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Why I don’t follow influencers or trust sponsored content

April 14, 2020 19 Comments

If you’ve been a part of my Instagram family for a while, you’ll know that I am 100% anti-influencer. With the constant posts that endorse brands, products & trips that were not self-funded, its not hard to understand why I don’t follow influencers. I had a few people messaging me justifying why they do these things; I get it- you want to make money off your social media. Because why do something for the pure enjoyment of it when you can monetize it? That’s what capitalism has brainwashed us into thinking right- that your self-worth is measured by how much profit you generate?

Listen- you don’t need to justify your actions to anyone; I couldn’t give a flying broomstick about what you post. If I like it, I will hang around. If I don’t, I will unfollow and move on with my life. But this is a blog post about why I personally have never & will never spend my money on people promoting things on social media and why I don’t follow influencers.

To be honest, I almost deleted Instagram because of all the advertising and sponsorships. But instead I started “hiding” the clearly paid for posts. It didn’t matter how big or small the advertiser was. If a post had “Sponsored” below its username, I hid it and then reported it. It’s not against Instagram’s user terms to hide the ads. In fact, Instagram even details how to hide ads that you think aren’t relevant to you, are shown too often, or are inappropriate. But that only hides content that is disclosed as an advert. And one of the reasons why I don’t follow influencers is because I have learnt that most sponsored content is not clearly disclosed to the audience. 

Are you aware that a recent study found that a staggering 93% of sponsored content posted by influencers on Instagram does not adequately disclose the paid brand relationship? You can read more about this here, here and here.

Yes I do research before I write opinion pieces. 

The Federal Trade Commission (USA), the Advertising Standards Authority (UK) as well as every country in the world that has a board which regulates advertising and marketing practices has rules about how people should make clear that they’ve received compensation in order to promote something. And they don’t involve the famous influencer strategies of simply thanking the brand; using vague tags like #partner hidden in a barrage of hashtags and definitely NOT a self-serving assumption that the audience is “smart enough to work it out for themselves.” But these guidelines are not always followed. 

Maybe you are thinking that you don’t care about whether people disclose the whole truth. But I think you do. If I began namedropping various airlines and travel companies, you’d want to know if I genuinely used those services or if I was just paid to pretend I did. Right? It is crucial information when assessing the validity of a recommendation.

So let’s get on with it shall we… I detail my experiences sharing exactly what I know and how I have learnt certain truths in this industry. Which has led me not to trust most things I see being promoted online. Remember this is not a slight on you if you continue to fawn over your favourite influencers and bloggers- do as you please. But this explains why I do not. 

Why I don’t trust travel bloggers

Let’s start with the basic terminology. When a travel influencer writes ‘ad’ or ‘sponsored’ in their captions or posts, it means that either money has changed hands for the content produced or the trip/experience was a ‘freebie’ and the company offering the trip had some control in the content produced. This means that the company or organization can specify a number of blog posts and/or dictate what they should highlight on their blog or Instagram captions. This means that even though no money may have been exchanged, it is still an advert because the influencer created the content that the brand/company wanted them to create. Not all companies do have a say in what’s produced and some do allow for the content creator’s own opinion BUT we will never know to what extent they have freedom.

Still with me so far?

So when you see a trip that is sponsored, you are not always reading about the personal experience this person had on their trip; sometimes you’re reading about what they’ve been contractually obligated to show/tell you. 

But what’s wrong with this you may ask? Surely I can go on the same trip to the same place, do the same activities and have the same wonderful experience they’re promoting? Well number one, that’s an incredibly boring way to travel (my personal opinion) but more importantly you are not thinking about all the things they have access to that you will most likely not. Will your hand be held by a local from this country from the time you land until the time you depart? Will you have access to a translator that helps you communicate with locals so that you have an experience that you’re happy with? Will you be chauffeured around in an air-conditioned car on a carefully planned itinerary only designed to show you the good parts of a place? Unless you have the money to afford all these aspects, then it’s unlikely your trip will be identical to your favourite influencers. 

For me, these things detract from the essence of travel- the getting lost as you try to interpret Google Maps, the language confusion as to try to explain that you’re from South Africa but live in the Middle East, seeing the slums as well as seeing the tourist sites and then figuring out the reason for economic disparity. There is a certain joy in the confusion of it all. But hey, that’s just me.

My main problem with travel influencers and bloggers, is they are rarely honest about why they are giving they recommendations they give. It makes it very difficult to recognise what advice they are being paid to give you, and what advice is from their own experience. 

A classic example is when I was trying to research for my trip to Cappadocia. I wanted to spend my birthday there so I was trying to do research on the best hot air balloon operator. I was reading article after article about all these great hot air balloon companies. But every single one had a small disclaimer at the bottom about how the balloon ride was sponsored. A hot air balloon ride is not cheap- they cost on average, 200 euros per person.

It’s easy to recommend something when you didn’t have to fork out 200 euros to do it.

What about those lists where they recommend things- “The Top 10 Things to Do in Dubai.” The blogger is likely going to pick a mix of non-promotion related things as well as stuff they have a deal to include (for their benefit not yours). Their high end spa recommendation at Jumeirah’s Talise Spa is there in exchange for the free massage they got but watching the sunset from Kite Beach is a genuine tip (the genuine ones are normally ones they didn’t have to pay too much for). Oh, they have recommended a tour that they took to the desert, but was it free? Did they pay? As I said, it’s easy to recommend something when you are not paying the 400AED that everyone else has to pay.

I do not personally think that sponsored trips or freebies on trips provide honest and helpful information to us, the readers of this content. Rather it just showcases travel in a shallow and airbrushed way that is of no real value to anyone. So this is one of many reasons why I don’t follow travel influencers.

Why I don’t trust lifestyle & restaurant influencers

In the early days of our relationship, I would send my partner- Expat Polar- ideas of where we should go on dates as recommended by prominent Dubai bloggers & influencers. He never seemed enthusiastic and one day he told me why. As someone working in the hospitality industry, he told me that they were constantly bombarded with requests to accommodate influencers. These influencers were being paid around 2000AED-5000AED per post just for mentioning that they ate at a certain restaurant, went to a certain cinema or had a great time doing whatever it is they were paid to do. He told me that the influencers themselves did nothing but take photos of themselves, sometimes not even eating the meal they were served but then going online and saying what a great time they had. As staff, they had advance notice of when these people were coming so they were also on their best behaviour at such a time. My sister and her friends- all working at a well-known 5 star hotel at the time- confirmed that this happened at their hotel as well. There was nothing honest about it- and it made sense to me. Because I would often go to places, taste lacklustre food and experience pathetic service but then wonder why a blogger would recommend it. From that day, I removed all Dubai-based bloggers and never followed any restaurant recommendation unless it was from a friend. 

What about the company in the UAE that employs lifestyle influencers of different nationalities and ethnicities to be sent to various bars/nightclubs and other such establishments. Theses venues pay the company to send appropriate influencers to visit the venue and post about what a great time they’re having. The influencers then of course get a cut. Does it actually mean the place is good? No. Not at all! Are you starting to fully understand now why I don’t follow influencers?

I even know of people who actually act like they have sponsored deals and are working with brands even though they’re not just so that they can join such companies for freebies! They tag companies and stage these fake promotions because apparently it makes them seem like they’re in a position to be getting things for free, which helps build their brand or media kit. Allegedly that means they’re producing good content and they’re worthy of being offered promotions. Yet again, you’re being duped by dishonesty. 

I have a family friend who works for a famous make-up artist & beauty influencer in South Africa. She says that their company receives boxes and boxes of products from cosmetic/ marketing companies willing them to promote their products. Sometimes in exchange for money, the influencer in question will promote some of those products. But are they actually used when they’re doing bridal or editorial make up? No. So half those make up reviews you’re actually seeing benefit the influencer (who is getting paid to promote the product) and the company (that is receiving exposure). You- as the consumer of this content- are being swindled into thinking this beauty blogger really values these products or uses them regularly. What a joke!

Lifestyle blogging is all about effortlessly monetizing your good taste and consumer choices, which means it can be near-impossible for regular people to tell if an influencer genuinely loves a product, is being paid to talk about it, or just wants to be paid to talk about it. It’s why I don’t follow influencers promoting anything at all.

As I write this, I am looking at a profile on Instagram- this person once won a competition that involved a lot of votes (helps to have a big family)- and now uses all the followers they gained from winning that competition into leveraging for sponsorship deals. I see their most recent post is an ad for healthy food company, followed by one for a skincare brand then followed by a photo of them drinking tea while promoting the tea company and then next one is for cereal… I mean come on. The person has over 8000 followers but their photos barely reach 100 likes. I find it tiresome when such influencers plead on their stories, “Please show my posts some love!” Nobody wants to love your posts. It’s like watching a TV channel with just ads. What’s engaging the audience? Nothing…

What about when I see travel & beauty influencers promoting things that have nothing to do with their brand… why are you promoting a donut company or a toilet cleaning brand? Then you’re confused as to why you’re losing followers… seriously?

It’s very apparent to me that influencers start out with a deal and then work that backwards into a post to make it seem like they found a great recommendation to share with their audience. It’s profoundly corrupt and is yet another reason why I don’t follow influencers.


My small and relatively unknown blog & Instagram account is continuously contacted for sponsorships deals and collaborations so I can only imagine what big influencers are getting pitched. 

The most common thing I am offered is to partner up with a company that wants me to generate “Travel Blogging Courses” to can encourage you- the reader- to pay money so you can travel & blog about it “just like me”. Look this is garbage. I have never been on a travel blogging course and I don’t believe you need to pay anyone money to learn how to become a travel blogger.  

You may notice when travel blogs give advice on travel insurance they will include a link. It’s usually to World Nomads. I used them once. I didn’t have to make any claims so I cannot comment on that aspect of their service. They are rarely the cheapest and I don’t know enough about travel insurance to recommend them as the best. Yet, others do. This is because they have a very good affiliate program- bloggers can make more commission recommending them than they can others. You are not being recommended this company based on their performance, but based on their commission rates. The bloggers ALWAYS put this commission link in a post where they give some legitimately solid travel tips and gained your trust. I no longer trust those people. You cannot claim that something is the BEST just because you are making money off the company… it isn’t honest. And no a disclaimer doesn’t make it more credible to me either.

Truthfully most things you’re recommend on blogs are almost always as a result of some affiliate link. All the big travel companies have one, from Skyscanner to Agoda. Read this link to see just how many companies bloggers earn money through. And unfortunately not everyone does what I do- which is recommend websites and companies that I use for no reason other than good service. 

 I’ve been approached to endorse insurance companies for a commission, as well as visa assistance sites. They commented that I always recommend using the official government websites to apply for evisas- why don’t I recommend their company instead and then I would make a percentage off anyone who had a visa processed through them? But why the bleeding hell would I recommend you- my dear reader- to pay someone extra money to apply for a simple evisa?

I’m not saying there aren’t bloggers, influencers and celebrities who aren’t doing it right. I personally know of people who push for brand collaborations so that they can pump the profits into charitable endeavours. I know of other bloggers who only accept sponsorships when free products benefit disadvantaged communities and use their platform to raise awareness about important issues. There may even be people who are recommending things because they genuinely like them; but the inauthenticity of the entire industry means that it’s a struggle to believe them.

As I keep saying, the vast majority of influencers, recommendations, partnerships, promotions and collaborations benefit no one except the person doing the promoting and the company being promoted.

If at any point, I felt that there was another party benefitting from these exchanges, I would offer support. But right now- if I see you advertising something in any way, shape or form I don’t offer a like, I swipe past your story, I unfollow you/your blog or I just mute you. Sorry but I don’t want any part of this.

You wouldn’t be interested in someone whose Instagram or blog bio reads, “I charge money to promote products on my platform. Or in exchange of a free experience, I will recommend your company.”  And yet people consistently take advice from people who do exactly that. I just don’t get it. 

Always think: what part of the YouTube video you were watching has been paid to be included?

As I always say, you do you boo and I’ll just keep being me. And part of that is outlining to you why I don’t follow influencers and don’t subscribe to the ideals & lifestyle they promote. I don’t believe that I need to pack a ballgown when I go on a trip. I don’t believe that I have to fit a certain aesthetic ideal in order to be considered beautiful. I don’t believe that I need to earn money from the things that bring me joy. I don’t believe that the things these influencers & bloggers advocate actually benefits the people they aim their content at. Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Note: Company names and people’s names have been omitted to protect my sources. To read more about the Federal Trade Commission’s policies click here. To access disclosure guidelines by the Advertising Standards Authority, click here. Both are relevant and helpful if you use your platforms to generate money, no matter which country you live in. 

If you want to read about how being a blogger impacts on my travels, click here.

If you want to read about sharing travel stories responsibly, click here.

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  • agnuswalters April 14, 2020 at 2:28 pm

    AMEN! And this is why I absolutely LOVE and look up to your blog. I’ve been following you for three years now and I wouldn’t say I’ve read all of your posts but I did read most of them and I’ve noticed that unlike most travel bloggers yours is actually relatable! I vaguely remember you mentioning a trip to India and how you were mistaken for an Indian, which lead to a lot of confusion when it came to the language that was expected out of you. You’ve also been pretty vocal about your job in the UAE as a teacher and how you and your partner live in different countries, thus emphasizing on the difficulties you guys face when it comes to coordinating the dates and actually bringing the plan to fruition. I’m glad that at least someone is honest about telling me, a naive reader, that some restaurant is actually shitty before I go and spend my entire salary in the blink of an eye. Hell, I make better dishes by accident in my kitchen! 🤣
    Bottomline, I’m glad you exist.

    • expatpanda April 18, 2020 at 5:12 pm

      Aw Agnus, your comment really made me smile. Thank you so much for the heartfelt and genuine words!! I don’t believe that glossing over bad experiences or recommending badly run places actually benefits anyone in the long run which is why I try to be as honest as possible 🙂 Loved your comment and thanks for being such a loyal reader!

      • agnuswalters April 18, 2020 at 5:42 pm

        *tips hat* the pleasure’s always been mine 🤗

  • Renea April 14, 2020 at 8:28 pm

    Girl, I hate them, too. As you can see, I’m no longer on FB or Instagram, and I’ve JUST gotten back into blogging in the way that suites me best. Please email me your new number! I miss our talks. My number is the same if you still have it. I hope you are well!

    • expatpanda April 18, 2020 at 5:11 pm

      You have to do what’s best for you and I think in your case, you aren’t missing out on too much on social media (As you can read from my post HAHA).

  • tashas-tales April 14, 2020 at 10:26 pm

    Your blog is one of my favourite blogs. I absolutely love how you are unapologetically yourself and give us, the readers your honest reviews and experiences. I have also found influencers and some other bloggers to have created a lot pretentiousness and an unhealthy yearn for materialism. You keep doing you,boo! ♥️

    • expatpanda April 18, 2020 at 5:10 pm

      Thanks Tasha! You brought up an important point about an unhealthy year for materialism- when you see regular people advertising things it does make you think that you need these things too. Which does create a degree of ugly capitalist generated consumerism. Its so off-putting and why I removed myself from such accounts.

  • Senzelwe April 14, 2020 at 11:13 pm

    I’ve got to say I have so much respect for you and the way you voice your truth! There was sooo much in this blog post – I don’t even know where to begin. I had a lot of “Yes! I’ve been thinking it.” moments and truthfully, as someone who is still learning the social media ropes I grapple with a lot of these issues when consuming the content and even when sharing my own experiences. I mostly get frustrated with the beauty industry people on instagram BUT your blog post has highlighted how problematic this is in the travel space and on social media in general. I hear you. I feel you! There definitely is an ugly culture that has been created led by brands and facilitated by those getting paid (*not always the case). Just to add: I have no issue with people using their social media platforms to earn an income. I am saddened by the normalised dishonesty. And it’s really sad that all this makes it difficult to discern what is real and authentic vs what isn’t. That’s all I’ve got to say for now! I have many questions for you but maybe for another time. Thanks for the links to other informative articles. I’m going to read the one about responsibly sharing travel stories.

    • expatpanda April 18, 2020 at 5:09 pm

      Send, you have raised valid and insightful points. Yes its fine to use ones platform to earn a living but be open and honest about it! As a result of people not being honest, I have had to remove all such account from my feed in order to preserve my mental health. Because yes, it’s too challenging to discern what is genuine and what is purely for profit. As we discussed, its definitely not a black & white issue but until the culture of the industry changes, I don’t see myself offering support to such endeavours.

  • Francesca and Nelli (Frannnelli) April 15, 2020 at 7:43 am

    Brave post! I understand bloggers wanting to make money off of their passions like traveling. Is there another way to monetize if you don’t want sponsorships?

    • expatpanda April 18, 2020 at 5:07 pm

      I think the crux is that it’s good to recommend things that the content creators themselves have actually used and enjoyed. Which is why I mentioned that there are some people out there doing a great job. But of course these people are few and far between. And I have no issue with people who are upfront about their partnerships- I respect their honesty. But again, this is not a norm. I can’t suggest alternative ways to make money as I write for fun and with the purpose of helping not to profit. However, I just want to see more openness and transparency id I have to offer my support.

  • Tina April 15, 2020 at 8:19 am

    As a creator, I started out with the specific intention to blog and vlog for profits. The more I got into it the more I realised how much I hated myself and this so called image I was supposed to portray. I became a shadow of my former self and found myself depressed. I was working with a friend who encouraged me to stick to the brand if I wanted to make money and grow. I was once accused for “writing over people’s heads” and not creating relatable enough content for the masses!

    That was my breaking point. I removed all things that had to do with that part of my life and I now create for me! I write in my quirky way and enjoy reading back my stories. I also write it for those who care enough to read or find something special that relates to them too. My point here is, I’m not add friendly. I like being me too much. And although I understand making money, I refuse (personally) to sell my beautiful spirit and joy for a quick buck. I enjoy engaging with my audience and laughing rather than selling them something I probably won’t ever use.

    I resonate with this post so much. Another thing I’ve noticed is that people in general (mainly travel bloggers) are very skittish about revealing prices and REAL experiences. Even the ones that aren’t working with or affiliated to brands. Their objective is an envy image where they lowkey come to show off to people under the guise of inspiring people to go on the same trips and experience the same things. HOW? When we don’t know the cost of these things. So you gave me a top 10 list but I don’t know how much it cost and will have to do more intensive research just to achieve that trip… I’ve heard people actively say “I won’t speak about a brand for free, that’s free advertising for them”. Nope nope nope nope. Count me out.

    Thanks for sharing. Continue to be authentic and relatable. You are loved. I enjoy the content and it’s also really interesting and engaging. This is what travel blogging actually is. Thank you!

    • expatpanda April 18, 2020 at 5:04 pm

      Oh Tina. Everything you are saying is SPOT ON. Especially the parts about travel bloggers not being willing to reveal their prices because then they would have to disclose how little they actually paid for. This business about wanting to be envied makes me so sad because surely we want to Haley others through our content not dupe them into envying us?! Maybe I just think differently. Good on you for finding your voice and changing your content in order to preserve your mental health. The world needs more people like you who are authentic and true to themselves!

  • Uzz April 15, 2020 at 1:54 pm

    Oooh wow u said my mind. Recently I stopped watching some yotubers I loved because I just realised they weren’t original like they used to. Their content was just too unreal I couldn’t stand watching them n I unsubscribed. Even on Instagram I don’t follow alot of them Becos of this. Some start of well and along the line they loose focus n get carried away with monetizing. But what they fail to understand is that some people notice the change n leave. Thanks for this post

    • expatpanda April 18, 2020 at 5:02 pm

      For sure I totally understand what you’re saying. I too have enjoyed people’s content and learnt a lot but then suddenly one day they’re managed by an agent, their content is full of ads and they are just doing this to make money. Its sad when you place your trust in such people & it almost feels like a betrayal when this occurs!

  • kdeange April 15, 2020 at 5:18 pm

    Yess Boo! This is why I love our travel adventures and reading about all the mishaps you have because they are real and honest. I will forever recommend you over anyone else when people are planning trips to places I know you’ve been. <3

    • expatpanda April 18, 2020 at 5:00 pm

      Thanks friend! Keeping it real and honest is the cornerstone of my blog. I don’t see how glossing over bad experiences or recommending poorly run places helps anyone in the long run!

  • Zoya Kubra April 15, 2020 at 5:57 pm

    Flipping heck, you dropped some knowledge here girl. I knew influencers get sponsored and get lots of freebies but I wasn’t aware of half the things you mentioned here. I’m questioning my whole life hahaha! Wondering if the people I follow on Insta because I thought they’re genuine, really are as honest as they appear. Thanks for such a detailed, well researched and informative post. It’s a shame real experiences are glossed over but hey, it means authentic writers like yourself stand out more 😉 Always so refreshing to read your blog.

    • expatpanda April 18, 2020 at 4:59 pm

      Thanks so much for your meaningful feedback and compliments! I was also shocked at the amount of things that go on undisclosed which is why I wanted to share my knowledge with the world. I think if we are armed with more information, we can make more informed decisions.

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