In defence of true marketing influencers

—Influencer marketing was in the news for all the wrong reasons this month, thanks to an ill-conceived drunken flight to Mexico. But those weren’t real influencers on that plane, says Eric Blais.—

The Prime Minister called them idiots. He used more colourful language in French, calling them “une gang de sans-dessin” and “des Ostrogoths en vacance.” The latter is an insult used by Capitaine Haddock, the grumpy character in the Tintin book series.

Most Canadian media reports about the party aboard the Sunwing flight to Cancun were kinder, referring to the passengers as influencers from Quebec. But that’s misleading, and it hurts the reputation of those respected influencers who use online platforms to deliver valuable content to their followers.

Some of the selfie-taking happy vacationers were Kardashian wannabes, while others briefly appeared in reality TV shows like the French version of Love Island—in which, ironically, participants looked for love in Mexico. Many are social media addicts in search of a good time, obsessively driven to add followers and generate likes by posting “content” designed to do so. For many, achieving 15 minutes of fame or shame is all the same, as long as it keeps them out of obscurity.

They went too far while partying at 30,000 feet. Not only did they ignore basic Transport Canada regulations on the way to Mexico, they did what they can never resist doing: Recording their antics for the world to see. They are, after all, “influencers,” and this requires authentic, real-life conversations with followers to keep them engaged.

Most have so far made no public apologies. In fact, some have declared that this has been blown out of proportion by the media and politicians. Still, one can easily see how this merry band of so-called influencers on vacation quickly got out of control after take-off.

They were promised a flight on “a private plane with a DJ,” which meant a party plane aboard which the normal rules of conduct don’t apply. One young lady from Trois-Rivières, who ended up stuck in Tulum after contracting Covid-19, was hoping for a safe and relaxing break after winning the trip through a Facebook contest. Perhaps she felt safe being part of this boondoggle because most promotions involving contests are strictly regulated in Quebec.

It was a chartered plane operated by discount carrier Sunwing. Perhaps most partiers were too young to remember that Sunwing once faced a class-action lawsuit for its “Champagne Service” claim, when in actuality it was serving sparkling wine in plastic glasses.

The airline’s CEO Colin Hunter called the passengers imbeciles in an interview with Le Journal de Montréal, though he did not say that about their lack of regard for basic safety measures in a pandemic. “If they hadn’t been stupid enough to put this on social media, no one would have known and they could have had a great time and lived happily ever after,” he said (the translation is mine).

These so-called influencers were themselves under the influence of an organizer who appears to have known exactly who he was catering to when he imagined this New Year’s jaunt. But he seems to lack any real concern about what unfolded.

In numerous interviews and social posts—published seemingly without legal counsel or media training—28-year-old James Willian Awad appears to be wondering what all the fuss is about. Despite attracting a lot of negative media attention and scrutiny about his business affairs, he says he’s intent on learning from this, so that the next adventure is even more fun for all involved. He also intends to make a movie about the experience. Why not? The Fyre Festival documentaries were a big hit.

This saga could not have happened without the amplified, distorted reality of social media and reality TV. These folks have followers, and some probably now have more as a result of the fiasco, which they likely view as well worth it. One of them made the front page of the Journal de Montréal, flipping the bird at a photographer upon his arrival at Trudeau Airport. He, too, must be pleased with the exposure and his increased celebrity status on social media.

But having a ton of followers doesn’t make someone a marketing influencer—having credibility and knowledge does. Productive collaborations with influencers usually involve people who excel at what they do: Innovators, experts and thought leaders in a number of industries who produce quality content. Importantly, serious influencers follow the guidelines issued by Ad Standards Canada to ensure transparency.

So while these reckless partiers put influencer marketing in the news for all the wrong reasons once again, the bad press was unfortunate and misleading. Real influencers would have stayed home for New Year’s.