TikTok influencers are ‘de-influencing’: What is it?

You’d think TikTok is the place where influencers thrive and everything sells. But probably not any more.  Amid the crowd of celebs and semi-celebs, who are telling you what to buy and what to wear, there’s a small but growing breed which is telling people what not to consume.  And they are calling it “de-influencing”,  which is the opposite of influencing.

“De-influencers” are the nemesis of influencers on TikTok. It is a term that is fast catching on. It’s popular on TikTok, which though banned in India, became the most downloaded mobile app in 2022. The hashtag (#deinfluecing) has touched close to 70 million views. Amid a stream of endless recommendations by influencers, telling you to buy everything from cosmetics to juices, the de-influencers stand out.

A de-influencer could be anyone telling people what not to buy and what does not work as claimed by endorsers.  “The term is being popularised in videos by people whose experience runs the gamut: disappointed consumers, savvy beauty bloggers, doctors dispelling skin-care myths and former retail employees dishing on which products they saw returned most often,” according to an article in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

In “de-influencing” videos, people are critical and often roast viral products that have not worked for them. The trend is a sign of “growing backlash to overconsumption”, says the WSJ report. The influencer industry is exploding with its worth crossing the $15-billion mark. Most influencers are ready to promote products to fill their pockets. Their credibility can be questioned. De-influencers claim to be honest, cutting out the noise and giving you what is real. Many see it as a new way for creators to be authentic.

According to a report in Glossy, a US beauty and wellness publication, economic reasons could also be the reason why people are not buying everything thrown at them.  “In the last 12 months, we’ve seen an extreme slowdown in the global economy… As we enter into a recession, people are starting to feel the effects and are taking a closer look at their spending and consumption,” content creator Elle Grey, who has been posting “de-influencing videos” on TikTok, told Glossy.

At a time, when inflation is high in many nations across the world and the fear of a slowdown looms, de-influencing might discourage people from spending money, or in some cases, provide them with affordable alternatives. According to reports, Maddie Wells, a beauty influencer, was the first to use the term sometime in 2020. She held a sales jobs at Sephora and Ulta, both chains of beauty stores, between 2018 and 2019. She started posting videos on TikTok, telling her followers about products people would return the most, asking them not to fall for the hype.

In one of her videos, which garnered 2.5 million views, Wells spoke about a mascara and peeling solution which were often returned by customers.  “I’m calling this ‘de-influencing,’” she says in the video. However, did she come up with the term? “I can’t say without a shadow of a doubt I was the first person to ever say it,” Wells said of the coinage, according to WSJ.

And while “de-influencing” has been hitting headlines recently, there have been influencers who have called out brands in the past.  In December 2021, TikTok influencer Elise Harmon shared a series of unboxing videos calling out Chanel’s $825 advent calendar which included stickers, a magnet and a flipbook.  “This is a joke! Stickers?” she says in one of the viral videos. It was de-influencing 101.

She later told WSJ that she was upset about buying “something blindly” without looking at what was inside it. After the video went viral, Chanel’s president of fashion reportedly said that the company would be “much more cautious” about introducing similar products. When you are overwhelmed with video after curated video telling you what is good for you, it is refreshing to hear what is not and what not to buy.

The “de-influencing” is also being done by many TikTok users with a large following… basically influencers. The irony is not lost on observers. The trend still uses “influencing” methods to “de-influence,” especially when suggesting alternative dupe products as a replacement.  For some, the “de-influence” videos aren’t enough to sway away from their purchasing habits, an article in TIME magazine points out.

Some influencers told Rolling Stone it’s a trend selling the same bullshit with a new label.  According to Isaias Hernandez, @queerbrownvegan, an environmental influencer, who makes content about injustices, climate change, and the best ways to incorporate eco-friendly solutions in their everyday practices, de-influencing is just the latest way to repackage something to make it seem more environmentally friendly.

Another fashion content creator, Mandy Lee, says that the concept of encouraging less consumption has been around for a while. TikTok has encouraged the habit of collecting items just to show the world that you are up to date and can afford things, she adds. While many “de-influencers” might not be getting paid to suggest alternatives to popular products but how far before brands catch on and pay people to discredit competitors?