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Before social media ads, in a time that feels long ago (and before the birth of some members of Gen Z), ads were largely restricted to paper in magazines and unavoidable commercial breaks with, if a brand did something right, jingles that became earworms.
Today, however, thousands of influencers serve as walking, talking billboards for brands that are aligned with their interests, aesthetics and followers. The result? Their followers want to know what’s up. The combined effect of the rise of influencers, influencer marketing and an entirely digitally native generation is that normal people, aka consumers, are savvier than ever.
Case in point: the debacle of the Prada Christmas ornaments. On December 18, mega-influencer and Gen-Z “it” girl Devon Lee Carlson (1.4 million Instagram followers, 615,000 TikTok followers) posted herself unboxing a holiday gift from Prada. The video has over 477,000 views. In short, Carlson is shown sitting on the floor next to what appears to be the $3300 Prada Cleo bag bedecked in crystals, suggesting that was the real holiday gift Carlson received from the brand. Then, she opens a box of black and white Prada ornaments and says, “I might have to get a tree.” As she brings the ornaments closer to the camera, one falls out and shatters, and Carlson gasps and then laughs.
The next day, influencer Xenia Adonts (1.2 million TikTok followers, 1.9 million Instagram followers) posted her own Prada unboxing video, also breaking an ornament in the process. Bryan Grey Yambao, aka Bryanboy (2.6 million TikTok followers), broke one of his gifted Prada ornaments at the end of a longer unboxing post on December 11.
Surely this couldn’t just be a coincidence, TikTok wondered aloud. Danae Mercer, a journalist, posted a video on December 27 titled, “Why three influencers deliberately broke their Prada ornaments,” which has 2.6 million views. Mercer suggests that the videos were part of a brand-orchestrated campaign and that the ornaments were gifted. (The latter part seems obvious, even to a non-expert.) A comment that made me laugh: “This campaign reminds me of something ‘Emily In Paris’ would come up with.”
But then came, as they say, the backlash to the backlash. By December 29, Tyler McCall, editor-in-chief at Fashionista (31,000 TikTok followers) posted her own take, rebutting the concept that this was a planned campaign. “Let’s run through the reasons why this doesn’t actually make sense in this particular case. First of all, there’s this simple fact that this doesn’t really work for a brand like Prada,” McCall says. Yambao commented: “Also I didn’t even get the Cleo bag 🤣.” Eventually, Yambao responded in follow-up posts, too. “In luxury, image is everything. Why would a luxury brand want people to destroy their goods?” he said.
I reached out to McCall to discuss the whole thing on both a micro and macro level. On the smaller scale, she said, there was the (simple) issue of packaging. “I saw [the initial] videos before I saw the ‘conspiracy videos,’ and mostly what I thought was just like, ‘Those ornaments were packaged really poorly.’ They put a lot of money into making it look nice and not so much money into making sure glass ornaments wouldn’t fall out and break.”
Then, of course, there’s the fact that “there’s a carelessness with influencers who didn’t pay for these things,” she said.
OK, so — let’s set aside the question of whether or not this was a marketing stunt. FWIW, my vote is that it absolutely was not. Prada JUST ran a highly successful campaign around its bucket hats featuring influencers like Bella Poarch, providing proof of its marketing savvy (when it’s intentional).
What remains is the notion that people (and young ones!) actually care about marketing strategies. And they not only care, but they want to debate them on TikTok. (It’s worth noting that a number of parodies spoofing the situation were also made — see here, here and here.) “There’s so much opacity around [the influencer marketing] process that it has made a lot of people, especially Gen Z, who is the first generation to really grow up with this kind of marketing, deeply suspicious of everything. Ultimately, it’s probably a good instinct to have, even if you’re not always right about it,” McCall said.
So, the fourth wall has essentially collapsed. According to Raina Penchansky, co-founder and CEO of influencer management company Digital Brand Architects, it’s a delicate time for brands. “It’s like: ‘I’m good for you to sell me. But I just want you to sell to me in a way that I relate to, so that I feel like it’s organic, as opposed to you talking down to me.’” Plus, TikTok especially “loves to get into it, [they] really love the tea,” she said. So, as CEO of a company that manages 180 influencers, Penchansky said she thinks about when an audience can “see the strings.”
“A decade ago or even a few years ago, media and content was top-down. We were all told what was cool. We were told what was relevant. We were told what to buy. Now, with content creators and influencers, the switch has flipped in a way where things start from the bottom-up. It’s: ‘We’re going to create those trends and determine what we want, rather than be told,” Penchansky said. Here’s the nuance: It’s not that people refuse marketing — not at all, actually. But they want to be in on the joke. They don’t want the wool pulled over their eyes.
“It doesn’t have to feel like everything is manufactured. Things can feel like there was a process. And it’s OK for people to understand more about the process. That only gives them more of a positive relationship with the brand,” she said.
I asked Penchansky if she thought the entire phenomenon would give birth to a new generation of (very young) marketers. “Yes, but I also think it’s going to generate more creative campaigns,” she said. “There’s a new generation of content creators who are speaking a little bit more of this stripped-down language. You’re gonna see really interesting campaigns and content from it.”
Collabs of the week
New year, (unsurprisingly) new collabs — and lots of them. Below, a few worth taking note of.
Baked by Melissa x Native
If you’ve always wanted your armpits to smell more like a vanilla cupcake, this collab is perfect for you. Personal care brand Native’s mashup with Baked by Melissa, the bakery known for its single-bite cupcakes, spans deodorants, body wash and shampoo in four flavors: tie-dye vanilla cupcake, mint cookie cupcake, fresh peach cupcake and ginger lemonade cupcake. Shop it here.
Loewe x ‘Spirited Away’
The 2001 film “Spirited Away” has become iconic, and now its characters and imagery can be seen on a new Loewe collection. The collaboration encompasses bags, scarves, jeans and blankets. Shop it here.
Waterdrop x Olivia Culpo
Hydration is still in style! Just ask influencer Olivia Culpo (4.9 million Instagram followers), who just partnered with Waterdrop, maker of bottles and tiny, flavored cubes that aim to encourage people to drink more water. The Culpo-branded kits range from $45-$90, depending on if you buy her bottle alone or with sets of “microdrinks.” Shop it here.
Ugg x Cher
The shearling footwear brand is having a moment. (No, really — its trendy ultra mini boot is back-ordered until the summer of ’22.) And now, it’s being co-signed by Cher. The iconic multihyphenate is the star of the brand’s new Ugg FEEL ____ campaign. Watch the highly endearing video here.
Beauty launches to know
In the hopes that people may actually need or want to use complexion makeup this year, a spate of new releases has hit. There’s Charlotte Tilbury’s new Beautiful Skin Foundation, for which the brand tapped iconic supermodel Kate Moss, “Bridgerton” actor Phoebe Dyvenor and supermodel Jourdan Dunn for the launch campaign. Shop it here.
Meanwhile, Smashbox, one of professional makeup’s OGs, has just re-released its extensive range of primers, which includes formulas for countering redness, hydrating, mattifying and illuminating. An all-new fifth formula is on the way. The brand sees the re-launch as a means of doubling down on the “skinification” of makeup. Each formula is fortified with skin-care ingredients. Shop them here.
Inside Our Coverage
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How armpits became a skin-care category
Meet Edikted, Gen Z’s new favorite brand
Legends only: Cher looks back on her best beauty moments (Note: Ugg wasn’t the only brand to partner with Cher this week. MAC did, too, and ELLE interviewed her upon the occasion.)
Dior’s vibe collection gives gymwear—and treadmills—a luxurious makeover
Hair tinsel is the glitzy, unexpected accent that’s been seen over a billion times on TikTok