Fyre Festival & The Problem With Influencer Marketing

Written by Valerie Michalecki in June 2017


It’s a sorry tale… Billy McFarland caused mass outrage when ticket-holders who had bought into an Instagram-fuelled dream of partying with supermodels in the Bahamas, sipping champagne, mingling with world-class musicians and staying in luxury villas encountered emergency tents, sleeping bags, empty beaches, and a huge transportation crisis. McFarland left behind a trail of unpaid debts, notably to the residents of Great Exuma itself, and ended up in jail for fraud.

Opinions, I have them.

The term ‘influencer marketing’ may or may not ring a bell. It’s a relatively new strategy of brainwashing, OOPS, I mean digital marketing that when executed properly, is presented to the consumer as natural, meaningful, and sincere. For example, have you ever been scrolling your social media feeds and happened upon a celebrity telling you how great some new product is?

“This is honestly the best moisturizer/hair grower/burger flipper/toenail clipper/waist-trainer/green-tea-infused-lettuce-rosemary-charcoal-body-mask I have ever used in my whole life.”

Insert photo of influencer… damn it, there I go again… I mean celebrity using their gifted product for likely the first (and last) time.

And there you have it. All of their followers see this endorsement that feels a little more authentic than traditional advertisements, while the company sits back and waits for the orders and cash to come rolling in.

Shut Up and Take My Money! Cartoon

Some companies have their influencer marketing machine so well oiled, that even their paying customers are doing the brunt work for them. A fantastic example of this would be a company like Daniel Wellington, who sells classy, trendy, yet affordable timepieces. Daniel Wellington’s Instagram contests and hashtags encourage their followers/customers to photograph their wrists while donning one of their watches, for a chance to be featured on the brand’s page. This wrist shot has become so wildly popular, that it seems like people just started buying watches just for a similar photo in their feed (which is also known in the Instagram world as “doin’ it for the gram”).

Of course, even for brands like Daniel Wellington, it didn’t start out so lucrative and easy. High-tier Influencers (social media personalities with thousands of followers and high engagement rates) will likely never post anything for free. Even product gifting isn’t enough. For an idea of just how outrageous influencer marketing is, just one (possibly even temporary) photo on the feed of someone like Sjana Elise, Jay Alvarrez, Alexis Ren, Jack Morris, or Lauren Bullen will set you back at least $15k. Never heard of these people? Me either, but collectively they have over 19 million followers. That’s more IG followers than the populations of New York City and London combined.

The FYRE Festival Flop

Entrepreneur Billy McFarland and has-been rapper Ja Rule, decided some months ago to host a music festival in the Bahamas. It was supposed to be the anti-Coachella, with celebrity chefs, luxury tent accommodations, yachts, bikini-clad models and the like. To promote their festival they hired Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, and Emily Ratajkowski (and many other prominent influencers) to push the advertisements on their personal Instagram accounts.

These three highly influential media personalities (or their assistants) then proceeded to post the promotional video for the FYRE Festival: likely pushing ticket sales much higher than they would have been without their implicit approval of the doomed festival.

Fast forward to the festival's starting day and festival goers, who had paid thousands of dollars per ticket, found themselves being fed pathetic cheese sandwiches and offered accommodation in disaster-relief-style tents. “The dinner that @fyrefestival promised us was catered by Steven Starr is literally bread, cheese, and salad with dressing,” one attendee wrote. It was a far cry from the luxurious and sumptuous surrounds that had been promised. Promotional materials for the event showed models draped over high-end yachts and triple-luxe beachside villas sat on a gently curving shore.

Photo of exactly what didn't happen at FYRE Festival

Photo of exactly what didn't happen at FYRE Festival


To add insult to injury, festival goers also found themselves stranded on the island. A 100 million dollar lawsuit filed against the organizers states that the “festival’s lack of adequate food, water, shelter, and medical care created a dangerous and panicked situation among attendees''. The suit also states that the situation ''was closer to ‘The Hunger Games’ or ‘Lord of the Flies’...''

Now, that may have been a slight over exaggeration, although, the thought of waif-like pseudo-celebs fighting for the conch and championing democracy Piggy v. Ralph style is appealing.

Models fighting

All this left the festival organizers and the influencers they paid in both hot water and a legal grey area. Technically, Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations require influencers to make their Instagram posts clear when they are advertising or promoting. Yet many do not always follow this rule explicitly, if at all. Doing so would, of course, remove the gloss and appeal of influencer marketing: any subtleties, authenticity, and promises of a life like that of the influencer would be washed away by the disclosure of their relationship with the brand.

In large part, the tickets for this flop of a festival were driven by influencer marketing, because it works. FYRE has certainly taught us that. And had FYRE been successful, the internet would have been awash with social media hype from the Exumas, further promoting the festival and any follow-up events to come. As it stands now, social media is exploding with FYRE fuck-up tales instead. What social media giveth, it taketh away.

The problem with influencer marketing is one of authenticity. They speak to audiences as if they have pure and lofty reasons for holding up a particular product in an Instagram post: one that has nothing to do with money. Yet as Jenner's $250,000 paycheck for a single FYRE post shows, influencer marketing has everything to do with money and nothing to do with genuine endorsement.

And when a product, such as the FYRE festival, fails to live up to its promises, both influencers, consumers, and the brand are left red faced. Ja Rule tweeted that none of the festival's disasters were his fault… So, whose fault were they?

Valerie Michalecki

Native New Yorker Valerie Michalecki is an unashamed social media addict who always keeps her finger firmly on the pulse of what's hot on the internet. 

When she's not checking her timelines, she's hard at work creating (hopefully) viral social media/web content, riding unicorns and drinking G&Ts on the beach in her second home on Egypt's South Sinai peninsula.