For artists, selling out used to be a death sentence. It could cause a shift from devoted fans to pitchfork protesters, like when Nirvana signed with major label DGC or Bob Dylan went electric. Merriam-Webster’s second verbal definition for “sell-out” reads, “to betray one’s cause or associates especially for personal gain.” But what does that mean in 2020?
Thanks to the massive rise of social media, everyday people can now easily become brand advertisers. Anyone with even a minor following has the potential to promote a product and in turn get a monetary benefit in the form of physical products, discounts, or cash. This is where the term “influencer” comes from—it refers to someone who has the power to affect others’ purchasing decisions because of their authority, knowledge, position, or relationship with their audience. But what exactly are they influencing?
There seem to be two sides to the influencer argument. On one end, it’s brought a more contemporary spin to the term “self-made,” enabling anyone to make a primary or extra stream of income through their social media efforts. On the other hand, there seems to be very little research or care as to whether the brand one is promoting has their best interest or values in mind, as well as that of their followers.
Take, for example, how influencers and celebrities alike have continued to promote and increase fast fashion. According to the Fashion Retail Academy, 54% of people believe influencers have at least partly caused an increase in fast fashion, including 73% of those in the 18-24 age range. In 2019, the mega fast-fashion brand Fashion Nova spent more than $40 million on “influencer marketing.” This same brand was the subject of controversy at the end of 2019 when The New York Times published a report on illegally underpaid factory workers and stolen clothing designs from the likes of Versace and Kim Kardashian, as well as other damning information. And yet, the incentive to become a #NovaBabe causes this information to be overlooked as their sales keep increasing.
Fans once saw their favorite artists embracing big business as a moral breach—an act of hypocrisy, as what they preached in their work was compromised by the prospects of economic gain and broader exposure. Some see influencing as a proper reward for those they love and admire—artists can be compensated for their efforts while enabling their work to reach a larger audience than they may not have otherwise. Others consider influencing a complete sacrifice of moral integrity and authenticity.
In terms of music, the debate of selling out began to dissolve in 1999 with the rise of Napster, a first-of-its-kind internet software that allowed users to share audio files, or songs, as MP3s. Artists began to need economic assistance for their efforts with the decline of album sales, a dilemma that has only increased with the popularization of streaming services.
With the end of the common use of “sell-out” as a derogatory term, the ethical concerns it stood for faded as well. For the general public, or the 176 million people that follow Kylie Jenner on Instagram, being the face of a brand is considered attractive and desirable; in other words, it symbolizes a person has “made it.” This logic indicates how late-stage capitalism has once again demonstrated one of its greatest defenses: to have the people not only defend the system, but aspire to work for it.
All this being said, there are certainly examples of sustainable, cruelty-free products that are being promoted on social media, and influencers who do use and research products before giving their seal of approval. Brands like Reformation, Levi’s, Pact, and Everlane have utilized the influencer format while still maintaining ethical and transparent practices. It’s certainly possible to use the social media-influencer dynamic in a positive and impactful way, as there can be benefits for both brands and social-media users without taking advantage of influencer-follower relationships or normalizing harmful policies.
When it comes to social media, power is given to the followers as to who or what becomes popular. If a value is put on ethical and moral transparency, then unethical promoters—or the contemporary sell-out—will have an increasingly small space, taking the power away from those that primarily seek personal and economic gain. Though it may be idealistic, consumption awareness and informed influencers could lead to improved products, as well as an improved environment and better treatment of workers. Thinking twice about what Instagram caption is ended with “#ad” might not just benefit the individual, but the world.
By Johanna Sommer
Illustration by Alia Wilhelm for Vice