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15 Feb

Fyre Festival and Social Media Marketing Ethics

This past January, Netflix and Hulu each released a documentary on the failed Fyre Festival. If this is your first time hearing about it (have you been living under a rock?), Fyre was a theoretical “luxury music festival” in the Bahamas headed by CEO Billy McFarland and Ja Rule. Despite hyped promises of luxury villas, food, and live music, the festival fell flat on its face. Attendees were welcomed with disaster relief tents, soaked mattresses, and sad cheese sandwiches. Since then, McFarland has been sentenced to six years in prison and ordered to forfeit $26 million for defrauding festival attendees, investors, and local workers.

Jerry Media was the marketing agency for Fyre Festival and, while their involvement in the fraud is up for debate, the entire debacle generated some key takeaways when it comes to social media marketing ethics.


As part of the marketing strategy for Fyre, Jerry Media created a plan to have Instagram influencers --  including models from all over the world, as well as other niche-actresses and media personalities -- to post an orange tile with a link to the festival’s website. This strategy also included a $250,000 post by Kendall Jenner to share the festival’s promotional video. On launch day, celebrities flooded Instagram with images of the same orange color block.  

The problem? Only one model, Emily Ratajkowski, reportedly used the hashtag #ad. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been requiring content creators to incorporate #ad or #sponsor in all sponsored content since at least 2012. This indicates to an influencer’s followers that they received compensation for the post and may also reduce the influencer’s liability should something go awry.

Of course, something did go awry, and some of the celebrities were included in class action lawsuits because they had not indicated their involvement as a paid endorsement.

Additionally, Fyre’s organizers were not transparent about the state of operations at the festival, leading the customers and investors astray. Up to the day of the event, Fyre’s social media accounts pretended as though everything was fine, posting previously shot promo-footage and deleting comments from upset customers. Imagine the amount of money that would have been saved if Fyre was truthful about what guests were going to receive OR if they postponed the festival.

Consider Your Influence

Fyre’s social media strategy was highly effective in getting young adults to pay $500 for day tickets and up to $12,000 for VIP packages. Despite the festival failing, I think we need to step back and look at the ethics of using highly influential celebrities to persuade young adults to buy pricey tickets for a three-day event. As marketers, it can be easy to get caught up in the sale -- and forget about the impact on the consumer.

It’s easy to laugh and point at these privileged young adults as they’re hit with the reality of paying thousands of dollars for a failed festival -- but haven’t we all been there? We see our favorite celebrity using a product, wearing a piece of clothing, or promoting a certain brand, and suddenly form a positive association with it. In some cases, we even spend our hard-earned cash on that successfully persuasive brand.

Hulu’s Fyre Fraud begins with a simple, yet powerful, statement:

“You’re living in your parents basement, you look at your phone, which you look at 100 times an hour... seeing people in places that you’re not, doing things you can’t afford to do. Many of the influencers are people that you follow - that you aspire to be. So when an opportunity presents itself to get out of your parent’s basement and go a be a part of something that is culturally relevant you’re going to absolutely jump at that.”

At the heart of Fyre’s advertising was a fabricated lavish lifestyle. Through Instagram influencers, Fyre misled the thousands of festival goers that buying these tickets would lead to fame and wealth. Is it ethical to market such an expensive event to a highly impressionable demographic with faraway dreams? Is this fair to the consumer?

Socially responsible marketing holds that marketers should take into consideration what is in the best interest for society in the present and long-term. This is especially true for those advertising luxury products, services, or --  in Fyre’s case -- events, as it can arouse false wants that hurt consumers. With comparatively few laws regarding ads on social media, advertisers have the responsibility of analyzing their strategies for ethicality. This may be taking what happened with Fyre to an extreme, but I believe it’s an important facet of advertising that we should keep in mind when promoting brands.

Fyre is not just a representation of how Billy McFarland is a vile conman, but it’s also an important look at what society values in social media. A few influencers were able to persuade thousands to part with a significant amount of money. Hopefully, Fyre leads to social media users being more analytical in their scrolling and who they follow.

We, as brands and advertisers, must take responsibility for what and how we advertise as a whole and, more specifically, on social media. As Icelandic Canadian Arctic explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, succinctly put, “What is the difference between unethical and ethical advertising? Unethical advertising uses falsehoods to deceive the public; ethical advertising uses truth to deceive the public.”