“Selling out,” as a concept, depended on there being some place that was “in”—some zone apart from pure commerce, in which a person might keep their art or their dignity or their sense of selfhood. This was back in the time when you could ride an elevator or take a taxi without commercials playing at you.
Even though most people thought it was better to have more money than less money, the process of selling out was still seen as corrupting and dishonest. You had a feeling, say a yearning for romantic love, and maybe you wrote a song that was meant to express that feeling, and you sold it to some people who liked the music and the feeling—and, then, someone offered you much more money than that to take 30 seconds of that song and use it to express the feeling of yearning for a Chevy Cavalier. Hearing a song you liked in a car commercial was a bad thing!
Obviously things have changed since then. Competition has crowded out all other ideologies as a source of purpose and meaning, and money is the simplest way to keep score in the competition. Advertising has grown beyond all limits; anything to which a person might pay attention can therefore be (is, therefore) monetized. All human experience is for sale and to be human is to be a salesperson.
So the brand-people living in the brand ecosystem are finding new branding niches to exploit. Taylor Lorenz wrote in the Atlantic about how people are making posts on their social-media accounts in which they pretend to have been paid to endorse a commercial product, even though they haven’t:
Sydney Pugh, a lifestyle influencer in Los Angeles, recently staged a fake ad for a local cafe, purchasing her own mug of coffee, photographing it, and adding a promotional caption carefully written in that particular style of ad speak anyone who spends a lot of time on Instagram will recognize. “Instead of [captioning] ‘I need coffee to get through the day,’ mine will say ‘I love Alfred’s coffee because of A, B, C,’” Pugh told me. “You see the same things over and over on actual sponsored posts, so it becomes really easy to emulate, even if you’re not getting paid.”
Where once someone could get in trouble for taking a promotional junket and writing about it without disclosure, Lorenz now described people trying to make their regular vacations look like junkets. If the commodities will pay for you, that makes you a valuable commodity. Teens are looking suspiciously at other teens’ posts, seeing who might be faking their brand connections to try to impress other people—or to impress brands, so they may get actual sponsorships.
This is undermining the whole original business of having brands pay people to pretend they like or use their products!
Though it may seem like a useful tactic when you’re starting out, more established influencers worry that fake sponcon is creating a race to the bottom. Because brands can piggyback off of waves of unpaid influencer promoters, some have ceased paying influencers completely, or now pay rates far below what they previously spent.
“I don’t think people know they’re screwing each other over,” said CJ OperAmericano, a 22-year-old TikTok star. She has watched rates plummet as the industry becomes more saturated, and she recently lost out on a brand campaign to someone who offered to do it for a tenth of the price.
At last, the long inexorable journey from subway cars covered in illegal graffiti to subway cars wrapped in graffiti-style advertisements is moving in reverse. If everything is an ad, then unpaid advertising is the only meaningful form of sabotage.