Stalin, the Khmer Rouge and Wine Influencers
It’s not often that you get to read in a wine article in which “Wine Influencers” are compared to Joseph Stalin or the Khmer Rouge. In discussing the claim by Influencers that they work hard at the thing they do, James Lawrence, writing at Wine-Searcher went and did it:
“even if we accept that this firmament [Wine Influencers] can sell a lifestyle, and the associated brands, the defense of “working hard” is fatuous. History’s worst men and women have ‘worked hard’. I’m sure Joseph Stalin was a workaholic. Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge boasted a strong work ethic. This alone does not grant one estimable status.”
This particular article on the meaning of wine influencers has been compared by some on #WineTwitter to the same kind of abuse that wine bloggers received from legacy wine writers back in the mid 00s when blogging was taking off. However, I never recall, as one of those bloggers, getting this kind of blowback:
“The contract of deception between the consumer and influencer is almost totally wasted on the wine industry. Its victims want to be deceived, to subscribe to a faux lifestyle that most of us can never achieve. It encourages one of the most destructive societal pathologies – delusion. So influencer culture is simply a mutation of a pre-existing virus: the obsessive need to vicariously experience the unobtainable, via celebrity culture.”
There are of course substantial differences between the wine blogger and the social media wine influencer. One difference is that the former uses words while the latter does not. Now hold on. We all know that a picture is worth more than a thousand words. Of course, it has always been true, despite how the saying goes, that some pictures are only worth 231 words. That’s my particular issue with social media wine influencers. Generally, their pictures don’t deliver the impact of 231 words, let alone one-thousands.
In the end, Lawrence is using his space in Wine-Searcher to question the utility of social media Wine Influencers, their utility to both the followers and the industry. His conclusion is that they have little and he doubts their very, very pretty pictures are worth much in the way of sales. But this doesn’t mean they can’t be useful in the pursuit of another sale of wine.
The correct way to understand the social media wine influencer is to understand them as advertising vehicles and not much else. If a wine brand or wine region wants to work with these influencers, I say awesome. Personally, I’m more than happy to work with them on behalf of a client. The key is to keep it transactional and not overpay for the promise of exposure to the influencer’s followers. The vast majority of Instagram or Twitter influencers are worth a bottle or two or three of wine. Some are worth a few dollars. But as you negotiate your relationship with these advertisers it’s important not to listen to closely to their claims of “engagement” or “community” or “authenticity”. Count their followers, do a quick cost-per-thousand calculation, make the offer, try to get them to take it in wine, then move on. It’s not too much different than digital or print advertising, just less results-oriented in nature.
In the end, the phenomenon of the Wine Influencer is no different than any other form of communication vehicle: it is a reaction to new technology. Just like blogging, websites, Zines, magazines, newspapers, books, and carrier pigeons.
Lawrence, however, has built a certain enmity for the Wine Influencer. That’s not difficult to understand. He’s a thoughtful person who tends to write wine-related news items and features and there is nothing much in the way of thoughtfulness within the Wine influencer realm. I think down at the ground floor level, Lawrence might be peeved that Wine Influencers are considered no different than wine writers. In this, he has a point.
There are more than enough people who DO believe the social media Wine Influencer is just the latest iteration of Wine Influencer, no different than wine writers. In an article written a couple years ago by David Morrison at The Wine Gourd the Wine Influencer phenomenon was explored. Morrison gives a nod to the similarity between writer and influencer, noting, “Once again, there is nothing fundamentally new here. We have always had media personalities with wine expertise, and with many followers.” Morrison then goes on to quote David Shaw, writing in the LA Times in 1987 (great pull, by the way):
“A wine writer is a physician or a lawyer with a bottle of wine and a typewriter, looking to see his or her name in print, looking for an invitation to a free lunch, and a way to write off the wine cellar.”
To this day, 33 years later, you occasionally read the opinion that wine writers really on nothing more than folks looking for a free wine ride. This was certainly the poke that wine bloggers received when they were the flavor of the month. But this really is nothing more than a slur. The difference between wine writers and Wine Influencers is great and substantial. For example, you can learn something from even the worst wine writers. From the best, you can get an education. Most wine writers attempt to tell a genuine story. Wine Influencers attempt to find the right light. Wine writers, writing at best, can call up connections between ideas and offer meaningful insights. Wine Influencers can, at their best, allude to ideas.
I’m biased, of course. Not because I tend to write, but because I don’t care that much about finding the right light.