Does the influencer industry need rescuing? That’s a question that Black entrepreneur and social media strategist, Qianna Smith Bruneteau asked herself. She set out to answer it by creating the American Influencer Council, an organization that’s been over a year in development, founded with the sole purpose to, in her own words, “sustain and promote the business dynamics in the influencer marketing space.”
Now, this language can be confusing for a lot of people unfamiliar with the concept of using your own likeness as a branding entity. It’s not meant for most of us to understand. The world of influencing is a curious gated community where the rich, beautiful and outspoken thrive.
By now, we should all have an awareness of what an influencer is or does, even vaguely, especially since the influencer industry likely touches your life somehow. For some, it is an extremely lucrative career path, paved with the opportunity to become both a millionaire and a household name solely based on some perceived meritocracy. Famously, toy-review expert and YouTuber Ryan Kaji, who just turned eight years old as of June 2020, has a projected net worth of around $100 million and has the power to make or break a business on his preferences alone. Likewise, for better or worse, brothers Jake and Logan Paul have built similar empires, flaunting their Teslas and mansions and complicated romantic relationships to the tune of a combined 5.3 billion video views. These are the kinds of numbers that excite brands and drive partnerships and interest, essentially compounding the power and influence of these said individuals.
But like anything else, what is noticeably absent in the influencer space is a significant amount of Black faces and voices. Due to systemic racism, implicit bias and just overall laziness, the Black community is repeatedly forgotten in the influencer conversation, forced to claw their way into recognition against all odds and insurmountable barriers. To that, Qianna Smith Bruneteau says this council she formed is a necessary lifeboat,
“And I think, you know, from a diversity perspective, being a woman of color, of course, there are so many obstacles. I started the social media department at Saks Fifth Avenue, and I started the social media department at the US Open. And, you know, those roles were created for me. And those were opportunities that came to me because one, I think that you have to be very tenacious and I think that because the industry is one of a startup industry, you do have an opportunity to own your niche and you do have an opportunity to stand out. I think that it's a tricky space to navigate without a doubt. However, there are people trying to be disruptive to find opportunities who realize that inclusion is critical.”
The council, which announced its launch less than a month ago, has twelve founding members, only two of them, aside from Qianna, Black (only one additional founding member is plus sized). It is also worth noting, that of the group, each of these two individuals has a significantly smaller following than their white and Asian counterparts, thanks in no small part, to racism.
Where some might see lack, Qianna sees opportunity.
"You know, you had creators of color, 100% not making it there. And I think with the Black Lives Matter movement now, before it was a challenge, and now it feels more fluid, which is super exciting. Did it need to happen because of these unfortunate events? Of course that's not something that you would want, but, is the industry benefiting because from that cultural disruption? 100%. And so I think creators of color have a real opportunity to put even more compelling content on the platforms to show what their point of view is because they are paying attention more so than ever before. The opportunity is unprecedented.”
And she’s right, as media brands and consumer companies reckon with their own racism, there has been an uptick in the hiring of Black creatives as these businesses attempt to fill a very obvious void in terms of representation. Still, if you are invited to enter a space that was never made for you, the outcome might not be as positive as you would hope. This is where Qianna wants the influencer council to step in.
“We wanted to provide a support system for this group who often are, you know, trial and error entrepreneurs. One of the things that I found very compelling is that when you talk about power and, you know, attribution to a market place, there are hardly any reports that show what influencers contribute to the GDP of this economy. However, you can get every type of report of what brands contributed in terms of paid advertising on the platform side.”
One of Smith Bruneteau's missions in founding this initiative is the redistribution of power back to into the hands of digital content creators, which is a noble pursuit and necessary for the current economy. But, some of the individuals with whom she has decided to work help to reinforce a lot of the negative stereotypes surrounding the influencer community and, the fact that it is an invite-only, twelve-person council, with most of the members operating within the already exclusionary fashion and beauty space, it remains to be seen how that can be done.
Smith Bruneteau describes the intiation process by saying, “So we have a three tiered membership, career influencers or organizations and professional advisors. And at our first council meeting, the founders voted to bring on 15 new members in 2020. And the reason for that was this is a volunteer service based trade organization. And it is a significant time commitment. And everyone has rolled up their sleeves and is putting in a significant amount of work and has invested a lot of time. And so we're really looking for change agents to join us. And the vetting process is intense because we want people who want to join our cause and want to make a difference. Career influencers need to be nominated by two founders, or they can go on our website and submit [an application]. And then it's reviewed by our membership committee, which is headed up by Pierre, who is a creator of@VisualsbyPierre and a Blair Breitenstein who goes by the handle, @BlairZ."
Anyone who already has affiliation with some exclusive club or Greek life in general will recognize this vetting process. It’s meant to be hard. You have to want it to get in. But once, you’re in, what are you in for, exactly? The Council claims to want to inspire change across all social media platforms but all twelve of the founding members work in the fashion, beauty and lifestyle space and primarily operate on Instagram. There’s plenty of other markets who regularly employ influencers that are not even coming to the table and with only fifteen spots open to be filled for the rest of the year, it remains to be seen if they will come at all.
In the last week, at least three of the founding members of the AIC have come under fire for the typical influencer infractions: hypocrisy, working with companies with terrible labor practices and values, stealing from other creators and a lack of sensitivity toward other communities. Curiously, the council has made no statement about this and yet, their website boasts a somewhat confusing poem as a manifesto, “
What is the AIC?
Your authentic point-of-view
Your singular voice
Your decision to collaborate
Your decision to not
Your passion for growth
Your reason to wake up in the morning
Your reason to stay up late
Your need to expand your horizons
Your love of community
Your excitement to learn
Your right to be an equal
Your right to call the shots
Your right to define your industry
Your right to make the rules
Your right to break them
American Influencer Council – where social media creators mold their own destiny”
Like anything new, and taking form, patience is necessary to see how it will all ultimately play out. At the helm of such an endeavor is a Black woman whose experience level should speak for itself. The concern though, is that the alignment of the council with influencers who generate such an enormous amount of negative press will do a disservice to the entire group. There are several founding Council members, who have no history of scandals at all. Chinese-American, Serena Goh founded a mask initiative to help get PPE in the hands of frontline workers early on in the COVID crisis. Fashion personality, Nicolette Mason continues to advocate for Black Lives Matter as well as various LGBTQIA+ representation and body acceptance. Chrissy Rutherford pushes for both mental health and anti-racism work within the industry. The efforts of these individuals still do not overcorrect the opinion that the rest of the world has of the influencer space in general, when people like Danielle Bernstein of WeWoreWhat (2.5M followers) is routinely accused of editing her photos past any reasonable human proportions, general tone deafness in approaching any social issue and an aesthetic that both benefits from and contributes to white supremacy. Likewise, Asian blogger, Chriselle Lim (1.3M followers) has recently apologized after working with SheIn, a fast fashion retailer who in the last week, had a swastika necklace for sale on its site. Fashion news Instagram account, Diet_Prada (2.1M followers) has chosen to expose these creators and while the general consensus around this account is controversial, as it serves much the same purpose as The Shade Room, the truth surrounding these patterns of behavior is not. The repeated offense, apology cycle is so ubiquitous in the influencer space that it almost seems reckless to even partner with said ticking time bombs at all, especially when there are so many other potential partners like Mason, Goh and Rutherford that exist.
Smith Bruneteau tells me, “Because it is a startup industry, it's been a culture change of mentality where creators now understand, yes, I am a career influencer. This is not a gig, nor is this a trend, nor is this a side hustle. This is a profession.”
As such, as you would expect from any profession, there should be consequences when you mess up. On a phone call, Smith mentioned to me that the AIC had a code of ethics, but I could find no indication of this document on their site. In a follow up email she said, "The AIC has codes of ethics and holds all its Members accountable to them. We thoroughly review situations that are counter to our values. Member misconduct allegations are treated seriously, and we have a rigorous investigation process. Our ethics review procedure is in action."
As far as I can tell, the AIC has not addressed the instances Diet Prada has set forth. Unfortunately in this space, whether or not that’s due to the newness of it all, or some other insidious factor, whatever influencers do short of criminal activity goes unpunished and even then, most infractions are overlooked. Cancel culture is not real. Outrage for a minute is real, but lasting repercussions from actions deemed as careless affronts at best, and a total lack of self-awareness at worst, don’t exist for this industry.
Shane Dawson, a YouTuber recently called out for racist content (dating back years) and sexualizing children, Willow Smith included, still has a following of 10.9 Million on Instagram. He currently has a makeup collaboration with other controversial (and white) influencer Jeffree Starr available for purchase. He’s had two New York Times best-selling books. In an unprecedented move, YouTube has suspended Dawson’s accounts from being monetized indefinitely but this is a situation that has never been replicated and even still, he had been allowed to build up a YouTube platform of over 22 million for years before it all came crashing down. His net worth is an estimated $12 million. The aforementioned Paul brothers are still raking in millions despite offenses like producing a video featuring the body of a Japanese person who died by suicide, looting charges in relation to the recent BLM protests in LA and faking a wedding for content purposes. In 2018, Vanity Fair published an article, “Why Logan Paul Should Really Worry Us” and yet, still...he doesn’t, or he doesn’t worry his very white, very devoted, problematic audience. Anyone who has to repeatedly “address” anything that is a result of their own behavior and choices cannot and should not have the power to guide the whims and preferences of the public. And what else, do all of these people have in common? They’re white, like the majority of the AIC, of course.
Smith Bruneteau says, “One of my favorite quotes is with ‘influence comes great responsibility.’ And I do believe that there is a segment of influencers who understand that their platform is meant to have a dual purpose, right? It's one to be served to, to inspire, to act as a form of entertainment. Because I do think during COVID you did have influencers who pivoted their content, who did inspire and provided guidance and sources of entertainment when people needed it the most. And then you did have people who went tone deaf. And I think with any space, you have the good, the bad, the ugly, and in between. And, you know, you can't regulate that. You see that with celebrities. And I think that, you can't control personal behavior. From the AIC perspective, what we're working on is crisis management policy. We want to support people who do want to be part of something and use their platform correctly. So it's tricky but, as you know, as the stewards of this industry, we hope to help navigate some of that.”
And crisis management came quicker than expected, as 1/3 of the council faced judgment in the court of public opinion over the last 10 days. I asked Smith to comment specifically on their ‘crisis management’ policy which could be rendered unnecessary if she had not signed up to work with such a volatile body of influencers.
She said, “The creator experience is fragmented. From a public perception, creators are in a legitimacy crisis. We need unification of core values and business approaches within the creator community to accelerate growth. When one creator makes a mistake, the media and public tend to hold the entire creator community accountable. Individual creators who stand for integrity suffer, which is why standards are critical."
The call for integrity rings hollow in a space where so often having none is, in fact, handsomely rewarded. When #metoo cries reverberate, everyone will roll their eyes at those who answer back, "not all men". Not all is not the point. To come to the defense of white women who are garnering warranted heavy criticism, is an interesting stance which ends up aiding them in retaining control in this space and many others. But in the end, the power of these people is beyond reproach. In the same 2018 Vanity Fair article which boldly questions why we, as a culture, are not more worried about the pervasive influence of Logan Paul, Richard Lawson writes,
“The larger and more ardent one’s legion of supporters grows—a self-selecting horde that will not brook criticism of their idol in any form—the less and less external condemnation, or any kind of moral urging, really matters. Sure, almighty brands could back away, but they haven’t been terribly principled about that in the past, and anyway, people like the Pauls are creating their own revenue streams that seem more self-sustaining and less reliant on cozy big-name partnerships.”
For the most part, the status quo will hold fast for any influencer who’s butt might brush against the hot seat but as their fan base continues to weather any storm, it becomes almost impossible to tame the beast.
To that end, it is fascinating how the American Influencer Council has positioned itself at all. In their own words, “The Council is devoted to improving business dynamics within the influencer marketing industry. The AIC’s main objective is to develop consensus-based marketplace solutions that reflect a creator's vantage point on content marketing.”
With that in mind, aligning themselves with fashion’s influencer heavyweights is beneficial but does not really provide a comprehensive view on what problems can be solved across the board in other content niches like food, tech, gaming, fitness and wellness, where, again, Black creators are routinely underrepresented and discriminated against. One solution to be looked at perhaps, for the Council, is how to ensure smaller creators do not get maligned by those with mega-followings as is what happened to Latina designer Karen Perez who is now entangled in Internet drama with the aforementioned Bernstein after Bernstein was accused on 7/20/20 of copying Perez’s patent-pending mask design and then selling them under her own name. Bernstein, who side-stepped an apology, offered up to her community today, that “this has gotten a bit out of hand because I am now getting death threats which is really scary and not cool...a chain on a mask is not an original concept.”, an idea she emphasized earlier in the day by showing other businesses who sell masks with chains and then proceeded to document going about her life, getting her nails done and having a “date night” with her boyfriend obviously undeterred by the wrath of Instagram. That’s one way to look at things, especially if you are someone who pathologically avoids accountability and owning up to wrongdoings. Another way to look at this would be as an opportunity for the American Influencer Council to throw support behind a small business with a small following who is likely overwhelmed by the extent of the response that she has generated in the last 48 hours.
Attempting to address the shortcomings of this particular industry is no small feat, and has been bravely undertaken by Smith Bruneteau, who, has her work cut out of her and if nothing else, seems determined to make this work no matter what. “I feel very passionate because I consider myself a serial entrepreneur. I'm very passionate that creators have opportunities and that the platforms are providing programs and building opportunities with the brands that match what the brands are spending.”
In that same vein, I am very passionate that brands do not further provide people who are undeserving with social and financial capital so that they can continue to wield and uphold power structures that oppress people of color and silence those with less notoriety and influence.