Follow me, so I can have a free holiday in Bermuda
I have a famous friend you’ve never heard of who was recently presented with an expensive watch. It was one of those enormous clunky things that sits on the wrist like a very shiny macaron and my friend was particularly proud of it.
So proud, in fact, that he immediately posted a photograph on his Instagram account of the watch on his wrist, and an expensive-looking coffee in his hand.
It was one of those Instagram posts that makes use of all of the photo-editing tools, so that the colours were more vibrant and the timepiece seemed to glow on his artfully blurred hand. The whole image seemed almost beautiful enough to be an advertisement. Which it was.
The watch was a gift from the company that makes the watches, which shouldn’t be surprising if you’ve been paying attention to your social media channels. People you and I have never heard of have managed to attract, over a few years of assiduously tending to their social media contacts, hundreds of thousands of followers. My friend with the gratis wristwatch has, as far as I can tell, no actual occupation. He worked for a time at the trendy coffee shop a few blocks from my house in Venice Beach, but one day I suddenly noticed that he was no longer behind the counter but sitting at a table instead, posting artistic-looking and fashion-aware photographs of his shoes and his coffee and his over-the-shoulder bag to Instagram.
When curiosity got the better of me, I started to follow him on social media. His posts show him jauntily crossing the street wearing what fashion writers call “sporty casual” clothes – I’m not sure who is taking these photographs – and each post comes with long scroll of hashtags and an elaborate system of identifying each item and where to purchase it.
This, it turns out, is his job. You and I may spend our humdrum working hours toiling away in airless offices like modern-day galley slaves, but there are some people who have figured out the trick to the good life: just amass a zillion followers on Instagram and offer yourself up to fashion brands (and anyone else) who need to reach a large audience more cheaply than by taking out pages in glossy magazines and high-end newspapers. Play the game correctly and you’ll soon be sporting a wristwatch that costs somewhere north of US$25,000 (Dh92,000). All you need to do is turn your entire life into a walking, breathing advertisement.
My friend is not unique. I’ve noticed other Instagram accounts doing similar things. A New York-based writer I know suddenly began posting gorgeous shots of his recent trip to Bermuda (#paradise, #cometoBermuda, #beachbreak2017) – a place I haven’t thought about in decades – and there at the bottom of each post, almost an afterthought really, was: #sponsoredpost.
I’ll admit that I was jealous. I suppose my sense of good taste might have been offended, and I could have left a blistering comment about the crass and brazen act of turning his network of friends into a going concern. But the truth is that all I could think was: “Hey, how do I get a free trip somewhere?” And: “How many Instagram or Twitter followers do I need before someone sends me a watch?”
This is yet another example of the democratisation of celebrity. For years, high-end luxury brands have lavished gifts on the Hollywood famous in the hope that someone will photograph the recipient wearing (or carrying, or displaying, or whatever) the bit of swag. Despite being able to afford almost any luxury, rich celebrities were showered with free stuff. Awards ceremonies like the Oscars and the Emmys hosted elaborate “gifting suites” where famous faces could stroll through hotel ballrooms choosing anything and everything from among the displays. It was like some kind of Grand Bazaar, but without the tiresome requirement of any form of payment.
Now, though, people like my nearly anonymous barista and my New York writer friend can join in the fun. They can monetise their friendships — although it stretches the definition of “friend” to include their tens of thousands of followers — and collect nearly as much free swag as the truly famous. I’d find the entire trend odious if it didn’t bring along with it the imminent collapse of the freebies that celebrities have enjoyed for decades.
I may be envious of the young barista and his sporty-casual wardrobe, and I may privately seethe that my writer pal was swanning around Bermuda courtesy of some tourism council, but I’d rather have the swag headed their way – and both of them, I’m pretty certain, are if not utterly broke then at least penniless-adjacent – than to some centi-millionaire movie star.
That said, though, I wouldn’t mind if some of it headed my way, too. I’m @rcbl, by the way, on all of the relevant social media. If I can convince enough of you to follow me, soon I’ll be sporting a gigantic watch in some glamorous resort.
Rob Long is a writer and producer in Los Angeles
On Twitter: @rcbl
Updated: March 23, 2017 04:00 AM