Unchecked influence in a gullible world 

opinion April 28, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

The controversy over celebrities endorsing Magic Skin products throws up a whole new set of problems



A new problem has arisen online in Thailand, with scores of celebrity “influencers” on the social media being summoned for chats with the police. They’re embroiled in controversy for hawking beauty and food products that aren’t entirely legal and might be unsafe. This comes at a time when everything that’s happening online is under greater scrutiny thanks to privacy breaches and fake news reports. Along with fake news, we must now also be extra careful about fake advice regarding skin treatments and nutrition.

Somewhat understandably, advertisers tend to hide the weak points of their products and exaggerate the strong ones. What is intolerable is resorting to blatant lies. If the lies are told in a credible manner, consumers suffer – and the buyer needn’t be naïve to fall for the trickery.

Lies of omission and commission have always been part of conventional advertising, but the social networks have made them more prevalent. Early on, the social media were credited with alerting consumers to falsehoods in mainstream advertising. Friends and relatives “liking” a certain product on Facebook indicated it was preferable to something seen in a TV commercial. Times have changed, however, as the current controversy involving Magic Skin-brand products demonstrates.

Thai users of the social media now see hundreds of “influencers” flouting retail products in their feeds. They can be well-known stars or people who’ve become celebrities solely because of their online presence, but they all can indeed influence sales of a product with a heartfelt endorsement. Marketers pay these people to plug their products on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. It’s entirely up to them whether they test the product’s merits or check its authorisation.

These influencers were previously quizzed about paying taxes on their income. The new row raises other causes for concern – consumer gullibility, the endorser’s irresponsibility and the fact the authorities have had to play catch-up regarding a potential public health risk. Consumers duped by mainstream advertisers can turn to regulatory bodies for compensation. There is no such process in place as yet to counter this new phenomenon. The influencers, their agents and the marketers bear all the responsibility, and the fewer people there are involved, the less scrutiny.

When consumers see a celebrity they admire endorsing a particular “anti-ageing cream”, for example, they are likely to assume the cream has been properly tested and marketed. In mainstream advertising, exaggeration is easier to spot. This isn’t the case with influencer advertising. 

The celebrities are not necessarily guilty of exaggeration or blatant lying. It could be argued that they’re not equipped to properly scrutinise the products themselves, and the process they’re involved in doesn’t allow experts or regulators to interfere. This is ironic, though, because the process requires stronger ethics and deeper personal responsibility than mainstream advertising. They share the responsibility by default, so it stands to reason that they should exercise that responsibility, more so than a mainstream product presenter does.

The Magic Skin imbroglio teaches us all that social media advertising has evolved to match mainstream advertising, not least because so many people are using the online networks. Gone are the days when people base their car-purchase decisions on social media advice, believing they’re heard honest opinions.