The beauty community is no stranger to petty spats and its safe to say it has its fair share of controversial characters. It seems that barely a week goes by without someone being called out for some sort of socially unacceptable behaviour (past or present). Friendships come and go and allegiances are switched as regularly as videos are updated. Yet beneath the soft-lighting, glitter and limited-edition palettes, there’s a billion-dollar industry that feeds on rivalry, bullying and exploitation. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than the latest drama between YouTube OG Tati Westbrook and her student turned master James Charles.
If you were born before 1995, you’re highly likely to not to know any social media beauty influencers by name much less care about any drama created by them. Dismissed by many as overpaid and entitled overgrown children it’s easy to underestimate how much of an effect they have on our own reality. Yet these people have managed to collectively build a billion dollar industry that rests on a symbiotic relationship between tech giants like Google, Facebook and Instagram and the legions of self styled beauty gurus. The latter provide digital content, in the case of YouTube its videos, which are often a mix of gossip, how to tutorials and “lifestyle porn” that engage their audiences and allow them to advertise beauty products and pretty much anything they fancy.
To appreciate why the online beauty community matters it’s important to understand how it was built. Before Facebook and YouTube, there was MySpace. It was the original platform that allowed ordinary people to create photographic and video digial content and share it with a global audience. In this brave new world, established brands and big name entertainers, josstled with ordinary young people for attention and the latter often won. Myspace, which still exists for anyone who cares, democratised influence and allowed audiences repieve fom formulaic over produced professional content. There was also the relatability factor and even more relevant to today, it allowed representation of under represented groups.
When Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram came on the scene, savvy content producers quickly established presence on these platforms as did early adopters. Again, the stars of these platforms were largely ordinary women and men (and children) who tirelessly produced fresh and engaging content which the tech companies rewarded by driving traffic to their channels/profiles. This allowed these creators to establish large audiences and much more importantly their followers tended to be people with shared interests hence creating a perfect advertising opportunity. These influencers are able to monetize through advertising revenue (in the case of YouTube, creators can monetize their channel and get paid for google ads displayed there). Additionally, they can directly advertise products as part of sponsorship opportunities (so a beauty influencer maybe paid by a brand to use their makeup or skincare in a tutorial), get paid a commision for products they use through affiliate links (Morphe is a great example of a brand that has grown through this) or for those higher up this can mean collaborations on products (think Morphe and almost any high profile influencer or Jackie Aina and Too Faced Born this way foundation) or they can even launch their own brand as in the case of YouTube OG Marlena Stell and Makeup Geek.
This brand-influncer relationship is simply an evolution of what brands have been doing with celebrities for a long time. Think Dior and Charlene Theron or Chanel or Michael Jordan and Nike back in the 90’s. The only difference here is transparency. The success of social media influencers is largely due to a perception of relatability and even honesty. They often have that person next door factor and more so becuse their content is usually about subjects of interest to their audience. So whereas an ad is easy to spot when placed duing a commercial break or when its nbetween articles in a maagazine, its much harder when the ad is actually integrated into the content. In a sense a lot of influencer sponsorship can be, and before the FTC stepped in a couple of years ago was, cleverly concealed within the content. In fact despite stricter rules about advertising, there still seems to be some resistance to playing ball with a significant number of sponsorships still being hidden.
Unfortunately this lack of transparency has some far reaching effects. It’s easy to laugh at the absurdity of Tati Westbrooke and James Charles falling over a (barely) disclosed ad he did for Sugar Bear Hair Vitamins (seen as a betrayal by his one time mentor Tati who launched her own Halo Beauty vitamin supplements), its exposed an under appreciated truth. The problem goes beyond undisclosed brand sponsorships. There are many ways in which influencers can promote a brand without it technically being sponsorship. For instance, an influencer looking to create a niche for themselves and widen their reach may provide positive (but not necessarily true) reviews as bait for future sponsorship from a brand or in anticipation of writing a book or launching a business based on their platform. Worse still, This isn’t just limited to makeup or skincare products. What happens when medical treatments (such as non surgical aesthetics, mood enhancers or weight loss supplements) are the product?