Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Consumer goods giant Unilever, the world’s second-biggest advertiser, is cutting ties with digital media "influencers" that buy followers, saying that it wants to help make advertising more transparent.

With big brands advertising more on social media sites like Instagram and Facebook, a cottage industry of "influencers" has sprung up, in which celebrities and other popular people earn money by posting about products. But their audience numbers, which often dictate their fees, can be enhanced by purchasing followers.

The practice of buying followers risks eroding trust and therefore damaging one of the fastest-growing areas of advertising, the $1bn-a-year market now known as "influencer marketing" and Unilever said it wants it to stop.

Its chief marketing officer, Keith Weed, was due to pledge on Monday that the maker of Dove soap and Hellmann’s mayonnaise would never buy followers or work with influencers who buy followers. It would prioritise social media platforms that stamp out fraud and increase transparency.

"There are lots of great influencers out there, but there are a few bad apples spoiling the barrel and the trouble is everyone goes down once the trust is undermined," he said.

There Are A Few Bad Apples … And The Trouble Is, Everyone Goes Down Once The Trust Is Undermined

The announcement comes four months after Weed made waves by threatening to pull investment from digital platforms such as Facebook and Google if they did not take steps to improve consumer trust and eradicate "toxic" online content.

It also comes as Unilever and rival Procter & Gamble audit their advertising spending and agency relationships in efforts to operate more efficiently.

They are working with fewer agencies, creating fewer adverts and bringing some marketing work in-house.

Fake followers are often machine-generated profiles fuelled by bots, or software applications that mimic human behaviour. They can "like" or comment on posts, giving the impression of popularity.

It is hard to pinpoint how prevalent the practice of buying followers is, but Weed said he had heard estimates that as much as 40% of influencers have been involved at some point, sometimes accidentally.

Peter Storck, co-founder of influencer marketing measurement firm Points North Group, said all companies he had analysed had fallen prey, including Unilever. Storck said that besides misleading consumers, bots waste money, since brands are spending to reach eyeballs that do not exist, making it even harder to gauge returns on digital investments.

"They don’t know what they’re getting for it and they spend a lot of money giving impressions to bots," he said.

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A study in 2017 by Rakuten Marketing said that some UK marketers were willing to pay celebrity influencers more than £75,000 for a single Facebook post. A "micro-influencer," with fewer than 10,000 followers, might earn as much as £1,500, the firm said.

Weed declined to say how much Unilever paid its influencers. He said the company did not now have "a major issue" with fake followers since it had already cleaned up its stable of partners.

Reuters