What Brands Can Learn From Essena O’Neill’s Case Against Social Media



In speaking out against social media, Essena O’Neill shone a spotlight on some of its darker elements and in doing so raised some important questions.

If you aren’t familiar with the story, the 19 year-old model from the Sunshine Coast in Australia with over 800,000 Instagram followers abruptly deleted most of her photos and re-captioned the remaining to highlight what actually went into making them. In doing so she exposed aspects of superficiality in social media and brought attention to brands working with influencers to promote their product – often without the knowledge of the audience.

Her honesty caused a stir and has provoked broader discussions about authenticity and the impact of social media in general. With many young teens nowadays idolising Instagram and YouTube personalities like mainstream celebrities, the ethics of influencer marketing has also come into question.

But what are the impacts exactly and what can brands and influencers learn from all this?


“Social Media is not real. Be aware what people promote, ask yourself what’s their intention behind the photo?” – Essena O’Neill

Of all the issues arising from this story, underpinning everything is authenticity.

O’Neill shocked (some) of her followers by revealing that her photos were staged, her life heavily edited and she had been paid by brands to promote their products.

In doing so she dropped a truth bomb that shattered many of the illusions she’d created. The fallout sparked a lot of questions, some of them leveled at the transparency of influencer marketing.

But rather than being cause for panic, this is actually a good thing.

Authenticity, trust and transparency.

As the amount of brands and influencers continue to grow, so to the ethical grey areas. One of the biggest grey areas being the issue of disclosure for endorsements. Always a moral issue and in some countries a legal one, how clear influencers are about who they are being paid by is an important one.

Typically, arrangements are disclosed by adding a #sponsored tag to the post, to make clear to the audience that the influencer was paid to promote the product in that post.

Essena O’Neill did not do that. But she is not alone.

Many influencers and brands choose to take a more ‘subtle’ approach to inform their audience of paid arrangements (i.e. not at all). This lack of transparency stems from a belief that being clear about it will decrease the promotion’s effectiveness. The idea being that if you know someone is getting paid for it, then how can you trust their recommendation?

“Any company at the end of the day wants to make a profit, therefore of course the company would not pay for an advertisement if the people viewing it knew that financial gains were influencing the promotion.” – Essena O’Neill


The problem with this line of thought is that it suggests the influencer would endorse something they don’t believe in just because they are getting paid. In many cases this could be the reality. But for influencer marketing to be sustainable, influencers can’t be seen to be selling out.

Rather, an influencer accepting payment to endorse a product should be seen as more of an ‘access fee’ to their audience.

They are the gatekeepers of their audience and their credibility depends on who they let through that gate. The less scrupulous their ‘door policy’ the less their audience will respect their judgment. Entry must come down to more than paying the right price or influencers will lose their audience’s trust.

Influence is built on a foundation of trust. Without trust, you cannot influence. And if you cannot influence… then you cease to be an influencer.

Therefore the long term effectiveness of influencer marketing must be based on a mutual trust between influencers, their audience and the brands they work with.


Though there are obviously those in it for cash and don’t care too much about trust and transparency, according to a recent study, only 24% of influencers list getting paid as their main motivation. They are more interested in growing their reach and creating better quality content. With most indicating they are in it for the long term, the importance of trust, transparency and authenticity becomes clear.

A great example of someone who embodies this approach is successful influencer Tanya Burr.

By only working with brands she personally supports (and ensuring to use the #sponsored tag for posts she has been paid for) she maintains trust, transparency and authenticity with her 2 million plus Instagram followers.


There is a great responsibility on influencers to build trusting relationships, but brands also have to come to the party. Finding the right fit between brand and influencer is crucial. When the fit is right, it makes authenticity far easier. Brands can help by developing creative and ethical campaign ideas that lend themselves to engaging content.

You must go beyond product placement.

In partnership with National Geographic, Davidoff launched their Love the Ocean campaign to raise awareness to help protect the world’s oceans. To support this campaign they sent bottles of Davidoff Cool Water to influencers on Instagram who each posted 4 photos showing what the ocean meant to them. Only two of these photos featured the product.

This broader campaign platform achieved great engagement and is a perfect example of how influencer marketing can be brought to life in a creative way.

Brands can also benefit by placing more trust in influencers to bring their creative ideas to life, rather than aiming to control every step of the process.

If we can learn anything from the Essena O’Neill story, it’s that the sustainable future of influencer marketing will be built on trust – between brands, influencers and their audiences.

Image credit: CC by Courtney Rhodes

About the author: Francis Trapp

Francis Trapp is the CEO of Brandnew IO, the world’s leading technical platform for influencer marketing with a focus on Instagram. The Brandnew platform enables advertisers to conduct global influencer marketing campaigns and provides brands with the essential tools for a successful Instagram marketing strategy

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