For all the success brands have had with influencers, enough scandals have erupted within just the past two years to make marketers wary. Here are 10 of the biggest.
Fyre Festival burns influencers, ticket holders
Fyre Festival, an ill-fated luxury music festival held in the Bahamas in 2017, was promoted heavily on Instagram by influencers including Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Hailey (Baldwin) Bieber and Emily Ratajkowski.
Ticket holders paid as much as $250,000 for packages that included charter flights, only to find disaster-relief style tents and packaged sandwiches on foam trays when they arrived rather than the luxury accommodations promised. Headline act Blink-182 pulled out amid the uproar.
Fyre Media CEO Billy McFarland ultimately pleaded guilty to wire fraud last year and was sentenced to six years in prison and forfeiture of $26 million. Jenner, Hadid and other influencers got subpoenas from a New York federal bankruptcy court for their payment records. Jenner deleted her promotional post as things went south. But it hadn’t been labeled as sponsored, though she was paid $250,000, according to Vice.
Varsity Blues for Olivia Jade
YouTube star Olivia Jade Giannulli's influencer career hit a significant bump earlier this year when her mother, Lori Loughlin, and father, Mossimo Giannulli, were charged in connection with the Operation Varsity Blues investigation with making illegal payments to secure her entry to University of Southern California. Her parents have pleaded not guilty, but @Oliviajade was inactive on social media from March to December and lost sponsorships from Amazon and Boohoo. She returned to YouTube Dec. 1 with a contrite video in which she explained that she couldn’t talk about her parents’ case.
Sponsored influencer wedding
Banker Gabriel Grossman “surprised” fashion influencer Marissa Casey (Fuchs) Grossman with an extravagant three-day social-media proposal that included a scavenger hunt spanning New York, Miami and Paris and ending in a French wedding. It all played out through her @fashionambitionist Instagram feed in June. But it wasn’t as “unplanned” as it seemed, as The Atlantic uncovered a pitch deck soliciting sponsors for what appeared to be a marketing stunt.
Beauty influencer battle
A YouTube drama tore at the fabric of the beauty blogger universe in May when Tati Westbrook unleashed a video attack on her former best friend and mentee James Charles, including the allegation that Charles, a gay male, had made unwanted advances to straight men. Charles defended himself with his own video, as Jeffree Star, another influencer, backed Westbrook’s claims on Twitter. Star later apologized for his role in the conflict, and the battle seems to have subsided after Westbrook deleted related videos and Charles began posting regularly again in June after a brief hiatus.
The whole thing appeared to start when Charles posted an Instagram Story promoting Sugar Bear Hair, a supplement brand that competes with Westbrook’s Halo Beauty supplement brand. Evercore analyst Robert Ottenstein even cited the battle as a factor that may be diminishing the role of influencers and, in turn, depressing cosmetics sales broadly.
PewDiePie’s anti-Semitic videos
Disney’s Maker Studios severed ties with YouTube’s then-biggest star PewDiePie in 2017 after The Wall Street Journal reported he’d posted nine videos with anti-Semitic jokes or Nazi imagery. YouTube canceled his premium show and removed him from the Google Preferred advertising network. The controversial vlogger was included in YouTube's 2019 rewind video, however, after fans complained of his absence.
Logan Paul’s trip through the suicide forest
YouTube celebrity Logan Paul in 2018 uploaded a video of an apparent suicide victim hanging from a tree in Japan’s “Suicide Forest,” complete with Paul laughing with friends as he asked the body: “Yo, are you alive? Are you fucking with us?” YouTube didn’t run ads with the video and eventually deleted it, but Paul later told The Hollywood Reporter that the controversy scuttled $5 million in business deals and plans to back “the next Axe.” He still made $14.5 million last year, Forbes estimated.
Bad trip in Bali
In a combination of bare buttocks and naked self-absorption, Swedish Instagram blogger Natalie Schlater, during a June trip to Bali, posted a photo of herself from the back wearing a thong bikini while overlooking a man harvesting rice in a field. Her caption: “Thinking about how different my life is from the man picking in the rice field every morning.” Her life headed downhill shortly thereafter. The social-media backlash caused Schlater to delete her Instagram account and apologize.
‘TanaCon’ or just plain con
In a miniature 2018 preview of the Fyre Festival, YouTube star Tana Mongeau announced an alternative to the video platform’s VidCon event in which she promised her 3 million-plus followers an exclusive meeting in Anaheim, California. But the event was overbooked and her fans, who’d paid as much as $2,000, were left standing outside in the sun getting burned, literally and figuratively. It took almost a month for refunds to start arriving.
Influencer gets 14-year sentence
Rossi Lothario Adams II, a.k.a. Polo, ran a series of Instagram accounts known as State Snaps at Iowa State University around 2015, amassing 1.5 million followers. But he didn’t own the website doitforstate.com, even though he was famous for the hashtag #DoItForState. The site owner wanted $20,000 for the domain, but Adams instead hired his cousin to threaten him at gunpoint and do the transfer. His cousin lost an ensuing gun battle, and Adams got sentenced to 14 years in prison in December.
Meaty details on a raw vegan
YouTube influencer Yovana Mendoza, a.k.a. Rawvana, whose claim to fame was promoting a “raw vegan” diet to her million followers, was caught eating fish in a video posted in January by another vlogger.
She later posted an apology video explaining that she had to start incorporating eggs and meat into her diet on doctor’s orders because the raw vegan diet she was promoting was making her sick.