Technology has changed the way we consume culture, and social media platforms like Snapchat have provided the everyman with access to thousands. With that the individual has become able to carve out a piece of the marketing pie and become an ad agency in his own right. Behold the dawn of the ‘influencers’.
Last year, Guðrún Veiga Guðmundsdóttir, one of Iceland’s most prominent ‘Snapchatters’, broadcast her wedding through Snapchat and 4% of the nation tuned in to follow the wedding of a perfect stranger. It was the royal wedding of a person only famous for posting ten-second snippets of her life. She belongs to a new strata of celebrities, so called ‘influencers’, people who through the power of Snapchat and other apps have gained momentous access to the public
A couple of years ago I felt old for the first time. I was reading the news next to my younger brother—born in 2001—and noticed a headline that read: “Vine stars cause riot in Kringlan shopping mall.” I turned to my brother and asked, “what is Vine?” He answered that it was a “thing where people post six second videos.” “Do people become celebrities for that?” I asked him.
New uploads to Vine have now been disabled—which makes me feel even older—but with it a new kind of celebrity was born: People who become famous by posting videos of themselves doing something/nothing, for audiences of tens of thousands who devotedly tuned in every day. Today, the platform has changed and Snapchat has taken over.
Going through the most popular and influential ‘Snapchatters’ in Iceland is, in one word, confusing. I find it hard to fathom how people going to the gym, eating food and cleaning their homes somehow counts as entertainment. But the fascinating thing about it all is the seamless transition between the mundane lives of strangers and advertising. Suddenly I felt a strong urge to buy a dildo, a gym membership, get my non-existent car cleaned and have my eyebrows done.
Rapping the bandwagon
Erpur Eyvindarson, aka BlazRoca, is the godfather of Icelandic hip-hop, having brought the scene to the mainstream almost two decades ago. Two weeks ago he jumped on the Snapchat bandwagon and in that short time gained thousands of followers. He argues that the medium has allowed individuals to break through the stranglehold of traditional media.
“There is incredible power in having access to the public and throughout human history there have always been hyenas that want to control that access. We know that God doesn’t exist, but it was an important moment when people didn’t need to talk to a cape-wearing pedophile to get in touch with God,” he says. “Of course there are a lot of foams on there, but the people I like are just real shit—guys you’d never see on TV, because some marketing geek who studied in London says you can’t sell it.”
Traditional media like TV stations operate within a linear programming model: Content is funnelled to the viewer, who has no say, but increasingly the way we consume culture is trending towards self-catering.
“What makes Snapchat amazing is that if you don’t like what a person is doing you don’t have to follow them. I don’t give a shit if somebody wants to bleach their asshole on Snapchat, if people want to do that then great—go nuts,” says BlazRoca. “The other thing about Snapchat is that everyone gets a shot—everyone can get their 15 minutes of fame. The individual takes control and can get around all this capitalist control bullshit. The smaller units we have the better.”
Perhaps it is better that today individuals can utilise new mediums to grab a piece of a pie that has always been reserved for ad agencies; that we can gain direct, unfiltered access to others. But as those new mediums grow, marketing departments get savvy about their power.
Monetising our daily lives
Logi Karlsson, a marketing specialist at Íslandsbanki and a doctor of marketing, understands the power of direct contact.
“The power of new mediums—like Snapchat—is that they can deliver content cheaply and fast. This evens out the playing field between large and small actors,” Logi explains. “The reason why companies want to use popular ‘Snapchatters’ is probably twofold: They have many followers, which means good distribution, and secondly if the product fits the person then it will very likely resonate with his followers and, therefore, entice them to buy the product.”
According to Logi, younger consumers are increasingly tuning out of traditional media. They watch TV shows on Netflix and want to be in control of what they consume. The appeal for companies, however, comes from the possibility of building a two-way street with customers.
“I think most people agree that Snapchat will be incredibly important for marketing in the future,” Logi says. “But traditional media is adapting to the changing environment and are starting to cater advertisements to the individual consumer.”
Running the gauntlet of popular influencers who now have taken over my Snapchat feed, I am aware that I am regularly being marketed to. But, while an ad in a newspaper is identified as such, I have to know instinctively that I am watching an ad. A Snapchat video of somebody drinking Coca-Cola isn’t a slick TV ad, it’s a sneaky way of reminding me of the product. And because these are ‘real’ people we the consumers can identify with them and, by proxy, the product. It is interesting that each influencer I interviewed has either promoted products, or been offered the opportunity to do so.
Snapchat’s own guidelines state that ads must be labeled as such, but this is often not the case. The debate about the legality of ambiguous Snapchat ads has been raised in Iceland, and last year, the Consumer Agency released guidelines, which state that sponsored snaps need to be easily identified as such.
But then again, hidden ads aren’t a new thing. For decades movies have played the same trick ‘James Bond’ tells us to buy an Aston Martin, ‘Transformers’ want us to clench our thirst with a Bud Light, and it’s questionable whether Adam Sandler movies are in fact “movies” and not just 90-minute ads with fart jokes.
Direct contact or just middlemen?
Such is the power of Snapchat that marketing companies have sprung up in recent years that specialise in connecting popular influencers with brands. One of the more prominent in Iceland is Eylenda.
“Influencers are only going to become bigger,” says María Hólmgrímsdóttir, co-founder and owner of Eylenda. “Most ‘Snapchatters’ have built up a really cool follower base and it’s an easy way to get a message across in a fun and personal manner.”
When you look at people talking right into the camera through Snapchat you get the feeling that people are talking directly to you—that the message is meant for you and no one else. This allows ads to seem personal and even intimate. And this is why companies hire influencers to promote their products.
“It varies how much people make—mainly dependant on your number of followers. Some take on big assignments and others smaller, some people do it often, other more infrequently,” María explains.
Having recently joined Snapchat, BlazRoca has not use it to promote products, yet. He has, however, advertised concerts through the medium and promoted a recent gig solely through Snapchat, forgoing more traditional avenues. The result was a packed out show, accomplished without any marketing budget and ad agency. When it comes to plugging products, however, BlazRoca claims that the key phrase is honest interest.
“Making a living from being an artist is hard work and if people want to support you then that is always great,” he says. “But it’s a question of whether you are advertising something cool. I’ve received millions of offers to be connected with this or that brand. But if somebody would ask me to become the Breezer buddy, then I’d take that bottle and smash it in the guy’s face.”
The PR generation
No matter how confusing I find the phenomena of ‘influencers’, it is probably logical that the first generation of internet natives, raised on reality TV and trained to become their own PR agencies as their lives were thrust into the public eye through social media, would find them interesting. Of course it’s shallow and vapid, of course it reeks of narcissism, but this is an age where reality TV stars can become leaders of the free world and pretty, vacuous young models can solve the world’s problems by drinking Pepsi. So let’s celebrate the coronation of the mundane royalty, while I delete all these influencers from my Snapchat account.
Read Q&As with the influencers here. Follow us on Snapchat at @rvkgrapevine to see our influencers Snapchat takeover.
*The print version of this article stated that María Hólmgrímsdóttir had said “Snapchat” would be big in the future, not influencers.