No more clumpy lipgloss: How TikTok's 'deinfluencing' trend became a marketing tactic

As the cost of living goes up, content creators are striving to build trust with audiences who can no longer afford the expensive products that some influencers get paid up to half a million dollars to promote. (CBC - image credit)
As the cost of living goes up, content creators are striving to build trust with audiences who can no longer afford the expensive products that some influencers get paid up to half a million dollars to promote. (CBC - image credit)

Just a few weeks ago, Lauren Rutherglen's 10,000 TikTok followers would have expected advice on what beauty products to buy.

But as she rummaged through the creamy Glossier eyeshadows, Ilia serums and Charlotte Tilbury liquid bronzers in her drawer, the Calgary-based content creator was reminded of the expensive but disappointing products that the Internet had convinced her she needed.

So she made a "deinfluencing" video — a TikTok-coined term that describes the rejection of viral, cult-favourite beauty or lifestyle products (typically associated with influencer culture) in favour of more affordable choices.

"I just wanted to share my opinion on things that I was influenced as a consumer to buy and just didn't really like," Rutherglen told CBC News.

She doesn't mince words during her TikTok video, which has upped her follower count by a few thousand. "It dries out, it's hard to blend. I hate it. I hate it so much," she says of one product. Wrinkling her nose at another, she claims that it "literally smells like rotting Play-Doh."

But deinfluencing is a content strategy in itself, according to the Canadian creators, industry and marketing experts who spoke with CBC News. As the cost of living goes up, content creators are striving to build trust with audiences who can no longer afford the expensive products that some influencers get paid up to half a million dollars to promote.

A marketing strategy in itself

Maya Francis
Maya Francis

The deinfluencing hashtag on TikTok had accumulated over 228 million views as of Feb. 23.

Some TikTokers directed their followers away from trendy, pricey products that they felt were a disappointment or a waste of money, instead recommending cheaper, more functional alternatives (which they might still be paid to promote).

Why get the $50 Stanley tumbler when you can just get a water bottle, they asked? Why do you need $175 Ugg minis if you can buy a regular pair of boots? Why buy Kim Kardashian's shapewear products if you can get inexpensive pantyhose?

A curated social media feed can serve the same purpose as a fashion magazine or a beauty catalogue, and users tend to follow people they trust will recommend high-quality products, said Jess Hunichen, the co-founder of Toronto talent management agency Shine.

"Trust is the number one commodity that these influencers have," Hunichen said. Her firm represents about 250 people working in the influencer industry. "If they lose that with their audience, this whole thing goes away for them and they don't want that."

Deinfluencing is a tool that can build that trust, she added. It's not unlike the in-person retail experience, where shoppers at a cosmetics store or a clothing boutique might seek advice or validation from a salesperson working the floor.

"When you have a sales associate say to you that you look amazing in everything you like, maybe they just want to sell," she said. But taking a critical approach might have a more powerful — and lucrative — impact.

"When they say to you, 'you know what, this looks incredible,' [or] 'I don't love that colour on you,' you immediately trust them," because they're willing to give you an honest answer, Hunichen said.

Rutherglen, who says she has acne and textured skin, uses her platform to connect with others who share her need for specialized products — but don't want to be duped by an advertising or branding scheme.

Mary Altaffer/The Associated Press
Mary Altaffer/The Associated Press

"A lot of businesses [want] honest reviews from people that have communities of people who trust what they're saying," said Rutherglen. She doesn't make an income from her social media, nor does expect to receive a sponsorship deal from the companies she criticized in the video — but it's all water under the bridge.

"I would rather burn these bridges and be honest with everyone than sell something that I've either altered to look good or I just really don't like and don't use, because then [my followers will] be in the same boat that I was after purchasing all those products," she added.

'I don't think anything's accidental'

Submitted by Lia Haberman
Submitted by Lia Haberman

Several critics have questioned whether deinfluencing indicates a rejection of the influencer industry, or whether the trend could backfire on content creators whose shunning of consumer culture leave a bad taste in the mouth of their sponsor brands.

The industry was worth about $16.4 billion in 2022, with the industry expected to grow to $21.1 billion in 2023, according to a report from research firm Influencer Marketing Hub. The experts featured in this story ballparked it around the same, with projections to keep growing.

"I don't think anything's accidental. I think influencers are very strategic, very intentional," said Lia Haberman, a Canadian adjunct professor of influencer marketing at the University of California Los Angeles Extension, who wrote about the deinfluencing phenomenon in a recent article.

"It's more of a curation strategy versus any kind of anti-consumer message," added Haberman. "So they'll tell you, 'Don't buy this mascara, but I love this one.' … I think the message isn't really about consuming less, but just consuming maybe more thoughtfully or intentionally."

Rutherglen said that the trend is taking off as people who are worried about their employment status and a possible recession are making more thoughtful spending choices. "If you're wanting to purchase something, you want it to be something that's of value and reflects what you worked for and the money you earned."

Robert Bumsted/The Associated Press
Robert Bumsted/The Associated Press

Jess Hankin, a Vancouver-based content creator who earns an affiliate commission from Amazon for her TikTok videos, agreed. She pointed to an incident in which the cosmetics company Tarte sent dozens of influencers on a glitzy three-day, all-inclusive trip to Dubai this past January.

"Sending a whole bunch of influencers just to have this little glamorous Instagram kind of life somewhere else, where so many of us are like, 'dude, my mortgage is through the roof,' or, 'I can't even afford to buy a house,' is just not something that a lot of people want to see right now."

Honesty is an influencer's best currency

Amy Harris/Invision/The Associated Press
Amy Harris/Invision/The Associated Press

The rush to "deinfluence" viral Internet products began around the same time that an American beauty influencer named Mikayla Nogueira posted a TikTok touting the powers of a L'Oreal mascara. "This looks like false eyelashes," she said during the L'Oreal-sponsored video.

The criticism was swift: she was wearing actual false lashes, many of her followers said, and deliberately misleading her audience into buying the product.

"When you embrace a brand too fully, it can make it seem like you're just embracing them or endorsing them because you have a contract and you know you're sponsored by a brand," said Haberman.

A recent marketing move by Taco Bell shows that brands might be warming up to a reverse psychology-style of promotion, she added. The Mexican fast food joint paid singer Doja Cat last year to complain about having to write a jingle for their brand on her social media feeds. It was negative attention — but attention nonetheless.

Taco Bell's move "was deinfluencing before deinfluencing," Haberman said. "Most companies are not that comfortable with the idea of, 'we're going to pay an influencer to complain about us or to say anything negative at all about our product or our brand.'"

"But I think kind of the braver, bolder, more progressive companies on social media are going to jump on this and find a way to turn it to their advantage."