Date of Submission: May 2021
As a social enterprise, VoiceBox introduces organisations to the young people whose voices they need – and helps them make better products and services together. Everything we do is led by young people, for young people.
Often, young people are having conversations on their own about the exact topics these organisations want to understand. These conversations happen in unique ways, in various digital spaces – but they often aren’t seen or taken seriously.
We created VoiceBox to give young people’s voices a boost. We want to make sure young people have a seat at the table; creatively, politically, and commercially.
As a youth organisation we decided to focus our attention on what young people are saying about influencer culture. We mainly carried out our research through opinion-gathering through our own network of young people as well as on online platforms such as Reddit and Twitter. All statements have been anonymised to protect the identity of those involved.
What is influencer culture?
The use of the term “Influencer” is one that has become common in our everyday lives. Quite literally the term means anyone who has an influence over a group of people. However, the term is now most commonly used in the context of digital spaces and is often linked to consumerism. In fact, in our conversations with young people they almost always included the aspect of having a large social media following as a criteria for someone to be considered a modern day ‘influencer’.
“An influencer is someone on social media that has a large following and can easily have an impact on the way people think.”
“Influencers are people with a lot of followers that share their lives on the internet. Influence culture surrounds people that follow influencers in order to try to make their lives as similar to the influencers as possible.”
Is influencer culture different now than it was in the past?
Based on our conversations with young people it seems that many people believed that influencer culture itself is not a new phenomenon, but it has evolved over the years, so the meaning of influencer culture in today's world is different than what it was in the past. Today’s influencers use their online presence to impact the thoughts and actions of others, whether that be ideas about politics, social norms, trends or (most commonly) products.
Some argued that the phenomenon of influencer culture has always been happening through people like celebrities and politicians.
“Influencer is just a modern-day buzzword for celebrity. Let's get real here, seeing Jake Paul advertising something is no different to me than seeing Bruce Willis advertise an energy drink or Fred Flintstone advertise Camel cigarettes only to advertise cereal 2 minutes later. Sure you can argue that an internet influencer is not the same as an actor, but at the end of the day what they do as a job doesn't matter, it's the fact that their popularity is used for advertising products and pushing agendas for money.”
Others argued that while “influencing” is a phenomenon that has been present in the past through people like celebrities, influencers these days are more often “common people” - those who have risen to fame through means that most people have access to, such as posting content to their social media platforms. And if anything, their relatability makes it easier for them to influence their followers and to have their messaging positively received because they are seen as people similar to the general population rather than “out of reach” celebrities. They ‘humanize’ the companies that they are promoting.
“These influencers are supposed to be relatable. That's their brand. They are the new celebrities, in an era where expressing yourself has become more common than ever before.”
One idea that came up repeatedly when talking to young people about influencer culture was that influencers primarily fit the role of entertainers. It was argued that while people of older generations might find the things that young influencers do for living, such as playing video games, performing skits or making commentary videos, a waste of time, they are providing entertainment, like any other celebrity, and therefore it is a worthwhile endeavour.
“Streaming is a valid form of income. I don't understand how something that is making someone money and bringing joy to a lot of people is "not doing anything productive".
Other than promoting products influencers often spread messages about their political and social views. Some influencers use their power to raise money for charitable organisations and to bring issues to light that might not have gotten much awareness otherwise. For example, Jameela Jamil uses her influence to speak out about body positivity and supermodel Bella Hadid sold t-shirts to raise money for Feeding America
“The YouTube channels I used to watch as a child have currently raised over $20m for charity which encouraged me as a kid to do some charity initiatives.”
Some young people think that influencers have had a negative impact on popular culture as they suggest that it has contributed to a more narcissistic society. Others raised the issue of the impacts that it has on the mental health of the audience especially when content is altered to look “perfect”. Influencers sometimes use their power to promote unattainable beauty standards. Additionally, there have been instances of influencers promoting potentially harmful products such as diet shakes and other weight loss products.
“I believe it has impacted society quite negatively, social media and influencing has created this idea of how society needs to be or how one needs to be. I think it creates these unachievable standards for people - heavily affecting their mental health.”
Whether or not influencer culture has impacted popular culture for the better there is no doubt that it has had an impact.
In almost every conversation we had with young people there was a connection made between influencers and consumerism. The two are strongly linked as many influencers make their money through promoting products and services. They monetize their influence through providing “exposure” to a company.
Even some content creators (particularly on YouTube) who didn’t directly promote products through their content before, are now doing brand deals since the “adpocalypse”. The adpocalypse is a term used to describe the sweeping policy changes enacted by YouTube that caused the demonetization of many videos, meaning creators could no longer make money off of the ad breaks in their videos. Because many creators were finding it difficult to monetize their videos through ads generated by YouTube, there was a significant increase in the number of creators turning to doing their own brand deals to keep making money off their content. 
With more people spending time online due to the pandemic, it seems that influencer marketing is more important than ever. Young people seem to have mixed feelings about whether or not influencer marketing is a positive thing. For some, they would prefer to see the targeted ads from people they enjoy following rather than the seemingly random stream of ads that they would get bombarded with through more traditional means of advertising.
“We watch way fewer commercials now. Sure influencers push products. But they're usually well targeted. You know what I'm not doing? Watching endless commercials for car insurance, prescription medications, crappy lawyers, and fast food.”
However, there are many young people who are averse to the amount of advertising that they are being presented with, especially from people who they follow simply for entertainment.
“it's become so much background noise... ads on every screen, every flat surface in cities. We barely noticed when we became them.”
“Call them [influencers] what they are - advertisers.”
Some brought up the point that media and tech companies are particularly to blame for the rise in influencer culture as they feel influencer culture is continuing to be rewarded.
“The idea of influencers is being pushed heavily by the media as it aids marketing. Hey, these people are literally just representative target groups to sell products better. They are an advert....it's weird that we have accepted walking adverts as entertainers.”
“Marketing and advertising companies invest billions into neuroscience to be able to understand how our minds work at a subconscious level. It's like considering humans the problem if they can't survive a gunshot. Without taking into consideration that aforementioned gunshot was designed exactly in a way to be damaging to them. At the end of the day, we are the victims of marketing. We shouldn't blame the victims, but instead stop the perpetrators.”
Others didn’t take issue with the amount of advertising that was being done by influencers, but rather how companies were ‘preying’ on people’s (particularly young people’s) desire to be famous by providing little to no monetary compensation.
“It’s so clever because they’re essentially advertising these products for free. I mean I knew a girl who did a shampoo commercial in her teens. She earned about $60k for that one commercial. Now she pumps out loads of content for various companies and doesn’t make anywhere near as much. And none of the companies she advertises for use her in any type of mass marketing like tv or print. It’s such a brilliant marketing strategy. Reach thousands. Pay peanuts.”
“So many influencers I know do product promotion for a company with only sample products as compensation.”
“The problem isn't the influencers, it's the advertisement industry.”
Whether or not influencer culture has always been around, it is clear that it is now a large part of young people’s everyday lives. While some believe that influencers are adding to a narcissistic culture, others find value and entertainment in the content they produce. It seems that the idea that influencers can use advertising as a way to make a career out of creating their content is a positive thing in most young people’s eyes, as many of their favourite influencers/content creators partake in brand deals. However, with approximately 95% of young people in the UK accessing social media on a daily basis, it is important for them to know when they are being advertised to.
In recent years, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has cracked down more on influencers who were not making their ad deals transparent enough when posting about them on social platforms. They laid out rules and guidelines for influencers to advertise responsibly. Now we see an increase of creators who do paid promotions using the hashtag #ad or #sponsored on their posts as well as other methods of labelling their posts as a sponsorship.7 While these rules have increased the clarity of when users are being advertised to on social media, there are still many influencers who continue to hide the fact that their post is an advertisement. In ASA’s recent report on ad disclosure, they found that less than 50% of advertisement posts were properly disclosed as such in accordance with their guidelines, with Instagram stories being the main culprit for undisclosed ads.7
The Government and independent organizations should continue to lay out and enforce regulations surrounding influencer marketing. The guidelines should be clear and widely disseminated, so that content creators can easily follow them without confusion or “grey areas'' as to if a post was properly labelled. It is important for the users to know about the nuances of the guidelines as well, so that they know when a content creator is not following the guidelines and can therefore report the post. Social media platforms should encourage users to report posts that do not comply with the ad disclosure guidelines in order to maintain higher standards of responsible advertising on their platform.
 Viewpoint: Jameela Jamil on why airbrushing should be illegal, BBC News, 2018
 Bella Hadid teams up with Chrome Hearts for charity project, Arab News, 2020
 Reality TV stars auditioned to 'promote' poison diet drink on Instagram, BBC News, 2019
 Can YouTube Survive the Adpocalypse?, New York Magazine, 2017
 Influencer impact increasingly tied to diversity, study says, Marketing Dive, 2020
 Research on the Labelling of Influencer Advertising, Ipsos MORI, 2019
 Influencer Ad Disclosure on Social Media, ASA, 2021