The art of faking it

On Instagram, there’s nothing cooler than corporate sponsorship — so aspiring influencers are now creating fake sponsored content

Counterpoints

There’s nothing cooler than corporate sponsorship. Over the past few years, Instagram has become a key medium in which brands have engaged with digitally native audiences — capitalising on the perceived authenticity of ‘influencers’ and lifestyle bloggers to market products via sponsored posts. Everything from clothes and beauty products to weight-loss lollipops and laxative tea has been hawked to consumers through carefully curated insta feeds that integrate sponsored content within hyper-stylised images of an aspirational lifestyle. Think hair-care vitamins disguised as gummy bears, artfully arranged between scented candles and mason-jar terrariums of miniature succulents.

Influencers, whose followers frequently number in the hundreds of thousands, can net four-figure sums from sponsorship deals. But, while previously these adverts might have imperilled the apparent ‘realness’ of personal brands founded on the image of authenticity, corporate sponsorship is fast becoming a means by which young people broadcast their cultural capital. Increasingly, aspiring influencers are now creating fake sponsored content — imitating the visual aesthetics and anodyne captions of paid posts in order to create the illusion of brand sponsorship.

This is, in part, a business strategy aimed at luring in potential advertisers, by creating a credential-boosting mock portfolio of past campaign work. Yet fake sponsorship deals are transforming, too, into a means by which young people aim to upgrade their real-life credibility. A recent article in The Atlantic interviewed teen beauty and lifestyle influencers, who spoke of how brand deals had boosted their popularity at school, and cited friends and acquaintances who had imitated them by creating false sponsored content, with an attitude of fake-it-til-you-make-it.

And who can blame teenagers who, seeing the promise of wealth and fame on social media, seize on opportunities for entrepreneurship in the digital economy — amid an increasingly competitive and casualised structure of employment, in which traditional ideals of a stable and secure ‘normal’ career are starting to look like an unattainable illusion?

But the phenomenon of faking sponsored content reveals a marked social shift in the relationship between cultural and financial capital. While authenticity has historically been the chosen badge of youth, and ‘selling out’ the enemy of cool, young people are increasingly looking to corporate sponsorship as a means of enhancing their credentials. In an era of fake news and social-media leveraging, in which the boundaries between work and lifestyle are becoming ever more blurred, and people are encouraged to shape their identities as marketable products, inauthentic inauthenticity is now the order of the day.