In a departure from their usual content, TikTok beauty influencers are “de-influencing” – or in other words, telling viewers what not to buy. Offering uncharacteristically critical product reviews, many are directing their criticism at products that they believe have been overhyped by other influencers on the platform. The recent interest in de-influencing began with a controversy over a product recommendation. Viewers accused TikTok beauty influencer Mikayla Nogueira of secretly applying false lashes to exaggerate the effect of a mascara that she had been paid to promote. The video and its backlash sparked wider debates surrounding influencers’ authenticity, prompting a deluge of “de-influencing” posts. 

While the term “de-influencing” is a new addition to the influencer marketing sphere, the strategy itself has been around for years. In a recent study, we explored why people lose trust in the influencers they have so revered, and what influencers do to regain that trust. We studied influencers who rose to prominence on YouTube as “beauty gurus”. Our participants (followers of these gurus) explained that in the early days of YouTube, vloggers offered unbiased product reviews, often being “brutally honest” about products they didn’t like. These critical reviews were key to many vloggers’ initial popularity. As one participant said, the content “saved us a lot of money.” 

As vloggers grew in popularity, the world of influencer marketing was born. Brands capitalized on the trusted guru role by paying or incentivizing them to promote products to their loyal followers. This new influencer role led to an example of what we as researchers call “role conflict.” Followers expected honest, unbiased recommendations from their favorite social media figures, while brands expected influencers to portray their products positively (and often, without legally-mandated ad disclosures). These expectations clashed, creating distrust among followers. Our participants said they doubted the honesty and trustworthiness of beauty vloggers once they were paid to promote products to their followers.

This distrust was well founded. Our analysis of leading vloggers’ YouTube channels revealed that, after adopting an influencer role, these individuals avoided talking critically about brands, perhaps because they did not jeopardize existing – or potential – brand collaborations. Influencers focused primarily on brands they loved, rather than those they did not. Critical reviews telling their followers what products not to buy became few and far between. Many of our participants reported unfollowing or avoiding content from influencers they no longer trusted to be honest. Such a reaction can put influencers’ success at risk, as follower engagement is central to their careers. 

We found that YouTube beauty vloggers quickly recognized the need to respond to this growing sense of distrust. We observed them using what we call “role prioritization” strategy as a way to prove their authenticity. This meant prioritizing their “guru” role over the “influencer” role and demonstrating this to their followers. They did this by providing more honest and critical product reviews. Vloggers created videos titled “Disappointing Products” and “Worst Purchases,” or simply integrated negative reviews into their wider content. Many released negative reviews of products “gifted” to them by brands’ PR teams, or of brands they had previously collaborated with.

With these critical reviews, influencers showed followers that they valued their relationships with viewers over those with brands – and it worked. The followers we spoke to said that this behavior encouraged them to place more trust in future product recommendations. This trust is key to retaining the trusted guru role that makes vloggers attractive to brands in the first place.

The end of influencer culture?

It is not surprising that the conversation about influencers and trust is kicking off on TikTok. The platform’s algorithm, which serves up an endless stream of short video content personalized to users on the “For You Page” – combined with the platform’s trend-driven nature – means that TikTok-ers are particularly guilty of hyping up the latest “must have” beauty products. The endless deluge of product recommendations may be overwhelming to users and leave those influenced with dwindling bank balances. Influencers on competing platforms like YouTube learned long ago that they must engage in role prioritization to retain viewer trust. The popularity of the de-influencing trend shows that TikTok influencers are learning this lesson now.

Some commentators have hailed de-influencing as the death of influencing and thus, of the influencer. But our research suggests the opposite. De-influencing is still a form of influencing – and one that many consumers are more receptive to, particularly in the current economic climate. Rather than representing the demise of influencers, de-influencing is an opportunity for them to reassert their original “guru” role and gain trust through transparency and authenticity. It is a strategy used to protect their influencer role – and future income.

Rebecca Mardon is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Cardiff University. 

Hayley Cocker is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Lancaster University. 

Kate Daunt is a Professor of Marketing at Cardiff University. (This article was initially published by The Conversation.)