Marketers Are Underpaying Black Influencers While Pushing Black Lives Matter

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Since high school, Sydnee McRae had liked the idea of getting paid to make videos online. After graduating, she started making beauty tutorials on YouTube, but she managed to attract only 500 followers—not nearly enough to get brands to pay her for promoting their products or even to get the occasional freebie. Then, a year ago, McRae, now 22, had a breakthrough on TikTok, the short video platform.

It was just as Covid-19 lockdowns were beginning. McRae created and performed a dance to Captain Hook, Megan Thee Stallion’s sex-positive club banger. She encouraged others to try out the dance themselves with a hashtag, #captainhookchallenge, and a tutorial video that explained her dance step-by-step. The videos were popular, attracting more than 400,000 likes. Within weeks, many of the platform’s top stars—influencers with millions of followers—performed their versions of her choreography, helping the song soar in popularity, too. In April, Megan Thee Stallion herself joined in, posting a 15-second video from her kitchen.

McRae was in heaven. “I realized, wow, I created something that people love,” she says. She started gaining followers by the thousands. Soon musicians and record labels were getting in touch, asking her to promote their songs and offering to pay her around $500 per dance. McRae found a talent manager and quit her job as a sales manager at Massage Envy in Miami.

In May, McRae received $700 from Universal Music Group to promote a new song, Out of Love by the rapper Lil Tecca, with a new dance challenge. It was a hit, too, and McRae was excited a few weeks later when she saw Addison Rae Easterling repeating her dance. Easterling isn’t quite as famous as Megan Thee Stallion, though in the world of TikTok influencers she’s the queen: She has 70 million followers (to McRae’s 1.1 million) and has made, according to Forbes, millions of dollars off her dances and lip-sync videos, thanks to deals with brands that include American Eagle, Fashion Nova, and Reebok.

McRae is Black and Easterling is White, which seemed germane when she learned from her manager that Easterling had also been hired to perform McRae’s dance and was paid substantially more. Instead of the hundreds of dollars Universal gave McRae to create the dance, Easterling had been paid thousands by Lil Tecca for just her performance. The news burned. “I’m creating the art, I’m giving you the art, without me there would be no art,” McRae says. “But I don’t get the same respect, the same amount that these White creators get.”

The phenomenon of White artists appropriating the work of Black creators—and getting paid more to do it—is as old as the entertainment industry itself. But McRae’s experience cuts against the meritocratic promises of the likes of TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, which allow creators to achieve celebrity without going through agents or casting directors. Now that there’s real money to be made on these platforms—brand endorsements on social media account for $10 billion a year globally, according to SignalFire, a venture capital firm that tracks industry data—a new class of gatekeepers has emerged. They’re corporate marketers and digital ad agency executives trying to capitalize on the new Hollywood, and most of them are White. The result, according to interviews with dozens of influencers, is that White social media stars consistently make far more than their Black counterparts, even in cases where Black influencers have more followers or are doing more of the creative work. White choreographers with followings similar to McRae’s routinely make $5,000 to create and perform a dance. McRae generally gets one-tenth that, and she has noticed the same pay disparity across the industry. Although Easterling at least credited McRae, other white influencers often fail to do so.

Marketers Are Underpaying Black Influencers While Pushing Black Lives Matter

In other cases, Black influencers aren’t paid at all. Stacy Thiru, who gives beauty tips to her 1.5 million TikTok followers, says that before she knew what her true market value was she’d regularly accept products—wigs, for instance—in lieu of cash when she created promotional tutorials for beauty companies. “They got free promo,” she says. “All I got was hair.” Another well-known social media personality, Jordan Craig—also known as the meme-maker Ka5sh—says he became aware there was a racial gap in pay when he attended an event with a few White memers, all of whom had similar followings. They showed up in new luxury cars; Craig, who is Black, couldn’t afford a car at the time and came in an Uber. “It’s crazy to be famous on the internet and then have it not mean anything,” he says. “Literally, I was not sure where I was going to sleep last March.”

For years, marketers viewed racial messages, and especially the Black Lives Matter movement, as divisive. They inserted provisions into contracts that specifically prohibited influencers from talking about police or using the #BLM hashtag. “The country is morally divided, and actively taking a stance felt outside of their area of expertise and risky to their bottom line,” says Karyn Spencer, chief marketing officer for Whalar Ltd., an influencer management and social media advertising agency.

But last summer, just as McRae was starting to get discouraged about her new industry, that calculus changed. Americans of all races took to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd by police. Corporate brand managers, motivated by genuine enthusiasm—and the awareness that being tied to a popular civil rights movement would be great marketing—joined a chorus of calls for racial equality. They ghost-wrote open letters about race for their executives to sign and scrambled to feature people of color in advertisements.

Alongside rising death counts from Covid-19, lockdowns, and reports of police violence, marketers began to worry that the usual aspirational advertising was missing the mark. In the BLM movement they saw an opportunity to talk about something that felt meaningful, especially to younger consumers who seemed to be interested in little else. In the past, Black creators had to aggressively pitch themselves, says Jack Young, an influencer manager who specializes in working with people of color. Now brands were calling him nonstop.

One of Young’s clients, Kenny Knox, a 22-year-old sketch comic—he helped pioneer a style of online comedy in which a single actor plays all the characters in a skit—struck sponsorship deals with Trident gum, Axe deodorant, and Gillette razors, among other brands. “I don’t know if it’s them wanting to work with me because it’s me, or if they feel bad and they see me and want their brand to look better,” says Knox. “But I’m thankful.” By the end of 2020 he was making enough money to rent an apartment without roommates for the first time.

Knox had gotten his start making six-second videos on Vine, the old video app. He was one of the service’s most popular users, but he didn’t even realize that companies paid influencers for posts until he began trading notes with his White peers, many of whom make as much as $100,000 per video these days. “I should be a millionaire right now,” he says. “My friends, my family, they all look at me like I’m about to be Will Smith.”

In 2017, Knox had secured a modest deal to record a video for Target Corp. On his way to the studio, a Target rep called to cancel, because the rep had noticed that he’d used the N-word in a recent comedy video. Black comedians and musicians, of course, use the word all the time, but Knox nonetheless offered to delete the offending post. The rep said it didn’t matter; Target was no longer interested. “It’s a cop-out, because no brand has hesitated to hire a rapper,” says Young, his manager. Knox now warns other Black creators to keep their content clean.

Marketers Are Underpaying Black Influencers While Pushing Black Lives Matter

This makes him different from White influencers like Jake and Logan Paul, who also became famous on Vine and who make millions of dollars a year, despite antics that have included throwing (and filming) raucous, unmasked parties during Covid-19 lockdowns. Jake repeatedly used the N-word in one of his videos, and Logan once filmed a dead body. The men have since been forgiven by the brands that temporarily shunned them. On a podcast last summer, Logan acknowledged that “half of the reason I’m able to get away with my hooligan shit I do in my vlogs is because I’m a White kid.”

Another famous influencer, Felix Kjellberg, a White man from Sweden better known as PewDiePie, has at times courted controversy by making anti-Semitic jokes, by using the N-word, and, most recently, for behavior that violated YouTube’s rules against bullying. In 2017, when Kjellberg was cut off from big contracts with YouTube and Disney Maker Studios, he still made $12 million in advertising, according to Forbes. Last year he signed an exclusive streaming deal with YouTube. “If I was doing some of the things they are doing,” says Black influencer Landon Moss, referring to White influencers such as Kjellberg and the Pauls, “I wouldn’t be doing the brand deals I’m doing.”

In Hollywood, racial biases have tended to flow from the top. Executives hire White directors and producers, who in turn work with White casting agents, who cast White actors. When Black talent is considered, it’s often for roles or projects that specifically require it. Social media companies have often promoted diversity initiatives, but in practice they’re not much different.

In the summer of 2018, Facebook Inc. was preparing the launch of a mobile video service for Instagram, IGTV, that was intended to compete with YouTube. Instagram employees were tasked with briefing and training the photo-sharing app’s biggest stars to use the new platform ahead of the official launch so that it would be full of videos by the time regular people logged on. Mark Luckie, who then worked with Instagram’s influencer partnerships team, was charged with curating a list of creators of color. Luckie, who is Black, produced a proposal for superiors that included some of Instagram’s most popular Black users. “Most of them are Instagram heavyweights,” he wrote, adding that they would bring “a welcome level of talent and diversity to the product launch.”

His proposal, which was obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek, was rejected on the grounds that Facebook couldn’t trust the creators Luckie identified to keep IGTV secret. “Due to leak risk we can’t be comfortable briefing any creators we don’t already have a relationship with unfortunately,” a manager replied. The manager encouraged Luckie to contact the names on his list after the launch.

Luckie thought his bosses were missing out on a huge business opportunity. Around the same time, an internal Facebook research report showed that Black and Hispanic users outperformed others on almost all the metrics the company cared most about, including engagement, overall time spent on the platform, and time spent on video. The report said Facebook’s metrics matched the overall media market: Black and Hispanic users spent an average of 55 hours a month on mobile devices, 27% more than their peers of other races, and consumed 137% more streaming video. Black users in particular commented and posted more than those from other demographics—yet Facebook had made scant effort to cultivate Black creators.

Luckie left the company later that year, describing a “disenfranchisement of Black people on the platform” in an open letter to Facebook staff. “You can see this reflected in everything from the guest lists of Facebook’s external programs, the industry events the company has historically sponsored, the creators and influencers who appear in Explore tabs on Instagram, the power users who are verified on the platforms, and more,” he wrote. Facebook, notorious for making decisions based on data, was instead pursuing relationships with creators based on employees’ personal tastes. A company spokesman, Charlton Gholson, disputes Luckie’s interpretation of events and says the choice to brief creators was not based on racial considerations. He adds that the company has since “augmented our partnerships approach to be more equitable.”

Marketers Are Underpaying Black Influencers While Pushing Black Lives Matter

Today, Luckie recalls that members of the partnerships team would take turns telling the group what they were watching or listening to in weekly meetings. “I’d sort of latched on to a pattern that everyone was recommending shows with primarily White characters, music from White artists, thinking, ‘this is kind of terrible,’ ” he says. If employees had taken the time to browse the top-performing beauty artists or music artists or comedians on their own platforms, they’d have had no trouble finding talent of color.

Last June, as brands started to become comfortable talking about race, so did Facebook. Instagram product chief Adam Mosseri said in a blog post that the company would “take a harder look” at whether its algorithms held any bias against Black people. “We’re also hearing concern about whether we suppress Black voices and whether our products and policies treat everyone equally,” he wrote.

Instagram started a campaign to increase the visibility of Black talent on its app with the hashtag #shareblackstories, and Facebook started a $25 million fund to support Black creators. Google followed suit with an announcement in June that YouTube would set aside $100 million to back original programming over multiple years that would “present fresh narratives that emphasize the intellectual power, authenticity, dignity and joy of Black voices.” In January, TikTok Inc. announced a three-month incubator program for Black creators that would include “motivational town halls” and “educational events with TikTok executives.”

Black creators are hopeful but skeptical that the newfound enthusiasm will change the industry. Layla Qasim, a situational humorist and makeup artist who goes by @neko_channn on TikTok, where she has 2.4 million followers, calls these new initiatives “extremely performative.” She’s been to Black creator meetups and Black History Month events hosted by platforms, but she wonders why her peers aren’t elevated by the companies simply for their talent, outside of a diversity initiative. “They try to shove a Black creator up front and say, ‘Look! A Black creator!’  ” she says. Meanwhile, Black creators like Qasim say they have a harder time getting verified on the apps or getting recommended to users through TikTok’s “For You” page. They’re also more likely, they say, to get banned or punished by algorithms designed by overwhelmingly White and Asian coders.

In February, five well-known influencers, including Qasim and Thiru, the beauty specialist, started living together in a six-bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills, which they named The Crib Around the Corner. “Content houses,” often sponsored by brands and managed by talent agencies, have exploded in popularity as creators look to pool resources and pitch themselves as a group.

The Crib is overseen by Whalar, the influencer management agency, which envisioned it as a way for influencers of color to band together, exercising more leverage over brands during negotiations. Whalar sources deals for the Crib’s residents, all of whom are Black and who have agreed to be paid the same for any projects they take on. AT&T TV is already signed up as the house’s sponsor. Backing the Crib is “an opportunity to address the compensation gap for Black creators, giving them a platform to share content that inspires and entertains while receiving equal pay,” says Vince Torres, an AT&T Inc. senior vice president. The company declines to say how much it is spending on the initiative.

Marketers Are Underpaying Black Influencers While Pushing Black Lives Matter

For the influencers, living and working together is also a way to trade notes. Black creators have “a lack of knowledge, because we don’t really have those opportunities, we don’t really see how we’re getting cheated,” says Dare Ajibare, a house member with a million TikTok followers. All five of the residents have done deals with brands, which, they later learned, had paid White influencers more for similar work. Several say they were able to negotiate for higher pay, but only by agreeing to do more posts in exchange for the extra money. The three women in the house—Qasim, Thiru, and Challan Trishann—say that they’ve shown up for shoots where none of the hair or makeup artists were prepared for their complexion.

So far, audiences have responded favorably. The Crib’s TikTok account has attracted 175,000 followers, and its first video drew almost 1 million views. Ajibare says that to know he has brand executives and managers on his side is “a newfound feeling.”

Unfortunately, it’s not clear that this will mean more money for other Black influencers. Most brands, even as they speak the language of empowerment, haven’t changed their ways, creators say. And there’s a possibility that brands will go back to their old ways if BLM fades.

McRae, the TikTok choreographer, still charges around $500 a post. She’s planning on moving from Miami to Nashville, where she thinks the lower rents will allow her to save money and begin preparing financially for the moment when her fame ends. “I’m constantly second-guessing myself,” she says. “Is it going to randomly stop? Am I going to still be able to do what I’m doing? Even if I am, it’s still not going to be equal. How long will this last before I have to go back and work a 9-to-5?”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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