It could shake up the controversial but lucrative world of celebrity social media endorsements.

By Jeff John Roberts
May 7, 2017
May 07, 2017

Last week’s Fyre Festival debacle caused the Internet to erupt in gleeful mockery, and understandably so. After all, who doesn’t appreciate the irony of an ultra-exclusive music event for rich kids devolving into a Lord of the Flies hell? Since news of the festival’s collapse trickled out last Friday, everyone from Vanity Fair to Rolling Stone has piled on, lambasting the organizers and the celebrities who got paid to hype the event on social media (before not attending).

But while the media attention over l’affaire Fyre has begun to fade, the legal fallout is just beginning. By the time that process is over, the lucrative and controversial world of celebrity social media endorsements—which clearly helped spark interest in the ill-fated music festival—may not be the same.

To understand what’s at stake, it’s important to know how the Fyre Festival took shape in the first place. It started late last year when the organizers, who include the musician Ja Rule and a young executive with a checkered past, arranged for a litany of “influencers” to hype the festival—styled as a sort of Caribbean Coachella—on platforms like Instagram.

As a slide deck leaked to Vanity Fair shows, these hired-gun celebrity influencers (known as “Fyre starters”) were key to selling the festival. They included models, clothing designers, and personalities such as Kendall Jenner who fall into the category of “famous for being famous.” Most importantly, as this slide shows, all of them command millions of followers on social media:

via Vanity Fair

The Fyre influencers did their bit, taking to social media in December to say how exciting the festival would be and exhorting others to join them. In the wake of last weekend’s debacle, the influencers (or more likely their managers) quickly scrubbed the promotional posts from their Instagram accounts.

A handful of the endorsements remain up. As NPR discovered, Fyre-related posts from at least three of the influencers can still be found. In each case the promotional post is simply an orange square (presumably tied to a marketing scheme) posted by the influencer along with shout-out the festival. Here’s an example:

It remains unclear what exactly the influencers received in exchange for renting out their Instagram accounts in this way. Reports suggest, at a minimum, they received free travel and accommodations to the island event.

In the case of Jenner, however, a source told Vice she received $250,000 to promote the festival with a boat photo. (Jenner’s rep declined to comment.) The post has since vanished from Jenner’s Instagram account, but not before people captured a screenshot:

When the disastrous festival unfolded, these celebrities were nowhere to be found. The most likely explanation is someone warned them that things were amiss. According to people who did attend the event, the festival’s “luxury accommodations” turned out to be tents, the fine catering was cheese sandwiches, and the bands scheduled to play had cancelled. And so the celebrities stayed far away.

Those who did show up (presumably including many of the influencers’ followers) were less lucky. They were left to rue the time and expense it had cost to attend an event that didn’t happen. Many of them slept on the floor of the airport.

Suing Kendall

To the surprise of no one, lawsuits over the failed Fyre Festival are already piling up. They include a class-action complaint from a high-profile Hollywood lawyer that seeks $100 million in damages from the organizers.

“[It was] nothing more than a get-rich-quick scam from the very beginning [to] fleece attendees for hundreds of millions of dollars by inducing them to fly to a remote island without food, shelter or water—and without regard to what might happen to them after that,” says the complaint, according to Billboard.

But while the $100 million case grabbed the most headlines, the more interesting complaint may be one filed a day later in California state court. That case names not only the organizers but also the social media influencers, who are being sued for fraud, negligent misrepresentation, and unfair trade practices.

According to William McGeveran, a law professor at the University of Minnesota, concertgoers could have a case against anyone paid to hype the Fyre Festival.

“In the offline world, there is precedent for such claims. For example, door-to-door salespersons using deceptive high-pressure tactics could be personally liable for fraud or violating the California [commercial code], right alongside the company that employed them,” he said. “The plaintiffs here are arguing that Fyrefest is the Instagram equivalent of door-to-door sales fraud.”

The Fyre Festival controversy also comes weeks after the Federal Trade Commission issued a warning to Instagram influencers saying that they must do more to disclose when they are paid to shill for stuff. In the past, the agency has censured brands for using celebrities in stealth social campaigns, but has not taken against the celebrities themselves. The Fyre debacle could prove an occasion to do just that.

For now, the California class action suit has yet to name specific influencers, instead referring to 100 unnamed “Jane Does.” McGeveran says this decision not to name Fyre influencers like Jenner or model Emily Ratajkowski could be a tactic to encourage the influencers to turn against the organizers to keep themselves out of trouble. It could also be a tactic to use the legal process known as discovery to learn more about how Fyre recruited and paid the influencers.

But however the legal process unfolds, it’s likely to make Instagram celebrities think twice about how they rent out their social media profiles. Not only did the Fyre Festival promotions hurt their credibility with fans—it could also hurt them in the pocket books if a judge decides they share any of the legal blame for the event.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested the FTC has fined brands over the use of influencers. While the agency had filed complaints, it has not imposed financial penalties.

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