More than two million people dead; massive disruption to our lives; job losses and depression – but take heart, the world's influencers have managed to keep snapping.
The Guardian newspaper periodically runs articles on the kind of concentrated selfishness which typifies the influencer set. In a recent story, a journalist unpicked the disgruntlement levied at professional narcissists, as they swarmed all over Dubai (the emirate isn't subject to strict lockdown measures), to work hard at taking poolside selfies.
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Personally, I would have thought that societies living under lockdown would have scant need for their brand of nauseating self-aggrandizement. When you're filing for divorce and claiming unemployment benefits, smug posts about banana daiquiris and Prada surely come as little comfort. Unfortunately, social media's A-listers didn't get the memo – Arielle Charnas did her followers proud last year, when the gormless nincompoop decided to promote her timely relocation to the Hamptons from NYC. This is despite Governor Andrew Cuomo's plea for New Yorkers not to leave their homes.
I didn't meet a member of the species until 2018, courtesy of a press trip. We sized each other up, like a cobra encountering a mongoose. He rushed to outline social media's virtues; I suggested (with only a hint of pomposity) that influencers added little value to the wine industry. I argued that this was largely a passing flirtation from a few mega-brands with excess money to burn. Influencers stake their claim on authenticity, but the only authentic thing about this sorry enterprise is the cynicism from all involved.
What followed was a well-worn list of defenses; most of them boiled down to one excuse: "Yes, but we work ever so hard. We spend an exhausting amount of time posting images and fiddling with Instagram's algorithms. We speak to consumers in a way you cannot possibly grasp."
Many in the wine trade would undoubtedly agree with him. I've read quite a few pieces over the past few years, suggesting that we shouldn't give Instagram stars a hard time. Robert Joseph penned one in 2019.
For what it's worth, I doubt their ability to sway a critical mass of wine consumers, despite said people’s best efforts. But even if we accept that this firmament can sell a lifestyle, and the associated brands, the defense of "working hard" is fatuous. History's worst men and women have worked hard. I'm sure Joseph Stalin was a workaholic. Cambodia's Khmer Rouge boasted a strong work ethic. This alone does not grant one estimable status.
Nevertheless, they're probably not going to evaporate anytime soon. It's simply too lucrative as an advertising mechanism to simply just disappear. A post-Covid-19 world will unfortunately not bid farewell to Charnas and her vacuous friends.
But the C-, D-, E-, and Z-list wannabes will hopefully become redundant. It seems unlikely that many businesses struggling in recession-hit economies will be queuing to sponsor an influencer's lifestyle in return for the Instagram plug. Diageo raised eyebrows in 2020, when the spirits group announced they were (temporarily) calling time on social media campaigns.
At the time, Diageo refused to specify which platforms would be included or the length of the advertising ban. Nevertheless, it's reasonable to assume that the logical corollary of this move, taken by a growing number of businesses, is to be highly selective about which influencers they court – if any at all. Many of the species will hopefully abandon their fledgling "careers" and attempt to do something useful. Some in the wine trade will mourn the severe decline of influencer "culture" as a lost opportunity. Here's why they shouldn't.
The contract of deception between the consumer and influencer is almost totally wasted on the wine industry. Its victims want to be deceived, to subscribe to a faux lifestyle that most of us can never achieve. It encourages one of the most destructive societal pathologies – delusion. So influencer culture is simply a mutation of a pre-existing virus: the obsessive need to vicariously experience the unobtainable, via celebrity culture.
This formula is effective when applied to the cosmetic, fashion and travel industries. Influencers are DIY celebrities who excel at being visual signifiers. Their appeal to hotel brands and Dolce & Gabbana is understandable. Notions of heritage and tradition are irrelevant – the image of the influencer dangling over the infinity pool, clutch bag in hand, sells itself. This group can't advertise the dairy factory, yet they're very adept at promoting the ice-cream van. The visual cues tell all.
Unfortunately, winemaking is a dreary business, lacking any visual excitement worthy of documentation. Our press trip organizer wisely pushed the influencer into endless snaps of the restaurants, the pretty vineyard shots etc. "Selling the lifestyle," as she put it. Or, in other words, selling everything except the wine. This lifestyle documentation creates no automatic or obvious link between a particular wine brand and the setting in the mind of the "influenced". Teetotalers are free to experience such things. Drinkers may be subliminally coerced into reaching for a glass of something – presumably what is close to hand and affordable to them.
Marketeers who covet social media "stars" should be aware of the anecdote I was told in 2019 by an infuriated winemaker. His PR agency invited a group of influencers to eat, drink and document at his expense. Instagram shots were duly taken – including a healthy selection of bottle shots. Off their own bat, the group decided to visit a neighboring property as part of an extended press-trip-cum-holiday. The neighbor's rosé just happened to be cheaper than the organizer's. You can imagine how this turned out. The primary goal of the influencer is to sell themselves – all else comes distant second.
Elsewhere, there are precedents concerning the risks of courting true professionals. Kim Kardashian was heavily involved in marketing a liqueur brand called Midori for a time, including hosting a Halloween party and appearing in promotional images. Unfortunately, she conceded in numerous interviews that she doesn’t drink alcohol. A consumer backlash quickly ensued.
And we haven’t even got to the deluge of fake accounts, or the endless opportunities for chicanery and skulduggery, all of which are outlined in a brilliant piece by Miquel Hudin. Social media is indeed a treasure trove, but it's a trove stuffed full of self-promotional drivel, selfies and revenge porn. Moreover, there is always the risk that if brands court a celebrity who subsequently commits a faux pas, then a strong social media presence suddenly becomes a pernicious liability. The fallout from Lance Armstrong's doping scandal is a powerful reminder of the dangers of a fall from grace. The epic downfall of Armstrong, once an idolized icon of millions around the globe, stands out in the history of professional sport endorsement.
But don't misunderstand me – celebrity obviously sells. Wine and spirits have become the celebrity pet project of choice – Francis Ford Coppola and Sam Neill have been joined by a growing firmament of Hollywood A-Listers with boozy aspirations, including Drew Barrymore, Jay Z, George Clooney, and Chris Noth. Yet while the relationship between company and celebrity is seemingly old news, in recent years we have witnessed a fundamental shift in how celebrities engage with alcohol brands.
Two distinct strata have emerged: A-Listers who lend their names to a wide variety of products, and celebrities who invest directly into the brand, eager to oversee its production, marketing, and distribution. The latter clearly has a massive edge; what's authentic about paying people, including influencers, to like something? Even before Covid-19, followers were starting to wonder what exactly their favorite influencer did actually like?
Experienced marketeers understand that selling wine is a thankless task. There is little concept of added value – expensive and cheap labels often look broadly similar. So the appeal of influencers is clear: a collective able to appeal to consumers in a way that the trade cannot. But selling pretty pictures isn't the answer and isn't probably very effective.
Take Sauternes, for example. The region has increased its production of dry whites, opened its doors to tourists and sent ambassadors like Aline Baly to promote a fresh image of the wines. There are now luxury hotels and Michelin restaurants in the region – a fact unthinkable 15 years ago. Investment and hard work has helped to revive one of Bordeaux's (formerly) saddest stories, but of course there is plenty more to be done.
Conversely, it's hard to imagine a sustained social media campaign could have achieved the same results. Would it have made any tangible difference if the web was full of pretty shots of Château d'Yquem? Regardless of who had taken them.
At best, the role of the influencer is to provide wafer-thin icing on an already baked cake.
The strongest evidence, though, relies on the trade's most cherished white variety: Riesling.
Influencers, that is to say, true influencers such as Tim Atkin MW and Jancis Robinson MW, have relentlessly pushed the virtues of this wonderful grape. They've proselytized Riesling ad infinitum – and it hasn't made the slightest bit of difference. Are we really suggesting that a bunch of narcissists with over-sized egos and Instagram accounts could hope to do any better?
I'd love to see them try.