All about the hashtag experience

Once upon a time kids aspired to be doctors, scientists, inventors, lawyers, artists, actors. Now, many fantasise about being ‘influencers’. On their various social apps, they watch in awe as these millennials pose by infinity pools in swish villas, drape their honeyed limbs on yacht decks, sip champagne on private jets. The influencer’s life is that of endless hedonism enjoyed in abundant luxury. Their job is to subtly sell products. It is seductive.

The influencer’s life is also entirely manufactured. The seemingly spontaneous snapshots and selfies are meticulously staged, the images filtered and heavily photoshoped. Influencers don’t live this fantasy life; they have been shipped to exotic locations by companies eager to reach their tens of thousands of Instagram/Snapchat followers. And at the end of the assignment the influencer simply posts the approved content and hashtag from their host. And even though we are mostly aware that they are being bribed with the private jets and bottomless champagne flutes, that these are heavily scripted scenarios, it doesn’t appear to matter. In fact, it makes them more appealing (and yes you can draw a parallel with Trump & co.). We sure live in surreal times.

This sales narrative isn’t new of course – product placement has been around for a long time yet the waters muddy when real and fake news are put in the same swim lane, as I was to experience earlier this week on a press event centred solely around the influencers.

To be fair on the host company, this extravagant event was entirely the work of an independent agency with little or no understanding of the brand or its values. Instead the focus was on creating snapshots of ‘experiences’ that make good ‘content’ for social media. The subject in question is a car, and an excellent product, yet the three-day event was devoid of relevant information; there wasn’t a press talk and it involved minimum engagement with the car itself! Instead, we were subjected to a host of what the organisers repeated over and over again as ‘amazing experiences’ – crude, irrelevant brand associations replete with a random celebrity endorsement to help drive traffic.

It is tempting for companies to chase numbers, feel satisfied that a social post by an influencer will reach hundreds of thousands – even though in the case of a car, it’s hard to gauge if these hundreds of thousands are even at a driving age. It raises a host of questions too. Morally, should brands encourage young people to envy a vacuous life that doesn’t even exist? Then, on a more basic level, it feels simply wrong to host someone with no background in journalism on a press event. Perhaps companies should question this endorsement of fake news. Surely brands should be confident enough to rely on professional writers to critique their goods.

As journalists we are fully aware that we play a role in promoting products, organisations and movements, but crucially we offer an informed and independent critique. It could be said that influencers are nothing more than unbridled co-opted advertisers, engaged in promoting a product. That in itself is fine, but to mix the two is wrong.

On the final hours of the event, following a push from the car company’s representatives who seemed equally bemused by the spectacle of the last few days, I got to take a car away and on the road where the product, the drive, the scenery, became the amazing experience …. or according to the agency #ExperienceAmazing.