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The J.Crew Bankruptcy Has Exposed A Hard Truth About The Influencer Economy

This week's newsletter: Curvy Wife Guy's wife @sassyredlipstick said she'll no longer follow through with her J.Crew promo content, and the unique conflict fans feel over C-list celebrities breaking quarantine orders to get together.

Posted on May 8, 2020, at 8:01 a.m. ET

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Sorry you’re bankrupt, J.Crew, but I need my swipe-ups

The news this week that the parent company of beloved preppy brand J.Crew and its hip millennial sister, Madewell, had filed for bankruptcy led to an outpouring of sadness from fans across social media. It also led to a stark revelation about the influencer economy being exposed in a way I haven’t quite seen before.

On Tuesday, influencer Sarah Tripp posted an interesting announcement. Sarah is a fashion blogger, but she’s maybe best known as the “curvy wife” of Robbie Tripp, who infamously went viral a few years ago for his devotion to her “thick thighs” and “big booty.”

Sarah had promised her fans a J.Crew “try-on haul.” If you’re unfamiliar, a try-on haul is when influencers try on clothing on their Instagram stories to recommend pieces to their followers. The gist is: If you like and trust the blogger, you can see how said clothing looks on a real person and follow their recommendations. The blogger also links to the item, so you can buy it straight from their Instagram stories. This has become extremely lucrative for bloggers over the past few years thanks to affiliate links. Through a program called rewardStyle and its app LiketoKnow.it, influencers partner with brands to take a commission every time a follower buys an item of clothing from their recommendation.

The interesting thing is that even though rewardStyle and these affiliate links are a huge factor in how influencers make money (rewardStyle says it drives $1 billion in annual online sales), some influencers are more forthright about it than others are. Many bloggers will never mention they are getting kickbacks from their recommendations. And a surprising number of consumers don’t even realize that personalities are getting paid to share things with them.

Sarah drew back the curtain on this whole economy pretty starkly, and in a way you rarely see on Instagram. She announced she was canceling her planned J.Crew try-on haul because she would no longer get a commission from her links. A spokesperson for rewardStyle told BuzzFeed News it could not comment on specific relationships with its partners, but screenshots leaked on Instagram of emails from the company and Sarah show the partnership was canceled due to the bankruptcy filing.

“[J.Crew] filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy today, and while you absolutely can still shop … affiliate links no longer work,” Sarah wrote. “As a working mama, I have to protect my time and it takes me hours to do try-ons (steam, film, edit, link post, etc.). If I can’t make any commission off these links, it’s not worth my time!”

Instagram / @sassyredlipstick

It’s kind of stunning that Sarah admitted this. (She didn’t return a request for comment.) One of the things that has helped influencers be so successful is that their followers don’t believe they are sharing for solely monetary reasons. Influencers are supposed to be your fashionable, fun, and unique friend in your feed, whom you follow because you like the things they like and want to be more like them. If an influencer admits the only reason they are sharing these clothes with us is because they are getting paid, it completely destroys the trust that makes us want to listen to them.

Of course, plenty of influencers only share things that they genuinely want to recommend to their followers, and they are dedicated to this authenticity. Some spoke out after rewardStyle announced the change, including Katie Moser, who blogs at @WhatKateFinds.

“I always find the reaction and pivots from influencers interesting as the result of business decisions that are out of their control,” she wrote on Instagram. “Mainly because you start to see that many of them shop where they make the most money, not where they actually want to shop.”

When I posted about Sarah on my Instagram page, many people commented that they understand influencing is a business, but if influencers only recommend things they get paid for there is little reason to continue to follow them. One person summed it up nicely: “If you’re only willing to post paid content as an influencer, you’re not really providing value.”

The kerfuffle has also led other influencers to pledge their loyalty to J.Crew and Madewell, even if they aren’t making affiliate link money from it. Ailsa, who blogs at @_happygocurly_, told me the brands make up her wardrobe, and she will continue to support them.

“I will be here for the long haul because I’m loyal,” she said. “Sure, I wear other brands and items, but there aren’t other brands that make me feel the closest to my true self.”

I like to imagine an influencer’s feed as a magazine. Magazines are full of ads, but would you read a magazine that was only made up of ads? Of course not. There’s nothing wrong with influencers doing swipe-ups and making commissions from their work. But they also need to provide genuine recommendations and advice to balance the ads. Otherwise they lose all value.

One final thought: A lot of bigger influencers have lost this balance, and a lot of smaller influencers are doing this right. The nice thing is that we as consumers have the power, and the pandemic is the perfect time to clear your feed and make sure you are supporting those people who you actually think are adding value.

—Stephanie

Fans can’t decide whether to stan or criticize their faves getting together during quarantine

Instagram / @bachelornation.scoop

Influencers doing questionable things during the pandemic is nothing new. But their fans are responding to their missteps in two different ways lately: People are either allowing their faves to do whatever they want, or they’re continuing to call them out in hopes of getting through.

As a result, comment sections on social media posts are getting more and more chaotic.

Over the past week, more and more C-list celebrities are getting together in public. Former Bachelor contestant Hannah Ann Sluss was photographed on a coffee date with Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Mason Rudolph, and members of TikTok’s Sway House apparently flew to meet at an Airbnb in Texas.

I know what you’re thinking: You haven’t seen your best friend in over two months who lives a mile and a half away from you, and somehow these people are willy-nilly traveling across the country like it’s December 2019.

At least eight, but most likely way more, famous TikTokers have been churning out content over the last few days of their various outings and hijinks while together in Texas. According to one member’s vlog, the group trip to Texas even drew a crowd of fans out of their homes to try to meet them at their Airbnb. You’d have no idea there was a global crisis happening around them. Judging by many comments, some fans are hyped by their reunion and being able to see them all together again — pandemic or not.

TikTok / @nate_wyatt

Other fans, however, aren’t sure how to respond. Comments like “this is not social distancing” and questions like “is social distancing no longer a thing?” are showing up in between heart-eyes emojis and other comments adoring their friendships and antics. (Note: Texas was one of the first states to allow reopening of businesses even though the governor has been recorded on a call saying he knows it might lead to more coronavirus cases.)

On posts about Hannah Ann and her rumored dates, comments are also either in full support of the relationship or completely confused about how two strangers got together in these times.

It’s complicated, though. Right or wrong (the answer is leaning ethically “wrong” in most cases), influencers feel the need to be in the spotlight because their jobs depend on it. Whether that’s intentionally making content, as teen TikTokers are doing nonstop, or living their personal lives out for paparazzi, as we’ve seen with many Bachelor stars, they’re moving forward like the coronavirus has miraculously resolved itself. And most fans don’t mind: They’re eager to see what their faves are up to as a distraction from their own lives, and they support their socializing if it means getting more entertainment out of it.

TikTok / @nate_wyatt

Fans and commenters are the gatekeepers of influencers’ success and the amount of their influence. They determine the careers of influencers and whether their fame is catapulted or #canceled. They’re also a constant voice of reason and accountability that influencers are confronted with directly. But when the responses are this mixed, does it even matter? Will we continue to see more famous people returning to normal life on their own terms? And how much will that influence all of us?

If you aren’t sure what the right move is at this time, perhaps turn off Instagram for a moment and continue to turn to the CDC’s best practices.

Until next time,

Tanya

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