Updated: May 22, 2019
Last week blogger Elle Darby hit the headlines for being publicly shamed by a Dublin hotel for trying to blag a free hotel room for herself and her partner.
In lieu of payment, she offered to feature the hotel in her Instagram and Youtube posts (thus “driving traffic” to the hotel). The hotel owner, to put it mildly, declined … and did so in a very public fashion. Although her name was redacted, Elle was soon outed and, feeling the shame, published a Youtube video espousing her “purest intentions”.
The saga is continuing to play out – the hotel has just [at the time of writing] sent Elle a gigantic bill for “the provision of features in 114 articles across 20 countries with a potential reach of 450 million people”.
But, is Elle’s request for a free hotel room unusual or surprising? Don’t we all know that today’s social media stars get a ton of freebies? I think it’s fair to say we (your average circumspect social media user) is fully aware of that.
So, what’s the problem? Is it the fact that she asked for a freebie (and didn’t wait to be offered)?
I don’t believe so.
I think the issue is really whether or not Elle would have disclosed that she had received the gift of a free hotel room in return for featuring it in her social media posts.
Would she simply have raved about the beautiful rooms, the exquisite food, the delightful ambiance without letting her legions of fans know that, actually, it was all free? A quick (trust me it was quick – I’m not a fan of pout+pose+protein powder selfies) perusal of her Instagram account tells me she does use #sp for the obvious paid-for promotions (NB #sp is not my recommended method for highlighting an advertorial post) so she may have spilled the beans.
But does it really matter whether she got the room for free or not? In terms of advertising compliance – yes it probably does, depending on whether she was also obliged to only say great things about the hotel.
However it’s also a big issue in terms of her credibility and authenticity. Elle obviously has influence.
She has a sizeable number of followers both on Youtube and Instagram and, judging by their comments, they take a keen interest in her lifestyle, fitness and beauty regime. They trust her and are influenced by her so if she says that this particular hotel is a fantastic place to stay, surely it must be ..?
And what might be the ramifications for those brands that currently work with Elle?
Now her followers know that she actively seeks out free goods/services in return for positive posts, that will surely diminish their credibility in their eyes.
Like the boy who cried wolf, Elle will have lost the trust in her village of followers. OK maybe not all of them, judging by the backlash against the hotel, but a certain amount of erosion must be expected.
Admittedly, on the micro scale, one blogger not highlighting their freebies may be a bit irritating and disingenuous but large-scale it’s a big problem for the industry and all those that use social media - pretty much all of us, then.
Tellingly, a report out today by Edelman suggests that more than one third of those surveyed believe social media is not good for society, with 64% agreeing that they are not sufficiently regulated and 63% believing they lack transparency.
With influencer marketing so reliant on trust and authenticity in both the platforms and individual influencers, the industry may have an uphill battle trying to regain consumer trust.
That means #ad disclosures, transparency in sponsorship agreements and clearly labelled affiliate links are all more important than ever.