Makeup artist Sasha Louise Pallari started her hashtag #filterdrop in summer 2020. A social media campaign to discourage influencers promoting beauty products by using filters to exaggerate their effect, it paid off last week when the Advertising Standards Authority banned two tanning brands from using misleading filters on Instagram Stories. The ruling means that in future all use of filters will be more tightly controlled – and, so the theory goes, more “natural” content likely to be seen on social media.
This is the latest backlash over the perfection presented by influencers, reflecting an anger that has been building during the pandemic which is changing the way some of them work. Last month influencers including Love Island stars Amber Gill, Laura Anderson and Anton Danyluk, and fitness influencer Sheridan Mordew, travelled to Dubai and posted what looked like holiday snaps – often promoting beauty products – while their followers in the UK were subject to lockdown measures. Despite insistence that they were working – and an unlikely defence by Kathy Burke on Twitter – those involved were derided as tone-deaf. Home secretary Priti Patel even commented on the story. It’s thought that Anderson lost 12,000 followers as a result of the controversy, while Danyluk lost 14,000. The influencer economy was valued at $6.5bn (£5bn) in 2019, with around 20% of brands’ marketing budget spent with influencer posts. The power of the glossy, glamorous side of influencers remains undeniable for the moment – possibly because of a demand for escapism. And if some influencers lost followers while in Dubai, research from Rouge Media found Maura Higgins, who also appeared on Love Island, gained over 150,000 more.
Pallari is under no illusions that her campaign will lead to overnight change: “It’s not like people aren’t aware of what I’m doing, but there’s an element of ‘they’re not bothered’ – ‘I like using filters so what’s the big deal?’” she says.
However, she adds: “I do think it’s going to change because people are craving to see the normal – but there’s also a huge percentage of people who aren’t ready for it.
“I passionately believe the filters are a huge contributing factor to the mental health issues of young girls – and anybody who wants to wear makeup. They’re looking at this face and comparing what they see in the mirror and thinking a) ‘Why doesn’t it [the product] work on me like that?’ and b) ‘Why do I look horrendous when they look so flawless?’”
Male influencer Rahi Chadda agrees with her campaign, telling the BBC this ruling is “a step in the right direction”. Little Mix star Jesy Nelson joined the crusade. Posting on her Instagram story she wrote “embrace that nose”, commenting, “I’m so confused why whoever makes these filters think that is what beauty is?” Others have expressed concern that filters largely conform to Eurocentric ideals.
Tina Craig, the woman behind the successful Bag Snob Instagram and her own beauty line U Beauty, has called for a filter disclosure tag. Like Pallari, she fears they may affect the self-esteem of people seeing these images. “Everyone should do whatever makes them happy, but at the same time, getting plastic surgery to look like an Instagram filter makes me sad,” she says.
There are signs that the move away from the artifice on social media is growing, though. Dazed Media – the parent company of Dazed magazine (formerly Dazed & Confused) – published a report on youth culture last year that declared “the end of the influencer”, with only 6% of their audience swayed to buy something when it was posted by an influencer with over 100,000 followers. “No one – but especially Gen Z – likes to be lied to, and influencer culture feels so vapid and meaningless, especially with the pandemic,” says Izzy Farmiloe, strategy director of Dazed Media. “Buying stuff is not what’s important right now. It’s all about people who stand for something, beyond just trying to promote and push a product.”
Nicole Ocran, an influencer with 28,000 followers who set up influencer union The Creator Union last year, says the content on her Instagram that has had the most engagement during the pandemic is less than glamorous. “People message me and say, ‘I look forward to seeing your little Story in the morning about how you have made yourself a cup of coffee and done your Yoga With Adrienne video,’” she says. “[It’s] something small and mundane, but keeps us all going. It’s not even a sense of, ‘Oh, she’s got up and put on this glamorous outfit’, because nine times out of 10 I haven’t done that. It’s more, ‘She’s got up! So I’ll get up too.’”
Both Ocran and Farmiloe predict that it’s influencers who, as Farmiloe says, “stand for something” who will be the leaders in future. “As soon as you start to chase after the money, you become less authentic,” says Farmiloe. Ocran has noticed that brands are becoming more targeted. “They’re focusing on people who have something to say, who have a voice, who have some opinion about something,” she says. “They aren’t just clothes horses to sell you fast fashion or mascara or teeth whitening.”
Pallari, when asked about the future of influencers, has a simple wish. “I’d love to think that in five years’ time we look at a photo online and it looks like an actual human rather than an alien,” she says.