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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Payless shoes pranks social media influencers with fake high-end brand Palessi  

The budget store posed as a fictional designer Italian label for six days

Influencers hoodwinked by Payless's fake brand Palessi
Influencers hoodwinked by Payless's fake brand Palessi

Shopping is all about marketing. Brands spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on advertising to create a particular mood that, hopefully, customers will want to buy into. These carefully considered campaigns aim to conjure an emotional state that lingers long after the credit card has been swiped.

So when budget American shoe brand Payless decided it wanted to raise its profile for the upcoming holiday season, it decided to play a prank and mimic the approach taken by high-end designer stores, albeit only for a few days.

Best known for its cheap prices – most shoes cost between US$19.99 and $34.99 (up to Dh130) – Payless has recently fallen foul of the shift to online shopping. Amid declining sales last year, it has had to close many stores, which resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs. While this is clearly a serious time for the brand, it decided to take a lighthearted approach to drawing attention to itself, by taking on that most intangible entity: the social media influencer.

Payless hired Brooklyn based advertising agency DCX, which came up the bold idea to repackage and remarket Payless as a fictional high-end Italian shoe label, entitled Palessi.

The team took over an empty Giorgio Armani store for six days in Santa Monica, transforming it into a fake boutique, complete with a new logo. Although the products were regular Payless footwear, as Palessi, the shoes - displayed on glass shelves - were priced high to bolster the designer image, with one pair, for example, inflated from $34.99 to $1,800.

Next, social media influencers were paid to attend the "launch" of the store, which was backed by a fake Instagram account and website. Many turned up.

The dark side of the influencer industry is that, while it is standard practice to compensate influencers to attend an event or to post about a product, too few acknowledge that some form of payment has changed hands. This means that followers are often unaware of the financial incentive behind a glowing endorsement.

At the Palessi event, for example, the influencers were quizzed on their reaction to the "new" brand and, possibly aware of the paycheck sitting in their pockets, many were enthusiastic, calling the shoes high quality, elegant, sophisticated and versatile. Some even went as far as purchasing a pair or two at the inflated prices.

The ruse was exposed after the sale had gone through, at which point Payless gave a full refund and gifted the shoes instead. Images of the influencers have since been added to the fake Palessi Instagram page.

So what was the point? For one, the prank has succeeded in grabbing headlines for Payless. While some have dismissed the deception as a publicity stunt, others think it's in poor taste for those Payless workers who lost their jobs.

However, a few, myself included, are regarding it as a clever bluff on influencers, who are unregulated, answer to no one, and are often driven by undeclared self-interest. Anything that sheds light on this ambivalent industry is welcome, as consumers need to be aware whether the content they are looking at has been paid for or not. With too many online personalities passing off sponsored posts as personal endorsements, the sooner transparency is brought to bear, the better.

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