A Sponsored Disaster Is A Sponsor Disaster

In this week's newsletter: How the Travis Scott x BetterHelp partnership could have better served those in need of therapy, instead of it reading like a big promotional opportunity. (And how fun some influencers made the NYC marathon!)

This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.

But first, BetterHelp yourself and your public image

Twitter / @TrueAnonPod

I want to address just how icky the BetterHelp x Travis Scott deal felt after the rapper’s concert left at least nine people dead.

You’ve seen the deluge of headlines and backlash tweets: People are disturbed that Scott partnered with BetterHelp to cover one month of therapy for “individuals affected by the November 5th tragedy at Astroworld Festival in Houston, Texas,” as the press release said. People called it “exploitative” and insidious behavior after a tragedy that victims and their families are still grappling with.

I don’t need to spell out why. Your gut reactions are telling you it’s icky. This moment has become a model example of what not to do as a famous person trying to repair their public image and shows the very hard line we need to draw for sponsorship opportunities. Even though Scott is footing the bill, it is still a partnership that may offer a lot of promotion and visibility for BetterHelp.

In many past newsletters, Stephanie and I have highlighted questionable sponcon, like the Amazon “thank you” baskets influencers promoted for frontline workers last year. (Amazon paid influencers to post gift packages of sponsored goods to “thank” the company’s delivery staff for all their hard work — although Amazon has long been accused of creating grueling and unsafe working conditions for its warehouse and delivery staff.)

I’m no public relations or marketing wiz, but in my view, seeking a brand partner shortly following a mass casualty disaster is inappropriate. BetterHelp, BTW, is a company that faced controversy in 2018. (Founder Alon Matas wrote a Medium post at the time, stating that while the company was unable to verify the complaints, he realized that some counseling interactions likely failed to meet expectations.)

The Astroworld PR move is also structured in a way that doesn’t quite center the victims. If Scott wanted to “assist those affected throughout their grieving and recovery process,” as his press release stated, I think he can do that more discreetly.

For one, he could provide a portal or website where people could submit their own therapy bills without going through BetterHelp specifically. That way he can let people decide if they want to acknowledge who paid, and it’d also allow them to choose how they want to pursue their own rehabilitation. This branded deal puts the spotlight brightest on BetterHelp and Scott, and leaves victims with limited options unless they pay themselves.

The deal also inspired others to share their own experiences with the company, including one Twitter user who posted screenshots reportedly showing their therapist responding to them mentioning suicidal thoughts with “oh.” (BetterHelp replied, calling the customer’s experience “totally unacceptable.”)

I reached out to the PR agency representing the Astroworld and BetterHelp partnership to ask about the backlash and the issues raised in people’s angry, viral tweets.

“A source close to Astro World,” as they wished to be identified by, said in a statement that it’s “unsettling that misinformation from social media chatter is being turned into headlines which could potentially deter those in need from seeking the proper mental health resources being offered.”

Scott is funding the month of free therapy, and users are not prompted for a credit card, the Astroworld source said. They also said Scott contacted BetterHelp “shortly following the tragedy as they are an incredible resource for many and have done similar partnerships in the past surrounding mass casualty events.”

After publishing this newsletter, a spokesperson for BetterHelp directed me to the Q&A portion of the company's website that states that "this is not a sponsorship or paid endorsement of any kind."

Other celebrities have paired up with BetterHelp before — such as Ariana Grande, who’s been outspoken about therapy, especially after the bombing at her Manchester concert in 2017 — but this instance is vastly different. Many lawsuits are directly implicating Scott in the tragedy at his recent concert, alleging that he incited or neglected the chaos of his crowds.

A deal that appears to be intended, at least in part, to rehab Scott’s tarnished reputation is spinning out worse for everyone involved.

I hope this serves as an example of how important it is to exercise a bit of discipline, or awareness, or simply take a pause, when a nightmare situation is unfolding publicly. Scott, his team, and other companies are right to help and offer their many resources, but this scramble at a BetterHelp deal reads like no one asked: Who is this ultimately serving?

The NYC Marathon has become a hotbed for influencer content

TikTok / @seenevis

Forgive me for a harsh transition, but I smiled so much at the many TikToks people took of (mostly Bachelor Nation) influencers running the NYC Marathon this past weekend.

Their presence became an unlikely fun way into an annual event that I find to be anything but. (I cheered on friends and runners at the Chicago Marathon this year, which was exhausting enough. Just kidding. I’m not.)

Bachelor and Bachelorette stars like Tayshia Adams, Zac Clark, Tyler Cameron, Matt James, Dustin Kendrick, and Peter Weber were spotted running and completing the 26-mile stunt. People also caught Robin Arzón of Peloton Nation (it was her 27th, a wild feat!). People showed up to watch the marathon and film TikToks like it was a C-list red carpet event.

People filmed these influencers giving fans high-fives and hugging loved ones. The interactions really became a strangely endearing offline-to-online event, a sweet way that accessible famous people can make an annual event more fun.

Hopefully it doesn't overshadow the many nonfamous people who run every year. Hey, if it brings out more people to cheer more runners on, right?

Until next time,

Tanya