Did you hear the one about the plane full of unmasked social media influencers that left Montréal headed for a party in Cancun? No? Then you obviously haven’t been in Canada, because we have been hanging our heads in shame about it ever since the videos about the partiers started to go viral.
This Plane of Shame left La Belle Province on Dec. 30. It was a Sunwings flight, packed with partiers hand-picked by entrepreneur and social influencer James William Awad, who chartered the plane as part of his 111 Private Club.
It was always intended to be a select event for just the “right type” of people, meaning those who showed well on social media. In that, this excursion brought back troubling memories of the infamous, fraudulent Fryre Festival of 2017, likewise promoted heavily on social media.
The antics of the Canadian group and their inability to “read the room” among skyrocketing COVID numbers left many slack-jawed in stunned disbelief.
And behind it all was Awad, pulling the strings like a social engineer from hell. According to him, these jerks were the type of people he wants for his “exclusive” club. In fact, in an interview with the so-appropriately named Narcity blog, Awad said club members are screened for "the personality, the energy, the vibe, make sure they understand the rules, know their age, their background, and their general status in society.”
I suspect Awad is more concerned with their “vibe” and “status” then their “understanding of the rules.”
The sad thing is that this social media stunt seems to be working. Awad is currently laughing all the way to his cryptocurrency bank. After showing the barest sliver of remorse when the media piled on, he quickly backtracked and doubled down on his support of abominable behavior, saying in a tweet on Jan. 9, “Reality of the story, sheeps [sic] are mad because people partied on a private chartered plane where partying was allowed. Wake up!!“
In another interview, Awad said he had hundreds of people on his waiting list, desperate to join his club. It shows that when it comes to social media influence marketing, at least when it comes to boorish behavior, there truly is no such thing as bad press.
I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’m not a fan of influencer marketing. And I realize I'm light years removed from being in the target market for this particular campaign.
So, is this just a question of targeting, or does it go deeper than that? If marketers are using social media to spread messages through influencers, is there a social and ethical responsibility for those messages not to be harmful or conducive to antisocial behaviors?
After all, by their very name, these people influence the behavior of others. Jerks will be jerks, but when the exact thing that makes them jerks has the hell amplified out of it thanks to the knock-on effects of social media, should we start putting our foot down?
Like almost everything to do with marketing and media nowadays, this falls into a grey area roughly the size of the Atlantic Ocean. Even the old rules of engagement that used to govern advertising -- as flimsy as they were -- no longer apply.
Essentially, social influencers seem to be able to do whatever they want, flaunting the guidelines of common decency that govern the rest of us. Not only are there no consequences for this, but they’re often rewarded handsomely for behaving badly.
Influencer marketing is governed (in the United States) by the First Amendment ensuring freedom of speech. But there is an exception for messaging that is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action.” The Plane of Shame example wouldn’t quite meet the requirements for that exception, but perhaps this is a case of our industry establishing its own boundaries. When it comes to social media influencers, we should aspire to be a little less shitty.
The thing I like the least about influencer marketing is that it reduces social complexity to a level most of us haven’t seen since high school. The sum of your self-worth was determined by the parties you did (or didn’t) get invited to, and the brand of jeans you wore. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad I left this all behind when I turned 18. In my experience, those who hit the peak of their popularity in high school have had a long, downwards slide ever since. We can only hope the same will be true of the social influencers on board that plane from Montréal to Cancun.
In fact, even our own Prime Minister Trudeau (who I suspect might have been invited to all the right parties and wore the right jeans in high school) has had enough, noting the flight was a "slap in the face to see people putting themselves, putting their fellow citizens, putting airline workers at risk by being completely irresponsible."
And just to show them how disappointed we Canadians are, Sunwings pulled the plug on the return flight, stranding the group at their resort in Cancun. Two other airlines followed suit. As Jimmy Fallon joked on “The Tonight Show,” there’s no better way to discipline a bunch of Canadians in the middle of winter than to strand them at a luxury resort in Mexico.
That’ll show ‘em!