How Brands, Magazines and Celebrities Exploit #Ad Loopholes to Sell You Things
I’ll never forget picking up my first copy of AdBusters.
While it may sound obvious now, at 13 years old I was truly shocked to discover that all the seemingly different brands of the world were in fact owned by the same small cadre of mega-corporations in an attempt to create the illusion of choice. I was flabbergasted to realize that by wearing clothes emblazoned with logos I was doing little more than serving as a walking billboard for a brand, reinforcing notions of class and status through my every choice in apparel when all I really wanted to do was fit in.
But it wasn’t until working in the fashion industry for almost a decade that I realized the true lengths brands will go to influence consumers.
While the FTC is still struggling to enforce laws around #ads and the paid social media content of celebrities and influencers, fashion labels and magazines have already found alternative loopholes and are exploiting them to major success.
It’s no secret that the red carpet is often a big parade of financial transactions. If a celebrity is not outright paid to wear a particular brand to say the Oscars or the premiere of their new film, then there are often more tacit forms of compensation at play. Be it in the form of lavish gifting (which in turn equals more sales for the brand), headline-making custom pieces for future events or the promise of campaign deals and magazine covers down the road.
Perhaps people aren’t familiar with the open secret that many fashion magazine covers are bought and paid for by brands. It’s no coincidence that all these Louis Vuitton spokeswomen happen to appear on the cover of major fashion publications styled exclusively in head-to-toe looks from the brand, shot by photographers who also shot the brand’s last campaign. Covers, in today’s media landscape, have become little more than the most expensive ads money can buy. A win-win for brands and publishers, a huge loss for originality, creativity, and the readership of these magazines.
Magazines have even found a way to turn a profit in their fashion editorials. It’s now become common practice for at least one outfit in every spread to be outright paid for by an advertiser. When I worked as a fashion assistant, I remember many difficult discussions with stylists about how to make an advertiser’s look — a look that had no business being included in the shoot to begin with — work for the story.
And those “Top 5 Beauty Products” lists? Same thing. At least one of those items is traditionally a paid placement.
But Vogue is even craftier than most with their print magazine monetization. If you read the captions on their editorials, you’ll often find oddly specific suggestions of what you should do while wearing a particular garment. Know where that $5,000 rhinestone dress would really sparkle? At Bowlmor Lanes, of course!
However, the truly insidious unmarked #ads don’t transpire on the step-and-repeat or in the latest fashion glossy. Those deals take place in everyday life and are then captured and resold by the paparazzi ad infinitum.
The first time I really thought deeply about this was in 2018 when Kendall Jenner was photographed strolling around a park for about an hour doing cutesy, summertime activities like playing basketball and eating ice cream all while wearing a denim jacket, top, jeans and scrunchie from American Eagle.
My first thought, of course, was why would one of the most famous models in the world spend an hour out in public, alone, where she could easily be recognized and mobbed?
My second was there’s no way in hell Kendall Jenner would be caught dead wearing American Eagle unless there was something in it for her.
Which is when it dawned on me—this outfit is surely a paid ad.
It’s a genius if duplicitous strategy, actually. Not only does this brand get placement on an A-lister who would otherwise never wear their clothes, but it is also guaranteed to be photographed a hundred times over and covered by every major news outlet. Case in point, this Vogue headline: “Kendall Jenner’s Supermodel-Worthy Skinny Jeans Are Less Than $50.” You best believe that’s the first and last time links to American Eagle products have ever appeared in America’s premiere fashion publication.
I was recently reminded of this questionable advertising technique after Irina Shayk’s breakup from Bradley Cooper. The media breathlessly covered every photo of the model it could find following the split, itemizing her every move and choice of wardrobe. And Shayk, in turn, appears to have capitalized on that attention like the pro spokesmodel she is.
Following their separation, the model’s street style ensembles and Instagram account featured pieces exclusively from all of the biggest labels she happens to work for. At one point, she, her daughter, and ex Bradley Cooper even all wore Burberry for the first photos of them meeting up post-breakup. One month later, Shayk would reveal she‘d been chosen as the face of that brand’s Fall 2019 campaign.
This is a classic industry move. Although the FTC is slowly getting better at cracking down on unmarked #ads, free gifting remains a nebulous point of contention. Disclosure of gifts is technically mandatory, but it’s difficult to discern from a single Instagram or paparazzi pic where products came from or who paid for them. This leads to a whole lot of shameless posting of free swag without any legal repercussions.
At the end of the day, I’m not saying that any of these practices are inherently wrong. Brands, influencers, celebrities, and publishers are merely turning an enormous profit by exploiting the loopholes in our already broken fashion economy.
It’s the way we cover it all up and pretend that good taste isn’t bought and sold for millions of dollars a day that I find to be unnecessarily sinister.
This industry has a total lack of transparency with the public about how it actually works, where the money is made, who is beholden to whom, and who ultimately benefits. What is wrong is magazines and celebrities positioning themselves as authorities and arbiters of taste while obfuscating who pays their salaries and how those pieces actually end up on the page.
Not only does this narrative wildly underestimate fashion consumers’ intelligence, but it also creates a fairytale version of how our industry functions promoting every editor and A-lister as an organic fashion plate while ignoring all the hard work, strategy, and capitalism that is very much at the core of this business. It dumbs fashion down to just some billionaire’s frou-frou fantasy.
I think it’s time to destroy that illusion and invite the public behind the luxury curtain to see how the couture sausage is made.
It’s time to reveal fashion’s well-heeled Wizard of Oz for the avaricious crone she’s become.