Somebody call Kerry Washington, because it’s time for another influencer scandal.
Olivia Jade Giannulli, daughter of actress Lori Loughlin, is at the center of a university cheating scandal that has since resulted in the loss of most (and possibly all) of her brand sponsorships including TRESemmé, Sephora and Estée Lauder.
Giannulli is a 19-year-old fashion and lifestyle influencer who created beauty vlogs and other content out of her USC dorm. The FBI investigation alleges that her parents paid upwards of 500,000 in bribes to ensure acceptance into the highly competitive school.
Our own CEO Eric Dahan predicted in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that Giannulli would swiftly become “radioactive” to brands.
Within 48 hours of the headlines, Giannulli was indeed dropped from her active partnership with Sephora, where she had her own makeup line. Additionally, brands she has previously partnered with – including Lulus, HP, and TRESemmé – stated they have no intention of working with her again.
Many global influencer agencies are also stepping away from the former social superstar.
Giannulli built a sizable following (1.9 million YouTube subscribers, 1.4 million Instagram followers) based on an approachable student persona. Her parents’ alleged crimes are a complete reversal of that image, one that may put an indefinite pause on her influencer career.
After all, influencers (like traditional celebrities before them) lose more than brand sponsorships in the midst of a scandal. They lose the most important currency an influencer has: trust. Many influencer marketing firms are now looking to the next industry stars or even leveraging so-called micro influencers.
Trust is, quite simply, the foundation of influencer marketing. People admire influencers because they are perceived as authentic, transparent and relatable. In fact, one in three millennials say they trust influencers more than they trust brands!
When an influencer loses audience trust, however, it’s almost impossible to win back. Two of the world’s biggest creators, Pewdiepie and Logan Paul, lost millions of followers (and more than one brand deal) in the wake of their own problematic behavior. In both cases, their misdeeds were not only harmful and offensive, but a complete betrayal of the friendly, bubbly personas.
Comedian and television host John Oliver picked up on just this aspect in his take on the scandal in Last Week Tonight.
“She’s actively made money off her brand as a fun, relatable college student,” he said. Indeed, the college cheating scandal hits Giannulli right where she built her identity. Along with previous admissions of disdain for school, and a portrait emerges of a girl that sits in stark contrast to the image she’s presented on screen for years.
It’s difficult to say how long Gianulli’s backlash will continue. As with all scandals, the intense vitriol will eventually subside, and she may even find a chance at redemption. But doing so will require more than saving face. It will require a dedicated effort to rebuild trust from the ground up.