This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.
Dear influencers, always sign a contract.
This week, I published a story about a company seemingly taking advantage of influencers and how informally parts of the industry are still run.
Ooh! Companion is an Australian-based sex toy company that was founded just a year ago, and much of its visibility and success has been thanks to its Instagram marketing. Influencers both small and large were poached to post sponcon and giveaways for the brand over the last year. From the outside, it looked to be a fairly smart and modern way to generate hype and revenue.
However, several influencers have come forward to say it was all rosy when reps at Ooh! Companion reached out to them to make a deal, but when it came down to getting paid, they were often ghosted or tirelessly handed off to different personnel for months on end. Some said they were only paid if they threatened legal action or outed the company publicly, and others still are owed money. Gabby Male, a 25-year-old fitness influencer with over 200,000 followers, estimates she’s still owed $7,000 for all the promotional work she’s done.
I spoke to two former employees who were in charge of scouting influencer talent who claimed the founder, Ethan Ban, had access to funds at the company. The two Ooh! employees were asked to find women creators who aligned with their brand could shill the company’s sex toys to hundreds of thousands of other women. But when creators came knocking for their checks, the former employees claimed they couldn’t authorize payment themselves. In dozens of emails and DMs some of these influencers sent me, Ooh! Companion would respond saying the company was experiencing “backend issues” or “issues with [the company’s] account.” The company would then go silent for weeks as influencers continued to follow up.
The former employees claimed Ban would sometimes intervene when influencers complained about not getting paid and used aliases of other employees they said didn’t actually work there.
“I was spending every day hassling him getting these girls paid,” one of the former employees, who asked to remain anonymous, told me. “My anxiety was through the roof; I was so stressed making sure these girls would get paid.”
There are more details in the story about the similar patterns and frustrations these influencers dealt with to chase down what was owed. One woman, Carly Compton, said she believed she and these other influencers were intentionally targeted by Ooh! Companion. “[Ethan] definitely focuses on a specific type of person,” Compton said. “A lot of influencers who had reached out to me are in the same realm as me — very body positive and focused on self-love.”
It also became apparent to me when reporting this out that it was the perfect ill-fated relationship between shoddily regulated industries: startups and influencers. Ooh! Companion was a new company still trying to establish itself and hoping people would blindly trust in its “women empowering” messaging; meanwhile, many influencers are still running their entire business themselves, being their own product, accountant, and publicist. The former Ooh! employees said there was a legal contract they had available for influencers to sign, but not every influencer signed one or asked to sign one. (One of the employees told me she only sent them out if an influencer asked. An influencer featured in the story told me she asked if they should sign a contract, but never got a response. She decided to move forward with the spon anyway.)
Much of the industry still operates on good-faith handshake deals over cheery emails or Instagram DMs. I imagine most of the time these deals are carried out and responsibly compensated, but when they’re not, influencers are left scrambling and feeling exploited and devalued.
It’s hard to imagine a company like Calvin Klein not finalizing a multimillion-dollar social media deal with influencers like the Kardashians without a ton of legalese and signatures. But it’s easy to imagine a mostly unknown startup cold-emailing a bunch of niche influencers with casual greetings like “Hey, want to work together?” and influencers responding optimistically, “Sure! Here’s my rate.”
This scandal revealed the huge disparities in how business is handled at the very top, with millions of dollars exchanged that’s then buffered between several official parties (marketing execs, managers, lawyers, accountants, etc.). Then smaller creators are forced to chase down a couple hundred or thousand dollars on their own without knowing if brands they’re working with even have an official accounting department to complain to.
At the end of my first interview with one of the anonymous employees who worked at Ooh!, I asked what influencers can learn from this mess. She said, point blank, “Make sure there is a legal contract.”
“It’s always a good idea to do 50/50: Get 50% before posting, and then 50% after payment,” she added.
It’s a cautionary tale with a lesson that extends far beyond this kind of work (freelance writing, I’m looking at you, too): Get things in official writing.
Even Chloe Ting, our resident ab queen, feels chased off of YouTube.
Australian fitness YouTuber Chloe Ting posted a surprisingly candid vlog last week titled, “I’ve had enough.” (Chloe has over 21 million subscribers for her at-home workouts and cultishly followed ab challenges. She rarely shares anything personal outside of her exercise and diet regimens.)
In the 15-minute video, Chloe said she’s thinking about “quitting YouTube once and for all” and that she’s been “burnt out for some time now.”
“The stress, the pressure, the hate — I don’t know if it’s worth it,” she said. “I feel like I’m walking on eggshells on YouTube. I have to watch every little thing I say. Like, something really simple like me enjoying chocolate … can turn into an eating disorder.”
She updated fans about two legal battles she’s fighting. One is against a fellow fitness guru who’s heavily criticized her fitness credibility and said she is “just a pretty face in yoga pants.” The other is against a media company that had allegedly written “defamatory” remarks about her, including that she had “no formal training” and that she has a body type that is “unattainable.”
Chloe defended herself, saying she’s worked very hard, physically and methodically, to gain her reputation as a fitness trainer and influencer. She also doesn’t believe she’s promoting a dangerous lifestyle on YouTube.
Where I usually do indict some of these moral issues in these newsletters, I’m not going to this time. I am no authority on fitness or dieting; to me, her workouts and lifestyle seem on par with what’s already out there. If you are an expert in the exercise and wellness space and have thoughts here, email me. There are also a lot of legal thistles around what’s being claimed and we’ll have to watch how defamation law handles them.
But I was struck by, and felt some authority to speak to, how much Chloe sounds like other YouTubers we’ve written about who are tapping in and out of the platform, trying to protect their privacy and mental health, and unsure if their careers are healthy and sustainable. But unlike the other YouTubers, who are mostly vloggers who share and overshare their personal lives, Chloe is a fitness guru! She posts ab workouts for a living. And even she is feeling the effect of the internet spiraling out of control.
Once again, reader, Chloe posts content about how to properly hold an ab plank. The fact that that can be the source of ire and controversy to the point that she is second-guessing her entire career says a lot about the state of social media — that we’re all wrestling for power and a chance to amplify our own voices on the internet to the point that we feel entitled to delegitimize someone’s entire livelihood in the process. If you’re looking for evidence, look no further than the comment section of this post, as well as those of any other story we’ve done on influencers, denouncing Chloe and other creators as not having a “real job.”
“It’s fine for people to have a negative opinion about me. This is not what this video is about,” Chloe said at the end of her vlog. That said, Chloe added that she wanted to use her channel to “finally be able to stand up for [her]self.”
I say plank on, Chloe. Plank on.
Until next time,