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News & Views

The cautionary tale of Fyre Festival

You’ll undoubtedly have heard the woeful story by now; Fyre Festival, conceived to be Coachella for the rich kids of Instagram in the Bahamas, spectacularly failed to launch on Friday, stranding a number of attendees on the island.

Tickets for Fyre started at $450 ranging up to $12,000, with that hefty price point promising exclusivity and luxury. Attendees were expecting to be transported to the island via yachts and put up in villas. What they got instead was a “tent city” akin to any run of the mill camping ground, with zero infrastructure and an unprepared skeleton crew of festival staff.  Things eventually got so bad that the US Embassy had to step in to help guests get home.

Simply put, it was an unmitigated disaster. And as brand reputations go, pretty much impossible to come back from.

Fyre Festival is a creation of Fyre Media, owned by rapper Ja Rule and his business partner Billy McFarland. The event was promoted almost entirely through influencer marketing, with supermodels like Bella Hadid and Hailey Baldwin uploading sponsored posts to their Instagram accounts, with the aim of tapping into the idea of the music festival as a lifestyle brand experience, à la Coachella. But according to Kenzie Bryant at Vanity Fair, “while Coachella is a music festival that turned into a serious of brand activations, Fyre Festival is a brand activation that plays at being a festival.”

Amid all of the schadenfreudes and saggy tents, there’s a lesson here in how not to sell your event.

“Obviously the festival’s untimely end is a result of poor management, planning, and probably a bunch of other things, but it’s also a good reminder that Instagram is still full of sponsored content (“sponcon”) — and the impossibility of constant oversight means it’s often not labeled as such,” writes The Verge’s Lizzie Plaugic.

She points out that adding hashtags like #ad, #sp or #spon to a post aren’t necessarily sufficient in sponsored content, as influencers can bury these disclaimers in a sea of other hashtags. This means that some consumers may have been funneled towards buying Fyre tickets without realizing that their favourite DJ or athlete was actually being compensated to advertise the event.

“We’ve been interested in deceptive endorsements for decades and this is a new way in which they are appearing,” says Michael Ostheimer, a deputy in Ad Practices at the Federal Trade Commission, who are cracking down on spurious sponcon. “We believe consumers put stock in endorsements, and we want to make sure they are not being deceived.”

The festival has been “fully postponed,” which is a diplomatic term for “cancelled,” and organisers are now offering guests the choice between a full refund, or a pack of VIP passes to next year’s festival. It’s hard to imagine anybody risking such an ordeal again, although this is now one of the most well-known festivals in the world (albeit for all the wrong reasons). If Fyre Fest 2018 does actually go ahead, let’s just hope that Ja Rule and friends put some thought and resources into pulling it off, before paying social media stars to plug it.

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