her university dorm room.

Last month, when YouTubers Jake Paul and Tana Mongeau got married, their wedding was sponsored by a CBD oil company, and guests were encouraged to tag Chandon and Belvedere in Insta pics of themselves holding the alcoholic products. Even just two weeks ago beloved seven-year-old YouTuber Ryan ToysReview was hit with a formal complaint to the Federal Trading Commission for allegedly sharing swathes of products without disclosing that they were ads.

Sponcon is infiltrating every enjoyable story on our timelines and regularly appearing behind the most suspect ones.

YouTube videos, Instagram stories, and Instagram posts are littered with the same sponcon language. “This IS an ad, but I would still tell you to get it even if it wasn’t!” “Yes, this is sponsored, but this stuff is FOR REAL.” We all gratefully, dutifully, follow our favourite Love Island cast members year after year, knowing we’ll almost solely be fed a diet of fast fashion partnerships, McDonald’s paid posting, and serums that inexplicably cost no money but the islander SWEARS they use.

The language of sponcon is so ubiquitous now that online we have become incredibly accepting of its presence. One writer at Dazed called the Versace-J-Lo moment “maybe the best Google sponcon ever”. It’s less that sponcon has become integrated or that we’ve become numb to it, but that we’ve simply accepted sponcon as an easy vehicle to fund the content we most desire.  

Even your faves are sponcon complicit. Rookie Mag founder Tavi Gevinson reflected on her own period of sponcon in her recent viral essay for the Cut; the year in which she was paid to live in and promote a particular apartment and its building, sharing regular Instagram posts and even hosting fan events on site. “For a year, I lent my face to promote a borrowed home,” she wrote, admitting that she hadn’t been entirely transparent at first that she was being paid to live there. “In those early days, at least among some of my followers, the idea of advertising that posed as organic only read as creepy… [But] the internet is full of people making free content in the hope of eventually being known enough to get sponsored or hired.” She does go on to note that the latter doesn’t excuse her lack of transparency.  

The reign of sponcon is inextricably linked to the rise of personal branding. Everyone with over 2,000 Instagram followers will be tempted to pursue #gifted meals and products, and the incentivisation on social media to become a brand rather than a person means that even more people are striving to reach at least micro-influencer status. That means more of your feed is more available for sponcon, with some even faking sponcon in order to attract real partnerships. Sponcon begets sponcon, and if you think you’re at saturation point now, prepare for sensory overload.

Watching J-Lo walk the Versace runway in that reimagined dress is still a thrill. Even with Donatella Versace’s painful interaction with a Google chatbot preceding her appearance, you are seeing an age-defying woman in a banging evening gown reviving one of the century’s most photographed events. You’re seeing a woman entering her prime, nodding to the past that made her, and it’s not wrong to find that genuine surprise exciting. But what’s wrong is to think that this wasn’t contrived in a brand partnership or to ignore that one of the world’s most powerful companies is the reason it exists. Without sponcon, this newly iconic moment never would have happened – and that is the throat-spearing pill we have to swallow.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.