It was genius in theory, but in practice, Fyre Festival proved a debacle of unprecedented proportions.
The 2017 festival that started with a buzzy influencer campaign and deteriorated into a cheese sandwich has come back into the news cycle courtesy of Netflix and Hulu. The documentaries incited action, including a GoFund Me campaign that raised nearly $220,000 for the festival’s caterers, and as some influencers have been issued subpoenas, the conversation has since turned to them.
Fyre Festival has become an example of what not to do, as those in influencer marketing continue to map out a murky, but lucrative space. It’s been nearly two years since the festival imploded, but it’s more relevant than ever to ask: Did the influencers do their due diligence?
Cole Trider, founder of public relations and event marketing firm Chasen Creative Media, which was not involved in Fyre Fest, said part of the blame placed on the influencers comes from the notion of influencers as authorities.
“People position influencers as superhumans, like they’re the authorities on everything — beauty, fashion, health, wellness and projects like this, when in fact, they’re humans,” he said. “They make mistakes. They were deceived just as much as the hundreds of people who were involved in this. You can’t hold them accountable for every single brand or decision or post because every situation’s different. It’s the event organizers who are at fault, here.”
Kyla Brennan, chief executive officer and founder of HelloSociety, a New York Times-owned influencer marketing agency that has produced more than 1,500 campaigns and was not involved with Fyre, agreed that the blame should be on festival founder Billy McFarland, as the influencers did what they showed up to do.
“[McFarland] flew all of them out to the island, where they thought this was going to take place, they saw firsthand the location, they got this luxury treatment, they had no reason to think this was going to be any different than what they were experiencing,” said Brennan. “They went down there for multiple days, they met the founders, they met the entire team. Truly, I don’t know what other diligence you could possibly do.”
The Fyre Festival models did fly to Great Exuma in the Bahamas, where they shared FOMO-inducing Instagrams and filmed a campaign video, above, that now has more than 4.5 million YouTube views. Per the documentaries, the models met with the Fyre team and got the luxury treatment — and the pay to match. IMG Models, which reps Bella Hadid and Hailey Bieber, who both appear in the campaign video, received more than $1.2 million from Fyre Media, as court documents allege. Jenner, who was not present for the campaign shoot but posted about the festival on Instagram, received $275,000.
The influencers seemingly completed what they were obligated to do and, judging by the droves of people who showed up to the non-existent festival, it worked. But there’s an implied element of responsibility to one’s followers that goes beyond a contract with a brand. And the above question remains.
“It’s a story as old as written history,” said Erik Gordon, professor at The University of Michigan, Ross School of Business. “If somebody shows up and says they’re doing something spectacular and it’s unlike anything they have ever done before, you have to say, ‘Really?’ If it’s somebody who’s thrown fantastic events, maybe you don’t dig in so much. But somebody who’s never done anything resembling this, and it’s a hard thing to do, if you don’t check it out, either you’re really naive or you just don’t care about checking it out. You can say, ‘they conned me,’ but you can also say, ‘I closed my eyes.’”
In this case, it’s hard to know whether the influencers probed further into McFarland and his festival. IMG and Hadid declined to offer comment. A rep for Jenner did not respond.
On April 29, 2017, shortly after the original mishap, Hadid shared a note to Twitter in which she said she was not informed of “the production or process of the festival in any shape or form.”
“I do know that it has always been out of great intent and they truly wanted all of us to have the time of our lives,” she wrote. “I initially trusted this would be an amazing & memorable experience for all of us, which is why I agreed to do one promotion…not knowing about the disaster that was to come…I feel so sorry and badly because this is something I couldn’t stand by, although of course if I would have known about the outcome, you would have all known too.”
Hadid was one of the few who broke her silence on the festival, and her post seems to indicate that she recognizes some sense of responsibility toward her followers. Many talk about the power of influence, but few talk about the responsibility that comes with it. To Gordon, part of being a responsible influencer is being able to defend your position.
“The whole premise of your power as an influencer, the power that gets you the benefits, is that people should allow themselves to be influenced by you,” said Gordon. “If that’s the case and you’re influencing [people] about something you know nothing or very little about, then people who are disappointed in you, angry at you and take you to court have a leg to stand on.
“No influencer has the right to force somebody else to be influenced by them,” he continued. “You earn your influence power and if somebody challenges it and says you’re responsible, you need to be able to defend your position. People will judge and at the end of the judgment will say either ‘they tried’ or ‘that’s a smoke screen, I’m never going to trust them again.’ And if [the influencers] get called into court, it’s going to be the same thing in front of the jury.”
The nature of influencer-brand relationships varies from partnership to partnership, and in this case, it’s safe to say the influencers were used purely as promotion and not production partners. It’s also worth noting that the Federal Trade Commission didn’t start cracking down on influencers until April 2017, when the festival was meant to take place, and Instagram didn’t roll out its partnerships feature, which further allows influencers to indicate whether a post is part of a paid partnership, until later that year.
Influencer marketing is still in its nascent stages, and it’s likely that more rules and regulations will arise. In the meantime, Trider said, a strong vetting process is important.
“A really strong vetting process is so important, of course in every business decision, but especially as an influencer who’s an arbiter of culture, fashion, beauty, wellness, lifestyle,” he said. “People have a vested interest and personal connection with these influencers, so it is really important for the influencer and their management team, their agent, whomever is helping them to fully get as detailed information as possible. It’s more than just one conversation, one offer. It’s a really cohesive process before they move forward with putting something on their channel.”