‘De-Influencers’ Want You to Think Twice Before Buying That Mascara
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‘De-Influencers’ Want You to Think Twice Before Buying That Mascara

TikTok users are speaking critically about viral products and advocating for thoughtful shopping habits. On a platform known for driving consumption, is change even possible?

Fri, Feb 3, 2023 8:42amGrey Clock 5 min

After years of influencers pushing cosmetics, clothes, personal tech and supplements to the masses, a rising cohort is taking a different tack: telling people what not to buy. They’re calling it “de-influencing.”

The term is being popularised in videos by people whose experience runs the gamut: disappointed consumers, savvy beauty bloggers, doctors dispelling skin-care myths and former retail employees dishing on which products they saw returned most often. Their shared guidance is a rejoinder to a seemingly endless stream of recommendations and promotional content on the platform—and a sign of growing backlash to over consumption. TikTok videos under the hashtag #deinfluencing have surpassed 68 million views.

TikTok has become one of the most powerful forces in online retail, helping to boost butt-lifting leggings, luxe lip oils and green-juice powders, among other trendy products. Brands have poured money into influencer marketing on the platform, knowing a viral video can make almost anything sell out, and videos featuring the hashtag #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt have together earned more than 40 billion views.

“The best way to think about TikTok is that it’s a vehicle that takes a consumer to the checkout line,” said Krishna Subramanian, the co-founder of Captiv8, a marketing platform that connects influencers and brands.

But a deluge of sponsored videos and hyper-enthusiastic reviews has made it harder for consumers to figure out which items are actually worth their money.

“We’re constantly being fed, ‘You need to try this product,’ ‘You will love this product,’” said Karen Wu, 25, a makeup and skin-care influencer who lives outside Los Angeles. De-influencing is an attempt to change that.

What exactly is de-influencing?

The term refers to people speaking critically about products on a platform where endorsements run rampant.

De-influencing videos may steer consumers toward cheaper alternatives, also known as dupes, or discourage them from spending money in certain categories altogether.

Maddie Wells, a beauty influencer in Lexington, Ky., was early to the trend. She began making videos in 2020 about the products she frequently saw customers return to Sephora and Ulta, where she held sales associate jobs between 2018 and 2021.

In a September video with 2.5 million views, she name-drops the Ordinary’s Peeling Solution and Too Faced’s Better Than Sex mascara as cosmetics that—despite being frequently touted by beauty influencers—often found their way back to the shelves at those stores. “I’m calling this ‘de-influencing,’” she says in the video. The Ordinary and Too Faced didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“I can’t say without a shadow of a doubt I was the first person to ever say it,” Ms. Wells said of her coinage, but it has significantly caught on since.

How did the trend start?

Though de-influencing is a relatively new term, TikTok users have been speaking candidly about products for some time now. Last year, entrepreneur and former Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel earned headlines for her unapologetic and critical reviews of popular beauty products.

“I wanted the glow. I wanted to glow like they glowed,” Ms. Frankel said of influencers promoting cosmetics. In trying out popular products herself, she’s found that some of them don’t live up to the hype. She said she’s been approached by beauty companies that want to send her products and have her post paid reviews, but she has turned them down in favour of partnering with brands she already knows and likes.

“The hill that I’m not dying on is lying about a lip gloss,” Ms. Frankel said.

In December 2021, style influencer Elise Harmon went viral after posting a video about the low-cost contents of Chanel’s $825 holiday advent calendar, including stickers, temporary tattoos and a dust bag.

“I was more upset with the fact that I wasn’t being a conscientious buyer. I bought something blindly without really looking at the quality of what was inside,” Ms. Harmon said. “I think people were excited to hear someone say they didn’t think it was worth it.”

A representative for Chanel declined to comment. In an interview with Women’s Wear Daily after Ms. Harmon’s video went viral, Chanel’s president of fashion said the company would be “much more cautious” about introducing similar products.

Why is it taking off now?

The pervasiveness of influencer marketing has put the onus on consumers to decipher which reviews can be trusted and what products are worth their money.

Those concerns came to a head last week when Mikayla Nogueira, a makeup artist with 14.4 million TikTok followers, was accused of wearing fake eyelashes in a sponsored post for L’Oréal mascara. (Neither a representative for Ms. Nogueira nor L’Oréal responded to multiple requests for comment.)

A TikTok spokesperson said that the company “has strict policies to protect users from fake, fraudulent, or misleading content, including ads, and we remove any content that violates our Community Guidelines, Advertising Guidelines, and Terms of Service.”

As viewers become more skeptical of promotions on the platform, influencers who appear raw, honest and critical in their approaches may stand to benefit, experts say.

“Originally, influencers were very beholden to their audience, then brands came along and said ‘let’s see how we can leverage this.’ Then, influencers became super beholden to brands,” said Jenna Drenten, associate professor of marketing at Loyola University Chicago’s Quinlan School of Business. Now, she said, “influencers are swinging back to the accountability between themselves and their audiences.”

What are some other products de-influencers are calling out?

Many of the products being critiqued today are ones that owe their success in large part to TikTok influencers.

Alexandra Williams, a 25-year-old tech sales employee in San Diego, Calif., recently posted about a knockoff of the Stanley tumbler, after seeing the 40-ounce water bottle all over social media. Terence Reilly, Stanley’s global president, said that sales of Stanley’s marquee Quencher bottle increased by 275% in 2022 compared with the previous year.

“Whenever I use my water bottle it’s because I’m going on a hike, or I’m throwing it down below in my car because I’m going to a workout class,” Ms. Williams said. Like Stanley’s Quencher, the bottle has a non-collapsible straw, which she said made it prone to spills and impractical for her active lifestyle. Mr. Reilly suggested that customers looking for a leakproof Stanley alternative could buy the IceFlow Tumbler.

Lola Olson, a 23-year-old fashion and lifestyle influencer in Germany, recently posted a video naming several brands and products she didn’t like, including shampoo from hair-care line Olaplex.

“There’s always going to be those people that are like, ‘It worked great for me.’ It just didn’t for me,” she said. “So I was just being honest, and I feel like that’s what people want from influencers.” She recommended her followers try K18 Hair, an Olaplex competitor her mom advised her to try, instead.

In response to a request for comment, an Olaplex spokesperson shared reports about the brand’s popularity and data on its social-media reach. A representative for K18 said that while the company uses influencers to promote its products, Ms. Olson has not worked with the brand.

Wait, but isn’t that still influencing?

Yes and no.

While emerging influencers may not be paid to name-drop alternatives, it’s easy to see how the space can quickly get murky as those with brand deals may seek to discredit the product of a competitor.

“There’s a big difference between saying, ‘I use a product and I enjoy it and I’m not getting paid to say this,’ versus ‘I have a previous relationship with a brand, and I’m telling you this alternative doesn’t work,’” said Prem Tripathi, a facial plastic surgeon in the San Francisco Bay Area who posts videos countering popular skin-care myths.

In a recent TikTok video, Dr. Tripathi poked fun at the de-influencing trend, offering up alternatives that had no connection to the hyped-up serums and creams in question: a “Golden Girls” mug, a luxury towel warmer and a lint remover.


Consumers are going to gravitate toward applications powered by the buzzy new technology, analyst Michael Wolf predicts

Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

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Our refrigerators, washing machines and ovens can do more than ever, from producing symmetrical ice cubes to remotely preheating on your commute home. The downside to all these snazzy features is that the appliances are more prone to breaking.

Appliance technicians and others in the industry say there has been an increase in items in need of repair. Yelp users, for example, requested 58% more quotes from thousands of appliance repair businesses last month than they did in January 2022.

Those in the industry blame a push toward computerisation, an increase in the quantity of individual components and flimsier materials for undercutting reliability. They say even higher-end items aren’t as durable.

American households spent 43% more on home appliances in 2023 than they did in 2013, rising from an inflation-adjusted average of $390 to $558, according to Euromonitor International. Prices for the category declined 12% from the beginning of 2013 through the end of 2023, according to the Labor Department.

One reason for the discrepancy between spending and prices is a higher rate of replacement, say consumers, repair technicians and others. That’s left some people wishing they had held on to their clunky ’90s-era appliances and others bargaining with repair workers over intractable ice makers and dryers that run cold.

“We’re making things more complicated, they’re harder to fix and more expensive to fix,” says Aaron Gianni, the founder of do-it-yourself home-repair app Plunjr.

Horror stories

Sharon J. Swan spent nearly $7,000 on a Bosch gas range and smart refrigerator. She thought the appliances would last at least through whenever she decided to sell her Alexandria, Va., home and impress would-be buyers.

That was before the oven caught fire the first time she tried the broiler, leading to a 911 call and hasty return. The ice-maker in the refrigerator, meanwhile, is now broken for the third time in under two years. Bosch covered the first two fridge fixes, but she says she’s on her own for the latest repair, totalling $250, plus parts.

“I feel like I wasted my money,” says the 65-year-old consultant for trade associations.

A Bosch spokeswoman said in an emailed statement that the company has been responsive to Swan’s concerns and will continue to work with her to resolve ongoing issues. “Bosch appliances are designed and manufactured to meet the highest quality standards, and they are built to last,” she said.

Kevin and Kellene Dinino wish they had held on to their white dishwasher from the ’90s that was still working great.

The sleeker $800 GE stainless steel interior dishwasher they purchased sprang a hidden leak within three years, causing more than $35,000 worth of damage to their San Diego kitchen.

Home insurance covered the claim, which included replacing the hardwood down to the subfloor and all their bottom cabinetry, but kicked the Dininos off their policy. The family also went without access to their kitchen for months.

“This was a $60 pump that was broken. What the hell happened?” says Kevin, 45, who runs a financial public-relations firm.

A GE Appliances spokeswoman said the company takes appliance issues seriously and works quickly to resolve them with consumers.

Increased complexity

Peel back the plastic on a modern refrigerator or washing machine and you’ll see a smattering of sensors and switches that its 10-year-old counterpart lacks. These extra components help ensure the appliance is using only the energy and water it needs for the job at hand, technicians say. With more parts, however, more tends to go wrong more quickly, they say.

Mansoor Soomro, a professor at Teesside University, a technical college in Middlesbrough, England, says home appliances are breaking down more often. He says that manufacturers used to rely mostly on straightforward mechanical parts (think an on/off switch that triggers a single lever). In the past decade or so, they’ve transitioned to relying more on sophisticated electrical and computerised parts (say, a touch screen that displays a dozen different sensor-controlled wash options).

When a complicated machine fails, technicians say they have a much harder time figuring out what went wrong. Even if the technician does diagnose the problem, consumers are often left with repairs that exceed half the cost of replacement, rendering the machine totalled.

“In the majority of cases, I would say buying a new one makes more economic sense than repairing it,” says Soomro, who spent seven years working at Siemens , including in the home-appliances division.

These machines are also now more likely to be made with plastic and aluminium rather than steel, Soomro says. High-efficiency motors and compressors, too, are likely to be lighter-duty, since they’re tasked with drawing less energy .

A spokeswoman for the Association for Home Appliance Manufacturers says the industry has “enhanced the safety, energy efficiency, capacity and performance of appliances while adding features and maintaining affordability and durability for purchasers.” She says data last updated in 2019 shows that the average life of an appliance has “not substantially shifted over the past two decades.”

When simpler is better

Kathryn Ryan and Kevin Sullivan needed a new sensor to fix their recently purchased $1,566 GE Unitized Spacemaker washer-dryer. GE wasn’t able to fix the sensor for months, so the couple paid a local technician $300 to get the machine working.

The repairman also offered them a suggestion: Avoid the sensor option and stick to timed dries.

“You should be able to use whatever function you please on a brand new appliance, ideally,” says Sullivan, a 32-year-old musician in Burbank, Calif.

More features might seem glamorous, Frontdoor virtual appliance tech Jim Zaccone says, but fewer is usually better.

“Consumers are wising up to the failures that are happening and going, ‘Do I really need my oven to preheat while I’m at the grocery store?’” jokes Zaccone, who has been in the appliance-repair business for 21 years.

He just replaced his own dishwasher and says he bought one with “the least bells and whistles.” He also opted for a mass-market brand with cheap and readily available parts. Most surprisingly, he chose a bottom-of-the-line model.

“Spending a lot of money on something doesn’t guarantee you more reliability,” says Zaccone.


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