Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Beauty Dupe

Thanks to a throwaway comment on a blog I follow, I learned of the recent mumsnet furore. Off I went to read it (naturally.) I don't spend much time on mumsnet, indeed my mumsnet knowledge thus far had been limited to the historic "penis beaker" episode. I found the thread fascinating (ahem, talking about the beauty thread now...) it was originally titled something regarding Caroline Hirons as the whole chat had been triggered by an innocent reader asking whether the blog posts had been sponsored or not. A character named Iamnina had proceeded to spill the beans. Allegedly, this Nina works in PR and had an axe to grind. Soon enough the bloggers being discredited got wind of this mumsnet thread, and in addition to the usual outrage and denial, they have apparently managed to get mumsnet to not only edit the title of the thread, but also completely delete every post by Iamnina and no doubt ban her. I find these draconian tactics really repellent and as I had been toying with the idea of writing a post, this made my mind up.

I wish I'd copied and pasted every post by Iamnina. I had actually thought at the time that I should do it, but I decided: I don't blog anymore - what's the point? If anyone reading this has a copy then do please get in touch and I'll incorporate her points here, hopefully blogger is a safe platform (cue MI5 suspenseful music.) And, reader I know you guessed it, as this is such a hackneyed tale, but one of the reasons I stopped blogging was because it had started as a hobby and then it became a duty. I was beginning to get sent products. Getting what feels like "presents" tumbling through your letter box every day is very different to documenting what you spend your own clutched pennies on. Knowing your blog post will be read by the PR who sent you the "present" and might get angry or upset, or told off by their boss, all because of your post... It's nothing like a blog anymore. Not that getting samples was unpleasant, far be it for me to imply, as I have read many times - that getting samples is a chore/ or a workload/ tiring - or anything like that. But all the same, it does constrain you; it gives the whole enterprise a different spin. My relationship to beauty (I am a dinosaur for saying this) was ambling over to the beauty counters, chatting to my friends (erm, I mean, the beauty counter staff) and seeing the posters and the shiny new display cases and picking out the delectable new treats. Then testing them, either loving my new purchases, or feeling angry that I'd wasted my money. And the blog would be the channel within which to record these innocuous findings.

This is what beauty blogs and YouTube channels were in those days... I'm harking back to 2007 or so. Now the popular channels and blogs are to be viewed with suspicion and there is an 'us' and a 'them' which didn't exist at the outset. I remember Zoella's blog when she wrote about working in a post office. Every entry was her little Superdrug haul or her Primark haul, or so it seemed to me (I was not a regular follower but such was the gist at the time.) Incidentally, I find it amusing that bloggers and youtubers call their PR spoils a "haul". Although far nearer the mark than they intended, the general understanding of a haul is that which they have bought themselves. But this is a side note. Of course the legacy of these humble beginnings is mercilessly and unnaturally sustained, and naive youngsters do still think of the content as independent. But a long time ago, the puppet masters arrived to take the reins. The only bloggers and YouTube popular channels who can afford to be truly independent, well, that's the word: afford. They have to be rich (£200 serums and £35 lipsticks do take their toll) either from their own pockets or from the adverts on their sites which pay by the sheer scale of readership or viewing figures and not by the content as such. As Iamnina put it, ironically these adverts allow the content maker to be independent.

But the real money comes from the euphemistic "consultancy fees". What is it that the brands consult bloggers about, what mystery? As with all Law ('the Law is an ass') there follows a loophole. And here is the loophole to the FTC. As the mumsnet discussion made clear, to any untainted mind, 'reviewing' a product and taking a consultancy fee for, mais bien sur, a wholly unrelated consultation, is quite clearly a conflict of interest. There isn't any need to expand on such an obvious point.

When the FTC first came to upset the party, many blogs and youtubers (I would say the very ones who are now at worst fault) would put resentful, falsely jesting disclaimers. Something along the lines of: 'These were sent to me by little fairy elves at X brand towers but they didn't put a gun to my head, I just happen to absolutely love these products and I wouldn't lie to you my lovely cherry buns as you're the ones I answer to not them!' Occasionally they would adopt a more hostile jokey demeanour, well how can I pastiche or better the eponymous Caroline Hirons who was criticised on the mumsnet thread for her advice after just such a disclaimer, to "chill your tits." Making light of the product being sent for free, to my mind, was never a solution. There is nothing inherently wrong with getting samples, but trivialising the disclaimer is almost akin to an admission of guilt. Misplaced guilt, but still guilt - aggressively defensive.

Iamnina's posts laid bare all the agency business dealings.Blogger and YouTube stars know their worth and will not allow brands a free ride (and hurrah for that!) but to keep their audience on side, they have to pretend to not know their worth. They have to apologise for new houses, new handbags, new noses and breasts. They have to pretend or at least force friendships in line with who belongs to their agency. British Beauty Blogger piped up with characteristic journalistic nous, why don't you write a few posts on my site and see what it's really like! Iamnina scathingly told her that she was not referring to mid tier but to what were the select few bona fide "influencers": Bloggers and YouTube stars who can merely allude to a product for it to sell out instantly. I think she also meant by implication, blogs with less discerning readership. In other words, young impressionable minds who are made to feel that if they don't buy this then they have forfeited their allegiance.

What made me a blogger, and I dare say all the original early bloggers and YouTube hosts, at that point all ignorant of the freebies - let alone wealth and fame and privilege that now can be reached (I nearly said 'achieve', but frankly some of those terribly written blogs and some YouTube channels which have to lay bare every tiny detail, and to my mind are mind numbing, I don't consider enviable or worthy of the term...) - well what made us want to engage with an audience, was a camaraderie. For its own sake. Sharing favourite makeup purchases and saying why other makeup was horrid. Now nothing is without repercussion. The makeup has a PR person who is a new friend. What would happen to her if I slate the product? Will she be blamed and I'll have ruined her day? Or more accurately perhaps, it's the agency PR who is the friend, or more than friend, the employer? We, the audience, become the gift to this new friend. We are the currency for the friend who can open doors, doors not only to new makeup and dresses and plastic surgery and anything in between ("pah! chicken feed!") but holidays and all sorts of bonuses which lead to real opportunities.

One of the accusations which this Iamnina levelled, was that charities have big budgets. She added a wink face emoji to intensify this point. This must have touched a nerve because some bloggers at this point became incensed. (Sali Hughes I believe, but I didn't read her rebuttal which she linked to on mumsnet, because I found her tone very patronising and unduly harsh.) I know charities do have budgets and pay huge salaries (but this is another tirade entirely which I shall not fall into) so it's not incredible to assume some blogger charity posts are indeed paid for. It's not very nice to think of a post which talks about losing friends or family members and beseeches the reader to go and donate generously, all whilst the post has been paid for. But such is the world and it's become a case where unless expressly written "I waived a fee for this post and I have never consulted with their company or affiliated brands" we can't be chastised for assuming they have! Anyhow, this is the way the world works - if you think celebrities advising us where to put our meagre pennies aren't being paid themselves, or benefiting from the exposure for their own ends, then that's something you should really wake up to. It might be sad or cynical but that's capitalism for ya. In fact these people truly believe that their fee is merely a token, and they are still being very charitable... Later posts came and said perhaps this Iamnina was a charlatan. But each Iamnina post had had the unmistakeable ring of truth. Not only that, but she predicted every blogger retaliation; every move just as if these bloggers were robots. 

Successful bloggers and YouTube channels need to start representing themselves as what they really are: a business. No longer, a girl next door. This doesn't mean they lose their value. Although to an extent, that is what happens in that they dissociate. But in theory they could continue to be useful. Instead of being a like minded consumer, they could become a reference library and you choose the voice you feel resonates with you. The trouble is, with everyone's pay packet at risk, they all inevitably sing from the same hymn sheet at the same time, so pick one you've picked them all. Their original voice has been quashed. In this agency led tribe war system, the only way to be independent is to have faith to just allow the ad revenue to fund you and continue your own purchasing and reviewing, and hope the brands in turn feel that regardless of bad reviews they might get, not to be featured on your blog is an unimaginable offence. But for a real millionaire lifestyle, I suspect that only a seasoned agency with all the right contacts can get you there. Bloggers and YouTube hosts have become amazingly proficient at social media so who knows how long a middleman will be needed? Although every PR seems to be interconnected; one wrong move can provoke a domino effect. Presumably an agency limits such blunders. And there is always the thinly veiled suspicion that your appeal can be obliterated overnight, so better to invest via a puppet master who can keep you on the leash and avoid any ill advised opinions or photos and such.

I remember buying a highlighting powder on the recommendation of a YouTube video. It had been sent to them for free and I realised that implicitly, but I didn't think that had to compromise them. Well, the powder was horrible and chalky. The betrayal was genuinely upsetting. A pleasure in reading blogs and watching videos, is the unbridled contempt for a poor performing product. With freebies, or even more deceptively, gift vouchers, if a product isn't good, and if the blogger is 'honest', we just won't hear about it. It won't do to criticise a freebie after all. And arguably, it isn't quite right to criticise something if you didn't suffer paying for it. Reading a very measured criticism which hastily recommends another same brand product, is almost as bad as not having mentioned it. It's this guarded, measured and bland reporting which we'd celebrated blogs for avoiding. No more shall I buy magazines, we had all chanted jubilantly. Well, as the adage goes, the revolution eats its own children.

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