Becoming a successful influencer isn’t a bad way to amass untold wealth. A report earlier this year found that simply having 42,575 followers is enough to earn the average UK salary in #sponcon deals and ad revenue, while the influencer marketing industry as whole is projected to be worth over $15 billion (£11 billion) by 2022. Lil Miquela, a “virtual influencer”, is estimated to make over $10 million (£9 million) a year, and she doesn’t even exist.
The problem is: it’s not quite as easy as just “becoming a successful influencer”. Being funny, hot or “relatable” online is only going to get you so far; if you truly want to become blue tick royalty, you’re going to need a massive stroke of luck, a reality TV gig or another kind of helping hand. For some, that means turning to the “fake wealth” industry.
On YouTube, there’s a trend of vloggers using Photoshop to edit themselves onto sandy beaches, or on shopping sprees, to dupe viewers into thinking they’re rich and therefore worth watching. The same thought process applies to Instagram: people follow wealthy influencers and celebrities for their daily dose of serotonin-sapping aspirational content. Even if you’re not actually rich, if you can at least project that kind of wealth – or so the thinking goes – the followers will follow.
For those who aren’t particularly Photoshop-savvy, there are other ways of going about this.
Earlier this year, a now-deleted tweet showing influencers hiring out a Los Angeles photo studio staged to look like the inside of a private jet went viral. For $64 (£49) an hour, influencers and their friends can pretend they’ve chartered a plane and live out their dream of writing captions like “catching flights not feelings x” or “head in the clouds” – and, of course, flex that they, unlike you, can afford a private jet in the first place.
In China, there’s an even cheaper option. For only 6 Yuan (less than £1), you can have a recording of your voice added to stock videos of expensive cars, tropical views and stacks of cash, ready to upload to your IG story.
While readymade private jet photo studios and clout-chasing voiceovers aren’t widely available in the UK, snapping up empty designer packaging – like boxes or shopping bags – is commonplace.
Search “empty box” or “empty bag” on Depop and you’ll find hundreds of results. It used to be that the only people gagging for empty packaging were Year 9s desperate to put their PE kit in an Abercrombie & Fitch bag. These days, wannabe Molly Maes are at it too. In an interview with Input Mag, an anonymous designer reseller, with a mainly influencer clientele, revealed a recent uptick in requests for empty boxes from designer brands – namely Hermes, Pandora and Tiffany. “At first, I thought it was maybe to store some stuff at home, or to recycle it as a gift box for someone,” she told Input. “I didn’t know they used it for Instagram shoots.”
On Depop, some sellers have an entire account dedicated to empties; one has posted over 600 empty boxes and bags on their account. The items are repetitive, mainly Chanel, Tiffany, Pandora or Selfridges bags and boxes, or dust bags from Gucci, Louis Vuitton or Dior. The listings are also wildly expensive: a Gucci hat box for £35; a Dior shoe box for £30, four Hermes ribbons for £20; a Louboutin shoe box and gift bag for £55 (this one does come with the original Harrods receipt, to be fair).
While you might think stacking up empty boxes is the definition of an anti-flex, according to the seller in the Input Mag piece, one of the influencers who bought Pandora boxes from her now has genuine sponsorship deals with luxury brands.
Of course, that’s not to say that flaunting fake wealth is a failsafe way to secure those deals, according to Scott Guthrie, an independent influencer marketing consultant. “You can usually spot it – usually something is a little ‘off’ in the image,” he says. “The accessory doesn’t quite match the outfit, or there may be too many ostentatious signals of wealth in view.”
Not only is flaunting “fake wealth” very obvious, says Guthrie, it can also hurt the identities of certain luxury brands. “Creators masquerading as brand ambassadors may tarnish that particular brand, rather than promote it,” he explains.
Instead, Guthrie suggests that authenticity is a more realistic route towards those luxury brand deals. “A better way to catapult yourself into becoming an influencer who works with a luxury brand is to tap into the values supporting that brand’s positioning,” he says. “So it’s more important to be creative and innovative with your content.”
Ultimately, pretending to be rich is obviously much cheaper than chartering a private jet or actually buying expensive jewellery – but it doesn’t mean you should do it. The truth is that @ing Gucci in your Instagram Story not only gives your followers second-hand embarrassment, it’s more than likely to close the door on those brand deals you were hoping for.