Dear Brands: It’s Time to Impose Ethics on the Influencers You Pay

Today, we are battling a new scourge: overtourism. Now we’re inundated with “influencas” — people who have been infected by a viral post and want similar photos of themselves to post on social media. It’s a challenge that destinations all over the globe face

I first started noticing them in mid-September, the start of foliage season here in Vermont. Suddenly they were everywhere, young women wearing short shiny skirts, orange sweaters, and thigh-high brown suede boots. Many were lugging expensive camera equipment.

Why the “uniforms?” friends and neighbors began asking one another. And why the utterly impractical boots for a small Vermont village? To answer these questions I turned to Instagram. It took less than 30 seconds to discover the answer: last year someone with the handle MyDarlingPassport posted a photo of a house a block away from me. Guess what the influencer was wearing? 

The Rise of the Influencas

Now we’re inundated with “influencas” — people who have been infected by the viral post and want similar photos of themselves to post on social media. It’s a challenge that destinations all over the globe face. Travel is supposed to instill empathy in other cultures, according to Elizabeth Becker, author of Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism. When we visit new places we learn about the local people and their customs and grow to appreciate them. It’s why most governments promote tourism, actively inviting people to come visit their countries.

Today, however, destinations are battling a new scourge: overtourism. Many experts and destination officials cite social media influencers as a significant factor, especially when they post amazing pics of spots that prompt influencas to come take the same photo. Two years ago, New Zealand launched a “Do Something New” campaign to discourage tourists from mimicking the photos they’ve seen on social media.

There are several reasons why this is a problem and why this behavior reflects badly on the brands that sponsor the glam pics influencers take in “undiscovered” places.

The first is the way it changes the goals of the traveler. Influencers provide lists of Instagram-worthy shots upon request, which become the new bucket lists for travelers and transform them into influencas in the process. As Kiersten Brown points out in Black Girl Nerds, “People are no longer relying on guidebooks and Google searches to plan out their trips. Instead, you can follow travel influencers and get all the details on an exotic location.” Guidebooks and pre-trip research help future tourists learn about the location and the local culture, but huge numbers of feedback to influencer pics are eliminating that step.

In fact, the concept of “social return scale” — i.e. the anticipated likes and comments a trip will generate — is a topic of academic research. The Conversation, a publication funded by universities and think tanks, believes that social media interactions are a key decision factor when making travel plans, asserting: many social media users will now ask themselves a set of new questions. Is it the trendy and fashionable place that you want to be “seen” traveling? Is this a place you won’t be embarrassed to share this with your peers and followers online?”

Karen Reimann, an American tour guide in Dresden, Germany is frustrated by this trend. “We had a guest, a young woman from Brazil. It was her first time in Europe and she was extremely excited about her trip. But, what was interesting was she got most of her tourist information from influencers. She hadn’t really read up on much of anything. She was starting to notice that influencers aren’t the best travel guides, and she was suffering for it.”

Another challenge is the impact on those “undiscovered” locations that influencers popularize on the people who live there and the surrounding environment. Take Sleepy Hollow Farm, a private residence located on a one-way dirt road in rural Vermont. In September, Sleepy Hollow Farm neighbors told the Today Show that social media influencers set up dressing rooms so that they can change outfits.  


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What’s the big deal, you may wonder. Doesn’t this lead to tourist dollars for the local economies? The truth is, influencers have made life during foliage season a trying time for its residents, as thousands of influencas descend on the farm to take their pics. 

Neighbors and town officials report that up to 100 cars at any given time clog the road, preventing residents and emergency vehicles from using the road. Because it’s a private residence located on a one-way dirt road in a very rural area, there are no facilities, which means influencas urinate on private property, park their cars on top of border gardens, and wander all over the neighborhood. 

As for the farm itself, its owners have been tortured by the throngs of people who now come to photograph themselves. Several years back the owners put up a security gate with a large sign that says No Trespassing, but a simple search of the property on Instagram reveals the extent to which it is ignored. Influencas think nothing of slipping past the gate to take their photos. The photo in the Instagram post above was taken after the gate was installed, but you can see the photograph shows the influencer walking down the driveway.

Photo source: The Vermont Digger

Michael Doton, whose property is across from Sleepy Hollow Farm, told the Vermont Standard that a tour bus removed the “no parking” cones from his parents’ driveway, pulled in, and disgorged 50 passengers onto their lawn. Another neighbor told the same reporter that he was nearly hit in the head with a drone while dining in his backyard.

As CNN noted, social media is turning people into bad tourists.

The third challenge is that photos on private property invite the influencer’s followers to treat the backdrops of the photos as a theme park. A few years back, an influencer with more than a million followers posted a photo of herself sitting on the porch of my friend, Charlotte. Ever since influencas have descended on her house to take the same pic. So far this year, two women entered her house expecting to use the bathroom and got upset with Charlotte when she told them no and to leave her house. Last weekend a man entered her house. Her daughter immediately told him it was a private residence but he was undeterred, walking from room to room saying “this is great.” He left when she threatened to call the police. 

A Widespread Problem

Sleepy Hollow Farm isn’t the only private residence in the area buckling under the pressure of influencas intruding on their property, nor is Vermont the only area of the world battling this problem. 

Across Europe cities and towns are struggling to find ways to make life tolerable for the people who live in the places that social media influencers made famous. Officials in Portofino, Italy, have banned selfie-taking, and in Hallstatt, Austria, local officials erected a wall to block selfie-takers. The message that all of these places strive to communicate is the same: Real people live here, our home is not a theme park.

Restaurants and cafes are reporting the same challenge. Mashable recently reported that cafes, restaurants, and some towns are banning influencers for the disruption they cause. The owners of an ice cream shop and wine bar in France were forced to put up a “No TikTok” sign on its entrance and banned customers from sitting outside of their place in order to cut down on the number of people photographing their wine glasses and ice cream social media.

How Brands Can Help Resolve This Challenge

It’s time for brands to step up and accept responsibility for their role in the ills that stem from the viral pics they sponsor and do their part to relieve it.

First, brands need to establish some rules around the photographs they monetize. If an influencer is posing in front of an impossibly adorable house, ask yourself: will this post inflict on the owner? Such photos tell millions of followers it’s okay to be there, when it may not be.

At least one Instagram influencer told me that her Sleepy Hollow Farm photo isn’t illegal as generally, there is no law against taking photos of homes from a street. She was wrong on many fronts given that she was behind the security gate and technically trespassing, and she likely parked illegally along the road. Still, I get her point, an everyday citizen can take a photo of private property from a public street if they want. 

But things get fuzzy when private homes are photographed for commercial purposes, which is what happens when influencers create sponsored pics on private property. In some instances, a property release statement may be required. Social media has been a bit loosey-goosey on that front but given that social media influencers can earn up to $20,000 for a few photos, it’s time that all brands ensure their posts are legal.

Second, brands should establish a way for property owners to object to the use of their property in sponsored posts, and once an objection is raised, inform the influencer to take the post down. This year our towns closed down the roads leading to Sleepy Hollow Farm, and the residents hired local sheriffs to enforce the closure at considerable expense.

Third, brands that rely on influencer marketing should become ambassadors for responsible tourism. Travel and tourism is big business, and millions of jobs across the world rely on it. Tourism works best when the traveler and the local people benefit equally. At present, social media influencers are being blamed for overtourism and while all fault shouldn’t be laid at their feet, they have acted irresponsibly. Brands who work with influencers should require posts to be devoid of the location where the photo was snapped, and the influencer should agree not to share it with followers unless it is a public place or has secured a property release statement.

Finally, brands and influencers need to recognize that these steps may do more than relieve the frustration their actions have on private citizens — they may also secure the future of influencer-based marketing. If influencers start to reign in their behavior, then fewer towns and restaurants will feel compelled to ban them and brands can continue to enjoy the authenticity that influencers bring them.