How the College Admissions Scandal May Change Influencer Culture

By Brian Henry

The college admissions fraud case that ensnared celebrities and CEOs this week also had consequences for one of the students who benefitted from the bribery scheme ー Olivia Jade Giannulli, a major influencer and the daughter of actress Lori Loughlin and designer Mossimo Giannulli.

Sephora cut its ties with the influencer after her parents were indicted for allegedly paying $500,000 to help their daughters ー Olivia Jade and her older sister ー get accepted to the University of Southern California. The sisters were allegedly classified as recruits to the USC crew team as part of the scheme, even though neither of them is a rower. (It is unclear if Olivia Jade was aware of the plot.)

Retail strategist Erin Sykes said Sephora acted swiftly to cut ties after the charges were made public.

"I had no question that they were going to eventually announce it," Sykes told Cheddar. "I think it came pretty quickly. It was very decisive."

Olivia Jade had customized a highlighter palette for Sephora that was available online and in stores and heavily promoted on her social media channels. After news of the family's involvement in the scandal broke, backlash to the partnership began.

"Of course there's all of the negative reviews," Sykes explained. "Over two hundred one-star reviews were left on the palette just within the last 48 hours. Then you have all of #BoycottSephora Tweets. It was just really bad publicity."

Sykes said the scandal can be seen as a learning opportunity for brands preparing to partner with an influencer. Long before her mother was charged, Jade had posted a video that cast doubt on the authenticity of her college experience, as well as her overall values.

In the video, she was quoted as saying: "I don't know how much of school I'm gonna attend. But I'm gonna go in and talk to my deans and everyone, and hope that I can try and balance it all. But I do want the experience of like game days, partying… I don't really care about school, as you guys all know."

"She had made those statements about her lack of aspirations for college life and yet she continued to get Tresemme deals and Smile Direct Club deals," Sykes said. "These brands are going to have to do a little more digging before saying 'this person has x number of followers, let's partner with her.'"

Sykes said the increasing artificiality of influencer brands are undermining the effectiveness of that brand strategy.

"I think influencer marketing, as we know it, has jumped the shark a little bit," said Sykes. "Everyone can see behind the curtain, we know these people are not truly using the brands. As marketers, we have to come up with what's next and get back to something that is truly genuine and authentic in our marketing."

Sykes isn't ready to put a pin in the influencer trend altogether but does predict a change in how consumers see their content.

"I think video is going to come into play. I think [with] Instagram, it's a lot easier to pose your static shots," Sykes told Cheddar. "Whereas when you're doing video, you have to at least have some knowledge of the product."

Where does Olivia Jade go from here? Sykes had some advice for the vlogger and her parents.

"If she's going to stay at USC, I think she should get a volunteer position on campus where she's really contributing to the school," she said. "I think really getting her hands dirty, hopefully upgrading her priorities, and showing that she does have a moral compass could be great."

She recommended that her parents do some volunteer work as well.

For full interview click here.

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