TL;DR: Fyre Festival has become synonymous with everything that can go wrong in social media. Fyre Media and Jerry Media capitalized on millennial consumption habits through its use of influencers and aggressive community management in order to mislead consumers.
After the release of two Fyre Festival documentaries on Netflix and Hulu, the national conversation around influencers and the millennial condition resurfaced. How did Ja Rule and Billy McFarland manage to get thousands of people to buy tickets to a festival with little to no planning on their end? This festival’s popularity and buzz was spawned by an extremely effective social media strategy created in coordination with Jerry Media, the founders of the popular meme account @fuckjerry.
What the Strategy Looked Like
Nearly 400 influencers, dubbed as “Fyre Starters,” having hundreds of thousands of followers each, posted the same bright orange tile on Instagram in unison. This disruption tactic was meant to alter the scrolling habits of users on Instagram and grab their attention. Each orange tile directed users to a video of mega-famous models, includin Bella Hadid and Hailey Bieber (Baldwin), dancing and partying on an island in the Bahamas.
Leading up to the festival, Jerry Media was tasked with posting content from the previous shoot and managing communities to keep the buzz going from the Fyre account.
Suddenly, there were hundreds of people on an island in the Bahamas surrounded by disaster tents and no music festival or general infrastructure in sight. The marketing campaign had grossly misrepresented the actual outcome, and it left festival goers stranded.
Surprisingly, much of the immediate backlash was focused on the people purchasing the tickets rather than the organizers of the festival. Some viewed this as an extension of millennial excess. Twitter and late-night talk show hosts started circulating jokes about the event almost as quickly as the original hype spread. The Fyre Festival attendees were “rich kids of Instagram meets Hunger Games” that bought into a scam and were responsible for their own downfall.
What the documentaries highlight, however, is that concerned festival-goers were looking for answers, but the community managers at Jerry Media were told to ignore all the questions or redirect to an email address. They actively deleted Instagram comments in order to hide the barrages of criticism and confusion.
The marketing tactics implemented were ultimately so effective that red flags weren’t raised until critical details and information for festival goers were left out. Scams never work unless those running them seems competent, and in this case the face of Fyre was a clean Instagram feed with hundreds of trusted influencers buying in.
Why It Was So Effective
One thought, espoused especially by New Yorker columnist Jia Tolentino, is that Fyre Festival was a culmination of the millennial animus. Millennials get a bad wrap because they’ve lived in a world that seems set up to fail them — with the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the Great Recession defining their ascent into adulthood.
Social media can be escape from all of that. Perfect lives are constantly on display while personal lives don’t live up to what they are seeing on a platform. So when an opportunity to make your life look like a little more like Kendall Jenner’s comes around, you take it.
Influencers are an effective marketing tactic for this reason, and using influencers is beneficial for brands when clearly marked. They have captive audiences who trust their judgment and can create personal narratives around brands. Fyre Festival’s marketing took advantage of that trust. Thousands of people bought tickets for a festival that had not happened before simply based on trusting people they had never met.
Social Media Is Not Reality
As much as social media can be a space in which people curate a life that’s more perfect than their reality, it does not shelter marketing campaigns from putting forth a truthful and transparent image. The work done by Jerry Media may have only fell apart because the event itself imploded, but should still be held accountable for misleading users.
There were real-world consequences from the success of this campaign. Bahamian workers worked 18- to 24-hour days without pay to set up the festival. Everyone involved, including the marketing team and influencers, should have stepped in and told the truth of the situation.
As an agency, it’s easy to talk only about the good things a client wants to convey. Using the excuse as just being the “social media guy,” as a staff member of Jerry Media said in the Hulu documentary, lets agencies and brands absolve themselves of a moral compass and blame in a situation like this.
Agencies as a whole should shun that ideology — we are also ultimately responsible for conveying an accurate picture of the client to the world. It can have flowery language, but honesty and transparency to the customer is what maintains our integrity.
As Sparkloft, we live by the motto “Care More.” While that immediately applies to our clients, it also extends to the greater world. Want to learn more about how Sparkloft utilizes influencers in a responsible way? Check out our Wow South Africa case study.