Consumer Culture’s Monopoly on the Influencer Industry

What does the content that creators are making say about society?

By Sabrina Nordlund

I hate to be all ‘back in my day’ but there once was a time when bloggers and YouTubers were more than just the new steam engine of the advertising industry. Nowadays I can hardly remember what that was like, as it seems like every other Instagram, blog post, or video popping up contains some sort of paid advertisement. I understand that this is how ‘creators’ make their income — the whole industry started that way when YouTube and AdSense started putting advertisements on their webpage, and suddenly a new kind of employment was born! The difference is that these advertisements are increasingly encroaching on the actual content that creators are making, and the creators are becoming less, well, creative, and becoming more business-minded marketers. Which is fine, to an extent, but I’m wondering how much we are spending our times just watching entertainment that has turned into a walking, talking advertisement.

One content creator that often finds herself in hot water, most recently for selling an overpriced advent calendar, is British YouTuber ‘Zoella,’ aka, Zoe Sugg. The criticisms around Zoella are generally misplaced and are more a result of the fact that anything with her name sells, even stories. The case of the advent calendar in particular, was the result of a markup on the part of the storefront seller, but because her name was on it, she took the heat.

My own issue (if you can call it that) with Zoella and many other content creators is a bit different. Using Zoe as an example: in each of her vlogs and videos, she includes links to all of the clothes she’s wearing, and if you pay enough attention you’ll notice that some are marked with an asterisk (*) to show that she gets paid for all of the purchases made from those links. This is essentially advertising, only when you’re watching the video, you don’t realize that it is. You might notice something she’s wearing that you like, go to the description to find the item, click the link and buy it, and she gets a kickback. My issue isn’t that she gets a kickback, but simply that the content creating industry is so interwoven with consumer culture that it’s almost impossible to look at them separately anymore. It’s almost impossible to distinguish between internet content, whether it be an Instagram post, a Youtube video, etc., and a paid for advertisement, and it seems like nobody’s trying to maintain a separation between the two.

The saving grace for many content creators is that they are unashamed consumers. They don’t pretend to be sustainably conscious, eco-friendly, or consider any of the ethical implications of their consumption, so at least they’re not hypocrites. At this point in time we know the implications of fast fashion, excess consumption, and plastic packaging for the environment. I have always excused my use of fast fashion stores like Zara and H&M because I simply cannot afford to buy ethically conscious clothes, and because they’re difficult for me to get my hands on. Suddenly something switched, and I realized my participation in content creating was inseparable from consumer culture, and nothing short of being totally complacent in the excess consumption it involves. If I’m watching haul videos from fast fashion retailers every week, I’m normalizing that culture, but it isn’t normal! No one needs a new wardrobe every season, not even people who are constantly on camera. Yet we support it (i.e. watch it) because shopping has now turned into a form of entertainment – even for those of us who aren’t directly spending our money.

On the other hand, when some content creators try to be a little more ethically conscious, more sustainable, or more health-focused, all of the critics roll in. Where are the critics on the haul videos that are 30 minutes long and roll around every season? Why do we care so much about some issues, but not others? Are some just a lot easier to care about, without really getting to the root of the problem?

Personally, I think it must be the latter, because even the radical factions who criticize certain aspects of consumer culture, (i.e. meat consumption: I’m looking at you, vegans), shamelessly participate in a culture that promotes exploitative industries. People want to be critical and I appreciate that, many vegans do tons of research and spend a lot of time considering their approach, but it’s still misguided. Although I am all for the end of animal cruelty at the expense of any industry, the issue with the food industry cannot solved with the end of meat consumption. This is an excellent example of how we’re fighting a problem, without really getting to the root of the problem.

The nature of capitalism, which is to say, the nature of our level of consumption and the way the food industry provides us with products to consume, dictates that the exploitation that would end on the meat side of things, must be made up for elsewhere. The end of meat consumption may bring about the end of animal cruelty in one specific way, but it won’t bring about the end of cruelty. In many cases, the agricultural industry – aka the industry that produces plant-based products – are outsourced. They’re produced in places with cheap labour, favourable trade agreements, and where major corporations can push their way into getting more land. This causes the depletion of resources for many foreign indigenous populations, so room can be made for larger US owned agricultural companies. This isn’t new, it has been happening for over a century in some cases.  While we might stop eating meat, that consumption will be replaced with more banana republics, except now there will be avocado republics and strawberry republics (Driscoll’s anyone?). The reality is that vegans, who self-identify as an alternative option to the influencer industry, and hold themselves on a moral high ground, are still simply contributing to consumer culture in a more covert and arguably more deceitful way. Worse yet, I don’t think they even realize it.

PC: Bradley Allen

Still, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we criticized things like fast fashion in the same way we criticize creators for overpriced advent calendars, or for what they’re eating, and what they’re doing with their time. If we, as an audience, say that we don’t want or need to see new things and new clothes in every new bit of content, would we be able to turn this around? Or is consumer culture so entrenched in our lifestyles that there’s nothing to be done? I would like to leave you on a hopeful note and say that because we created these lifestyles we have the power to change them, even by changing the influencer industry and what we’re watching, reading and engaging with. The problem is, I just don’t think that the people who can change this really care, but I hope they prove me wrong.