Under the bridge: a cautionary tale of trolls, brands and influencers

Brands have an ethical duty to protect the wellbeing of their partners

In July, once again like previous series, Love Island participants were subjected to death threats and abuse. One was even compared to Shrek by trolls, which is deeply ironic. Reality show contestants and influencers – and there’s clear crossover here – receive more than their fair share of ire from online bullies, as Amber Gill and Greg O'Shea are no doubt discovering.   

The UK government has called on social media platforms to clean up the digital ‘Wild West’, but it’s also up to all the influencers’ brand partners to step up and take on a duty of care for the person on the other side of the screen.  

Wave X – Remix Culture, UM’s most recent global social media tracker, revealed that only 4% of the 56,000 active internet users surveyed believed most of what influencers told them was true. Moreover, only a third (32%) of consumers said they actually liked the influencers they followed. Around a quarter (28%) admitted they followed conversations featuring trolls more avidly. 

Influencers put themselves in the sights of trolls every day and brand partnerships can compound the situation. If a brand tie-up feels unnatural or forced, there will invariably be consumer backlash. In fact, a third of internet users suggest advertising makes them less favourable towards influencers.

Some argue that it’s the job of the influencer to be more discerning in their approach to working with only the right brands. UFC star Conor McGregor learned this to his cost when he was accused of being a ‘sell-out’ for marketing a teeth-whitening brand earlier this year. McGregor was able to fight his way out of that corner, but the backlash could have ended the influencer career of a lesser known name.  The Kardashians may well be impervious too but that doesn’t mean consumers are naïve.

The onus is on brands too, though. They have an ethical duty to protect the wellbeing of their partners, just as they would with their own staff. They have to take a share of the blame for any negative personal fallout on their influencer partner. As we’ve seen, the outcomes of online bullying can be severe and sometimes even fatal.

So, if you’re working with influencers, bear that in mind. Don’t be too dictatorial with your brief and don’t ask partners to do anything they don’t feel comfortable with. Influencers each have a personal ‘brand’ so don’t expect them to post pre-prepared messages. After all, if it’s not delivered in a ‘natural’ way, consumers will see straight through it. Our research revealed that 81% disliked it when influencer posts were too ‘salesy’ or not in keeping with the individual’s persona. 

Brands also need to ensure their influencer partners understand exactly what they can and cannot do. The ASA states that "the brand normally has primary responsibility for complying with the rules". In other words, brands have an obligation to make sure their chosen influencers are aware of the rules too.

The ASA and ITV capitalised on Love Island mania, in advance of the winners being announced, by giving contestants leaving the villa a cheat sheet advising on the regulations for social ads. But this is the exception rather than the rule. A great many influencers have no formal training on how to conduct a marketing campaign or act as a brand ambassador.

Influencers are an easy target. They show a highly filtered representation of their lives, which might appear calculated to make others feel envious. Speaking at a recent event Wes Nelson, a 2018 Love Islander, said the artificiality of influencer culture doesn’t stem from a calculated effort to deceive. Rather, influencers want to convey only positive messages that will reflect well on themselves and their brand partners. Equally, he explained that any sign of negativity or weakness is simply fuel for the trolls.

Standing for or against something is the bedrock of positioning. If an influencer partner becomes a target for trolls, it makes sense for the brand to step in at the moments when they are most vulnerable. It’s a brand’s chance to be a hero, to stand up for their beliefs.  Remember that trolls need a mask of anonymity, whereas these situations offer a rare glimpse of the humanity behind the brand. 

Sophia Durrani is managing partner, strategy at media agency UM

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