Contributor: Nicole Chew
In a gleaming Audi Q5 SUV, Steve Jones and his family pull up in front of an elegant, granite-cladded, multi-storey home. Steve’s wife, Kate, and their two teenagers, Jenn and Mick, excitedly step out to admire their new digs.
Absurdly good-looking and impossibly likeable, the newest residents of this leafy, gated suburb have no trouble fitting in with their wealthy, polished neighbours. Their house is immaculately decorated, their clothes are never out of season, and their gadgets always seem a little bit shinier and more sophisticated than everyone else’s. Every encounter with this picture perfect, all-American nuclear family reminds their well-to-do friends of all the ways they perpetually fall short. The Joneses’ presence repeatedly forces them to confront their own failure to achieve the blissful, domestic, upper-class existence they’ve always strived for.
But this doesn’t drive members of the community to dislike the Joneses. How could anyone? They’re always willing to share their secrets, such as where to find the ingredients for the ultimate pomegranate cocktail, or the best home theatre system that will take your football viewing get-togethers to the next level. If anything, the neighbours are even more drawn to them as they come to realise that the seemingly unattainable lives led by the Joneses are in fact within their grasp, only a credit card swipe away.
There’s only one secret the Joneses won’t spill: they’re not actually a family at all. They’re co-workers. Posing as a family, this team of covert salespeople are hired by retail corporations to promote clothing, beauty products, video games and cars by targeting consumers in the residential area. As all members of Team Jones establish themselves within their own demographic segment, whether in school, on the golf course, or at the salon, they skilfully use their influence to advertise and recommend new merchandise to their peers.
This is the premise of The Joneses, a film released in 2010 starring Demi Moore and David Duchovny. Written and directed by Derrick Borte, the dark comedy acted as a commentary on modern consumerism and society’s crippling need to acquire material goods as a display of social status.
In the name of satirical entertainment, Borte crafted a Black Mirror-esque world where individuals could successfully make a career solely out of corporate-sponsored pretence. These marketers are more than just salespeople. They’re actors, performing scenes of perfect, contented lives using sponsored products as their props. They’re models, whose lives are a curated catalogue convincing you that if only you had their stuff, you would look and feel just as good. But their most important role is that of the friend, earning your trust and embedding themselves in your social circle, only to exploit their personal connection with you to sway your purchasing decisions. Thank goodness that’s all fiction, right?
Cut to almost a decade later, the Joneses are everywhere. These days, they go by the title ‘influencer’ and with the rise of digital media, they’re no longer confined to a single zip code.
Take a cursory scroll through your Instagram explore page and it shouldn’t take more than a few seconds for a SponCon (sponsored content) photo to pop up. It may be a pretty, female twenty-something posing with a box of diarrhea-inducing diet tea as naturally as she can, or an extremely bulky personal trainer gripping an energy drink while doing one-armed push-ups. While the label of ‘influencer’ is often loosely applied, your typical influencer will usually boast a sizable, loyal and engaged group of followers on one or multiple social media platforms. Brands pay them to promote products by utilising their prominent online personas and ability to reach a specific audience.
Influencers can include celebrities or household names with over 100 million followers such as reality-star-turned-supermodel Kendall Jenner, but a majority will fall into the category of ‘micro-influencer’. The micro-influencer will have a more modest following of 10,000 to 25,000, and can make a living from their status and expertise in a particular field or community. This subgroup of influencers tends to most closely resemble a 2019 version of the Joneses.
The Joneses of 2019 are glossier and more tech savvy but their strategy remains the same. First, you need to find a niche. Just as the Joneses divided and conquered by each targeting a specific market group, be it insecure teenage girls, bored suburban homemakers or polo-shirt wearing country club frequenters, today’s influencers can be found in virtually every category you can think of. From single female travellers to keto-based meal-prep fanatics or sustainable tech geeks, be sure that influencers have permeated each of these spheres.
Next, position yourself as an authority in the community. For your audience to listen to you, they have to aspire to become like you. The Joneses do this by constantly showcasing all the ways they are happy and thriving. Influencers in this age have the perfect medium to do this: Instagram. There’s a reason most social media influencers use the photo-sharing app as their primary platform for partnering with brands. With its symmetrical square grid layout and easy scrolling format, anyone looking to craft a pictorial summary of their cohesive, vibrant and flourishing life can easily do so with an iPhone camera and a bit of photo-editing.
As the Joneses’ marketing supervisor KC counsels midway through the film: “To succeed here you can’t just sell things. You’re here to sell a lifestyle and an attitude. If people want you, they’ll want what you’ve got.”
Finally, the crucial step that differentiates influencer marketing from any other advertising channel is the human touch the influencer brings to their relationship with the audience. Naomi Fry wrote in the New Yorker that the commercial power influencers have over their following is largely connected to “the sense that they are just ordinary people who happen to be recommending a product that they enjoy”. As flawless as the Joneses are, they keep themselves accessible to the people they seek to influence. They maintain friendships and social ties with neighbours, shopkeepers, classmates and peers. Influencers know their role requires the same relational upkeep, and they constantly forge connections with their followers by interacting with them through comments, polls, contests and live streams.
Last year, a survey found that three-quarters of companies in the US currently use influencer marketing, and almost half planned to increase their spending on it. With a growing number of brands putting stock in them, it’s safe to say the popularity of influencers isn’t about to wane anytime soon.
And kids today increasingly view being an influencer as a legitimate career path. A UK poll involving parents of 11 to 16-year-olds revealed that ‘social media influencer’ was the second most in-demand profession that children aspired to enter into, at 17 per cent, just after ‘doctor’ at 18 per cent.
Those who scoff at the idea of taking mirror selfies with a teeth-whitening strip and calling it a vocation might think twice after looking at the regular earnings of those in this trade. An influencer with 10,000 to 50,000 followers is said to receive at least a few thousand US dollars for each sponsored post. If you manage to round up a million followers, you might get away with charging $100,000 per post.
It’s no wonder young people are willing to invest their time, effort and money into professional ‘influencing’. A university in Dubai has even announced plans to offer up a diploma programme on how to become a full-time social media influencer, accredited by the UAE Ministry of Education.
So how did we get to this point? Was Borte’s feature film an uncannily accurate prediction of what our consumerist culture would look like ten years down the line? Has our society reached the peak of material worship?
You might argue that influencer marketing isn’t a new concept at all. Years before social media, designer labels regularly sent their clothing to well-known actresses in the hopes that they might be photographed wearing them. Back in the nineties, Camel cigarettes introduced their brand into a network of nightclubs by giving bartenders free cigarettes, essentially turning them into brand ambassadors. The marketer behind this campaign, Michael Blatter, explained:
“If you needed to bum a smoke, bartenders would always have an ample supply of their own favourite brand, or if you needed a recommendation for a cocktail, bartenders are always ready to tell you what to order. They were the natural influencers.”
It could be that the rise of influencers is just a repackaged version of familiar marketing methods like product endorsements and word-of-mouth, having evolved alongside the growth of digital space and social media. A decade from now, when Instagram hashtags and influencer partnerships become a thing of the past, another generation of Steves, Kates, Micks and Jenns will still occupy our social worlds, finding new platforms to strategically shape our wants and desires. The Joneses will always be around, and we’ll always want to keep up.
Nicole Chew is a Master of Media Practice student at the University of Sydney. Contact her by email.