Source: Moni Group

Just like Heinz's ketchup-red puzzle that was released in May for those bored during quarantine, influencers are all shades of red and can respectively fit all over the puzzle. But these red pieces can't be placed randomly as they have their own designated position, or else the puzzle won't be completed properly. The same applies to social media public figures who might place themselves in industries they lack experience or knowledge in. 

With the emergence of social media platforms, especially Instagram, brands have been collaborating with influencers to promote their products in hopes of increasing their brand reach. 

According to a 2017 report by BPG Cohn & Wolfe that involved 100 in-house marketing and brand managers across a range of industries in the UAE, 94 percent of companies believe social media influencer marketing plays a major role in the success of their brands. The rest of the region and the world have been focusing of the same strategy as well.

"Influencer marketing has been trending strongly in the past few years through the penetration of social media channels and the ease with which brands can tap into a mass number of potential consumers," said Dr. Zahy Ramadan, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Lebanese American University (LAU). 

According to Dr. Ramadan, influencers have the power to greatly affect consumers' behavior and shopping tendencies. 

A graph shows that brand awareness is the leading goal for brands using influencers in their marketing strategy. Photo Credit: Statista. Source: Statista

In 2018, Iraqi-Kuwaiti fashionista Dana Al Tuwarish gave an estimate of how much money an influencer can make a month. Based on her calculations, three promotions a day can win a top influencer 4,500 Kuwaiti dinars ($14,788), a total of 135,000 Kuwaiti dinars ($443,600) a month. 

For travel influencer Nagham Badawi, post prices in the UAE range between 1,000 dirhams ($272) and 50,000 dirhams ($13,613), if not more in some cases.

"[N]ot all influencers receive a payment per follower; some are into the experience itself that the brand might propose to them (such as a VIP exclusive pass to a concert it's sponsoring)," explained Dr. Ramadan. 

This marketing strategy is a win-win for both the influencer and the brand since all it takes is a well-captured photo with a tempting caption to lure in viewers. But where do followers stand besides being the targeted customers?

Countless of users in the Arab world trust social media influencers and show the desire to replicate their lavish lifestyle, which means resorting to them for product and service recommendations is a daily recurrence. This built-in trust between creators and their followers is an advantage for brands to make use of.

While macro and mega influencers - those with 100,000 to 1 million plus followers - are the go-to people for brands, micro influencers also get their share of the pie. Big or not, social media public figures have an equal level of responsibility they need to adhere to. At the end of the day, whether they're "influencing" 50K or 500K, one innocent mishap can turn out lethal.

The misuse of social media in the promotion of products may endanger the lives of users who might be willing to purchase the goods under the influence of confidence in the promoter

Products such as diet pills and detox teas remain controversial and often not licensed by health ministries, however, they're sold online and advertised by influencers regardless. 

In 2018, Lebanon's previous health minister Ghassan Hasbani halted the circulation of AB Slim food supplements "as it contains Sibutramine which was withdrawn from the markets for health concerns, Phenolphthalein that may cause cancer and Sildenafil." 

The same year, the UAE banned nine different diet pills for similar reasons. The Department of Health had also issued a warning against 378 weight-loss supplements, reportedly manufactured in China and Hong Kong.

One incident that raised red flags in 2019 on influencer marketing was the death of a Kuwaiti woman after allegedly taking a slimming drug advertised online and promoted by famous Kuwaiti influencer Dr. Kholoud. The problem with this case and with such ads in general is the influencer's emphasis on the positive effects of the products with an intentional masking of its side effects.

Annabella Hilal, a Lebanese model, tv presenter and asocial media influencer, promoting a Detox Tea product.

"Influencers have to [...] be extremely knowledgeable about the category and brand they post on. Unfortunately, we have seen lots of influencers who were specialized in a particular category (such as for example make-up), feature brands/companies that have nothing to do with their relevant area (such as cars or banks). With time, this decreased the credibility of many influencers and gave some negative perceptions on this marketing strategy," noted Dr. Ramadan. 

Another product that has been stealing the lights is detox teas, also known as "teatox". This organic herbal tea is being promoted as the ultimate weight-loss product, and it seems no one can promote it well enough like influencers do. However, an ugly truth lurks behind every aesthetically-pleasing photo posted online. These "miracle" teas can occasionally do more harm than good to your health, but does anyone mention the side effects

Influencers are not required to vet, understand, or even consume or use the products they promote on their pages. But when it comes to the health of people, advertising consumables is not to be taken lightly. 

In France, for example, TV channels reserve spots for pharmaceutical companies. At the end of each ad, a voice over and an on-screen text remind people to read the package insert and consult with their doctors before consuming the meds. Even though slimming products are generally advertised as a "for all" product and require no doctor's note, it is still a responsibility to inform the audience of the side effects that may accompany the consumption of the goods. Eventually, the consequences of inserting products in your body are far more frequent than applying makeup or buying a wristwatch. 

Nowadays, the world is facing a tremendous digital transformation, and the marketing industry is not to be excluded. In fact, even though not all products and promoters are to be trusted, the future of influencer marketing is forecasted to boom in the upcoming years, with an expectation it will reach a worth of $9.7 billion in 2020, a significant increase from 2019's $6.5 billion. However, the power in the hands of social media public figures should be put in perspective, and the health of followers should not be disregarded. 

*Sarah Trad contributed to this article.