Who are “influencers”? And why do we care about them?

Who are "influencers"? And why do we care about them?

Credit: Kagan McLeod

How influencer marketing relies on celebrities who are regular folks—and irregular pets

Influencer marketing—as millennial buzzwords go, it may be as hot as the phrase “millennial buzzwords.” The marketing game has changed. Once upon a time, Chicago Blackhawks superstar Bobby Hull told you to buy a certain brand of motor oil and you did, because Hull could score goals like nobody’s business. And while it is still true that Edmonton Oilers player Connor McDavid could confidently proclaim that a particular brand of digestive biscuit tastes best and many would believe him, the new breed of influencers have typically neither scored a single NHL goal nor won a single MTV award. They are YouTube channel performers, Twitter moguls, reality TV stars. So how did these influencers become the new arbiters of which dog food you simply must purchase? Sometimes it’s because the endorsement comes from a dog.

Animals are big stars on social media. And while being beautiful and/or graceful is a big plus for a human star, in the animal category what you really want is bad teeth. Animal influencers often gain their followers by looking like real-life cartoon characters. There’s Grumpy Cat with her perma-frown; Tuna, a little dog with a big goofy grin; and Toast, a spaniel with a tongue that hangs out like a dangling seat belt.

All of these popular and influential quadrupeds have massive online followings, and all owe their distinctive looks to some sort of dental issue. Grumpy’s gloomy puss is partly the result of an underbite; an overbite gives Tuna her funky smile; and a complete lack of teeth allows Toast’s tongue to range freely outside her cute little snout. Then there’s Lil Bub, a tabby cat that combines a lack of teeth with a short lower jaw and a protruding tongue—the whole package. No wonder Lil Bub has a singing career, her own web series and co-starred with Grumpy Cat and others in the film Lil Bub & Friendz, a movie that has been called the Citizen Kane of orally irregular feline documentaries.

If this trend spreads to the world of bipeds, the practice of dentistry could be transformed. The most sought-after dentists will be those who can give you the kind of odd chompers that will transform you into an Instagram sensation. (There’s also a popular raccoon named Pumpkin that thinks it’s a dog. The marketing principle seems to be that raccoons who think they are dogs can find success even with normal teeth.)

As the cigarette peddlers used to say, we’ve come a long way, baby. Pitching products is not what it was. Fifties-era Mad Men would be perplexed by the idea of selling Fords with balloon-headed passengers blowing chewing gum bubbles (as in a recent Argentine TV ad), or advertising jeans by showing an accident victim and a surgical team breaking into a chorus of “Tainted Love” in the operating room (in a Spike Jonze–directed spot during which Levi’s are never clearly shown). But that’s how it goes—the relentless pursuit of novelty leads advertisers to some very strange places. Now it’s diverting them away from straight advertising altogether.

It’s not just cross-eyed pets with wonky chompers; there are plenty of human influencers around, too. They’re just regular folks on YouTube, slipping you the inside dope on what makes them so personally fabulous, because they care. And because of, you know, some other stuff. Forbes magazine recently compiled a list of top influencers, including Zoe Sugg and Michelle Phan, who can reportedly earn about US$150,000 for a single Instagram post and even more for a Facebook comment plugging a particular product. And that doesn’t even include the free mascara.

Reports of this brave new marketing world are a bit deceptive, in the sense that the increase in influencers hasn’t really diminished the supply of more traditional celebrity endorsements. It’s the media that have changed, as much as the messengers. YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and so on have just expanded the playing field for product pluggers.

What will be the next evolution of influence? We have already seen a reality TV star become the 45th president of the United States. Will 2020 see the election of President Adorable Kitten Stuffing Itself Into a Tiny Box? At this point, some would say bring it on.