Alessandra Ambrosio, Bella Hadid, Hailey Bieber, Emily Ratajkowski, Elsa Hosk, Paulina Vega, Lais Ribeiro, Rose Bertram, Gizele Oliveira and Hannah Ferguson, among others, all took to their Instagram accounts in March 2017 to post photos from a Bahamian getaway. What might have appeared to be an impromptu model get-away on the heels of the Fall/Winter 2018 fashion month runway shows was actually a promotional one in connection with the now infamous Fyre Festival.
Shortly thereafter, on those same models’ Instagram accounts could be found a striking image: a single orange color swatch. Alongside it was language to the effect of: “So excited to announce the first ever #fyrefestival @fyrefestival fyrefestival.com.”
At the time, it was entirely unclear what Fyre Festival was. Fashionista was one of the first to provide some clues, revealing that the mysterious event would be an “immersive music festival on Fyre Cay in the Exumas, a string of islands in the Bahamas.” The fashion site continued on, “A private plane will fly ticket holders from Miami to this private island where they'll spend the next 48 hours enjoying music,” and living it up in luxury with esteemed chef-catered meals, water sports and 5-star accommodations. Packages would start at $1,500 and top out at over $100,000.
Based on the social media furor that swiftly ensued and the rate at which Fyre Festival organizers sold some 5,000 tickets, this was a vacation of a lifetime, a luxurious version of Coachella, a millennial music-lover’s dream, except that it wasn’t. We would ultimately learn thanks to minute-by-minute social media updates from Festival goers and widespread media coverage that it was almost exactly the opposite of the enticing descriptions that were initially put out into the world.
In reality, Fyre Fest was a scam that saw hordes of attendees left stranded by the festival’s organizers at airports in Miami and the Bahamas, while others found that their "luxury villa" accommodations were little more than sparse, partially constructed tents; their celebrity chef-catered meals were actually scarce amounts of supermarket staples; and there was no music and certainly no big-name influencers in sight.
In the immediate wake of what has since been deemed Fyre Fraud, highly-publicized class action lawsuits were filed in courts across the country, more than a dozen of them, at least one demanding $100 million in damages. The Federal Bureau of Investigation initiated a probe into the festival’s 20-something year old co-founder Billy McFarland, who was charged this year on counts of fraud and sentenced to 6 years in prison. Fyre Media, itself, the festival’s organizer/parent company, was placed in involuntary bankruptcy by a federal court in New York court, and is in the midst of proceedings with a court-appointed trustee seeking to determine where exactly $26 million in investor funds went.
All the while, one aspect of Fyre Fest appears to have gone uninvestigated: the large-scale and potentially extremely illegal social media marketing efforts. On the heels of the festival’s demise, it has been revealed that the models involved in the Jerry Media-orchestrated marketing campaign, the wildly successful one responsible for enticing thousands of 20-something’s to open their wallets wide for pricey Fyre Fest tickets, were, unsurprisingly, compensated for their involvement and endorsements.
According to court filings in the bankruptcy proceedings that are underway in connection with Fyre Media, Gregory Messer, the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee, found that IMG models, which represents Bella Hadid, Hailey Bieber, Alessandra Ambrosio, and Elsa Hosk, among other models associated with the Fest, received payments totaling $1.2 million from McFarland between November 2016 and February 2017 — which was ultimately paid out to the models minus the agency commission, of course. Emily Ratajkowski’s agency DNA was paid $299,000 by McFarland in March 2017.
The models’ paid-for but disclosure-less promotion of the fest, which based on almost all accounts was the backbone in terms of generating consumer awareness and interest in the festival, is legally questionable at best, and wildly illegal at worst.
You see, federal law in the U.S. requires that consumers be kept abreast of behind-the-scenes deals that might impact their purchasing decisions. To be exact, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) requires that if an individual is compensated in any way to promote/endorse a brand or product or event (compensation includes anything from a paycheck to free gifts, trips, lodging, etc.) or promote/endorse a brand with which he/she has a relationship that would not otherwise be obvious to the average consumer, that fact needs to be disclosed “clearly and conspicuously" in connection with each instance.
The independent government agency, which is tasked with promoting consumer protection, and eliminating and preventing anticompetitive business practices, has explicitly stated that its guidelines apply no matter the medium. So, if such promotional/endorsement efforts occur on social media, they must be disclosed; common disclosure language comes in the form of hashtags, such as "#ad" or "#sponsored."
No such disclosure appeared in connection with any of the influencers’ Fyre Fest-related social media posts, including those highly-cited orange boxes, and as a result (as we first revealed back in March 2017), they likely run afoul of the FTC’s guidelines. A subsequent (and since deleted) Instagram post from Kendall Jenner announcing that artists from Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music label would perform at the Fest was also posted without any disclosure language.
As of now, the FTC has not been involved in an official capacity in the proceedings against Fyre Media. However, there is a very good chance that Messer could file a formal complaint with the agency in connection with his own investigation, which recently placed a focus on the social media marketing element of the event. Such a move would likely prompt an investigation by the FTC into the behavior of Jerry Media, for organizing the disclosure-less social media campaign, and the famous influencers for failing to abide by the law in terms of their individual social media posts.