Anyone who has been conscious for the past decade is aware of the parasocial relationship between brands and content creators.
Advertising tactics have transitioned from celebrity-fronted commercials or magazine ads to now collaborating with influencers to post on their social accounts. Brands are setting aside billions to focus solely on influencer marketing — think: the infamous Tarte Cosmetics trip to Dubai.
The fashion and beauty space, in particular, is dominated by brands sending free PR packages to influencers in exchange for posts. Influencers not only get free products, relationships with brands for future publicity events and content for posts, but now, according to the 2023 the Influencer Marketing Benchmark Report, more and more brands are moving toward actually paying influencers on top of the free products.
This is how content creators make their livelihood. The relationship with brands is what separates a struggling micro-influencer from the next Alix Earle. These early-career, free opportunities are the building blocks for future influencer success and longevity.
The big problem with this: Black content creators are being left behind.
More and more content creators of color have spoken out against the widening disparity between who gets to beneift from brand’s gifting lists. Without relationships with brands or free products, creators have to spend money out of pocket to keep up with the latest trends.
Black beauty influencer Darius Hall (@poorlildarkbxy) told his 265,000 TikTok followers in 2022 that “people don’t realize that getting PR is a very essential tool” to growing as a creator.
“Some of the products that people want me to review or want me to talk about, it’s a little expensive, and sometimes I ain’t got the coins for that,” he explained.
There is already an existing pay gap between white and Black influencers that’s not any closer to closing. A 2021 study, “Time to Face the Influencer Pay Gap,” revealed that the difference between white and Black influencer incomes is about 35%. The career path is new, unregulated and benefits creators who start out with affluence and connections. This makes pay transparency worse because as long as creators accept low rates, brands will continue offering them.
“If I could solve one thing in this industry that hurts BIPOC influencers, it would be pay transparency,” Brittany Bright, the founder of the Influencer League, said. The Influencer League conducted the pay gap study. “The absence of a pay standard disadvantages BIPOC influencers at every turn.”
The Instagram account @influencerpaygap is striving to turn things around. With 57,000 followers, the account encourages influencers to send in anonymous DMs with information about their follower count, their race and the deals they’ve received from brands.
One DM came from a 20-year-old Black woman with over 95,000 followers. In the message, she explained that the most she’d made from a deal was $1,500 for two videos, but the majority of deals were for $400 to $500 a video that the brands would then reuse themselves.
“After reading through this account I’ve realized I’ve been underselling myself completely,” she wrote.
In contrast, a post from a white, straight male YouTuber with 55,000 followers, claimed he got a deal for three posts and three swipe-up stories for $14,000.
Although the brands are different between the two cases, commenters were stunned. Reading about the pay disparity is one thing, but seeing the concrete numeral difference between the deals offered to Black and white creators, regardless of who has a larger following or more engagement, is startling.
“I know people who are at my level or less than my level who have worked with more brands than I have — and guess what race they are,” Hall continued in his TikTok. At the time of posting in 2022, Hall was still working a full-time job outside of trying to grow his social presence.
“I know white content creators who have less followers than I do who are able to do this full time,” he said. “I don’t get that PR to help boost my content.”
It’s not just brands, platforms need to be held accountable too. In February 2022, TikTok responded to backlash after hosting a Black History Month event for creators to meet Nicki Minaj. At the time, Black creators accused the app of allowing “non-Black creators … to steal a spot” at the limited private event.
“There were verified accounts with over 2 million [followers] who were Black and on TikTok for four years that didn’t get an invite,” Niccoya Thomas alleged to In The Know at the time. “Yet there were white people whose account[s] were sitting at 1,000, and they had received an invite.”
Social media algorithms have also been found to work against creators, according to the MIT Technology Review. Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor at Cornell University, told the publication that after interviewing 30 users on TikTok, Instagram, Twitch, YouTube and Twitter, she found that creators “from marginalized groups” spend the most time and labor trying to accommodate the everchanging rules and algorithms.
“Platforms tout all over their websites their benefits to creators and [say] if you are talented enough and have the right content, you can connect with audiences and make all kinds of money,” Duffy said. “There’s no direct communication from the platforms, in many cases. And this completely, fundamentally impacts not just your experience, but your income.”
Duffy’s findings contribute to the idea that social media algorithm and moderation is biased against creators of color. NPR pointed out that Black users have “consistently had to fight for visibility and credit” when it comes to starting popular trends and dances, posing the question: Who gets to go viral and why?
“Black people have always been cultural trendsetters,” Tia C.M. Tyree, a communications professor at Howard University, told NBC News in 2021. “While sharing and engaging is a central part of social media, one’s art can be shared, manipulated and lost in the viralness of the culture. This can all happen in minutes, and the original Black creators can be left without credit.”
Platforms and influencers alike have apologized in the past for failing to properly credit or uplift content creators of color — but for many, it’s not enough.
TikTok apologized for the Nicki Minaj event and launched a three-month initiative called “TikTok for Black Creatives.” Kaychelle Dabney (@Kaychelled) told NBC News that she believed a lot of white TikTokers were only crediting Black trendsetters because the Black creators themselves were holding them accountable in the comments.
In terms of relationships with brands, for Black creators, it’s not about receiving free products or getting invited to exclusive events. It’s about setting themselves up for future opportunities and success.
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