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Emily in Paris & the awful representation of social media marketing

Last week, Netflix launched a 10-episode fictional rom-com series titled Emily in Paris. The show is about an American marketing executive cum social media content creator who unexpectedly moves to Paris for a job opportunity. For 20-something Emily Cooper (Lilly Collins), everything magically falls into place for her, whether its an incredibly attractive & helpful male neighbour who lives in the apartment below hers or a fortuitous introduction to a big-ticket prospective client by an acquaintance she forms while shopping for flowers. Honestly, I could forgive all of this because this is evidently meant to be a feel-good show that sells everything the stereotypical ‘young, pretty, ambitious and confident woman’s Parisian adventure’ is meant to stand for: fashion, romance, croissants, Instagrammable content, champagne, experiencing French culture & attitude .. you get the drift. I basically devoured a box of chocolate cupcakes while I watched the show, and I was suitably entertained.

What I found highly frustrating, however, was the incredibly callous and badly researched manner in which the show’s creators presented social media marketing, content creation, influencer engagements and client-agency relationships. Over the last 9 years, I’ve had several conversations about social media and the business impact of digital marketing with people outside the content creation process. This includes people who have a relatively limited understanding of target audience behaviour and consumption of content across social media platforms but who recognise that it is important for their brands to be active on these channels. Many of these conversations have revolved around what brands can do to build a healthy, sustainable approach to having conversations online that are of real value to their customers AND the business. Emily in Paris, however, treads a dangerous path of reinforcing some harmful myths about social media marketing – here are 4 that I’ve identified:

(Spoiler alert: if you haven’t watched Emily in Paris yet and want to then please stop reading. Click here to read more blog posts about branding & social media.)

The seemingly effortless acquisition of followers

Emily posting about her first pain au chocolat experience in Paris. All rights belong to Netflix.

In Episode 1, Emily moves into her new apartment in Paris and changes her username on this fictional social networking site (some combination of Instagram and Twitter) from @emilycooper to @emilyinparis when she posts the view from her balcony. At this point, she has exactly 48 followers. In the same episode, on what is supposed to the be her second day at work, we see that she has 230 followers and then a few days later a little more than 2000 followers! I mean, sure, this could happen. I’ve seen overnight success stories of people gaining followers because of one insanely viral piece of content – but that happens to Emily only a little later. For the most part, she’s posting images of life in Paris with single sentences or hashtags as captions – possibly something millions of accounts do each day. The show never once dwells on what makes Emily’s content so special or engaging. Why does she attract the following that she does? The simple act of posting an image on a social networking site does not guarantee in increase in your follower count – brands and content creators benefit significantly from making an effort to understand who their audience is, and what aspects of their content does this audience like. It’s easy to buy followers and inflate your numbers but if you’re looking to grow an engaged community of brand loyalists to show actual business and/or influencer impact, you have to have a content game plan in place.

Assuming smaller content creators are not important or valuable

Emily standing in the influencers’ line at the Durée Cosmetics event. All rights belong to Netflix.

In Episode 5, Emily goes to a beauty influencer lunch event she’s been invited to on Instagram. I’m going to assume that someone on the beauty brand’s team deemed Emily important enough to extend an invitation, but when she arrives, she’s immediately treated like trash because of her “low follower count”. This might seem like a hilarious plot point, but in reality, it’s this attitude that drives a lot of content creators towards padding their follower count in the hopes that brands will engage with them. And so, a vicious cycle begins: yes, purchasing more followers may make a content creator more attractive to brands but it also leads to more disengaged followers who are probably bots. This leads to a drop in engagement or evidently low-quality engagement, and content creators then struggle to show results because reach is no longer the most effective metric. Smart brands with bigger budgets already use influencers to drive sales or some sort of measurable call to action, and that’s where an engaged audience is more valuable than an artificially inflated one. So what can brands do? Look beyond follower counts. Identify content creators that already align with your brand values in some way and focus on their potential rather than the size of their following. Have conversations with these creators to understand who is responding best to their type and style of content – is it young women in major Indian metro cities? Is it an older more mature male demographic in tier 2 or 3 towns? Then see how this aligns with your brand’s target audience – which brand message or value can this influencer work with most effectively?

Doing zero research on the people you’re choosing to represent / endorse a brand

Durée Cosmetics’ CMO showing Emily her plans for making Emily a brand ambassador. All rights belong to Netflix.

I found it laughable that on the show, the Chief Marketing Officer of a luxury beauty brand failed to know beforehand that the woman she was approaching to sign on as a “brand ambassador” worked for the brand’s former marketing agency. To me, this means that the beauty brand has done zero background research on the person they’re literally choosing to represent their brand and all of their values. That’s INSANE. Going into a professional relationship with a content creator without understanding their publicly viewable history or choices is dangerous, and the onus is really on brand custodians and/or the agencies they work with to establish these relationships to understand who this person really is. At one level, one may argue that this is a purely transactional relationship – you pay a content creator a sum to talk about your brand or products. But what if the content creator in question has taken a publicly problematic stance thats at odds with your industry or brand values? The pandemic has shown us all what a tough job content creators have when it comes to creating domain-specific content that is relevant to their audience even when these channels were not accessible (e.g travel) – but it also revealed how brittle the relationship between brands and creators can be. Just a few months before the pandemic, some influencers in the f&b space were waxing eloquently about the hospitality extended by whichever new location they were invited to enjoy a free meal. But when the f&b industry was down and hurting, the same content creators thought it was perfectly fine to publicly question why restaurants were being allowed to operate at all – zero empathy for livelihoods, jobs etc. In the same way, content creators also need to be comfortable with the values, ethics and business processes espoused by the brand they’re choosing to work with.

Focusing on gimmicky campaigns that result from a desire to go ‘viral’ instead of communicating what the brand actually stands for

Emily interviewing the model at the luxury fragrance shoot. All rights belong to Netflix.

I think I’m going to end with my biggest peeve: Emily’s obsession with thinking short-term gimmicks, forcing her worldview on her colleagues and clients, and almost NEVER listening to the brands themselves. The whole show seems to revolve around Emily’s miraculous ability to spout out campaign ideas in her very first interactions with the brand. I suppose the makers of the show didn’t want to get into too much of the campaign ideation process in the interest of brevity, but I still feel the entire approach was super shallow. We hear nothing from these brand representatives because Emily is always talking instead of listening. The best agencies and marketing professionals I’ve worked with make it a point to understand a brand’s struggles, ambitions, audience, limitations, goals, desires and just about anything else that helps them deliver a solution that works for the product or brand in the long-term rather than some vague objective to “say something different” or “go viral” (I hate that term, if you haven’t gathered by now). This lack of understanding of brand context and brand history also makes her suggestions sound super inconsistent: in Episode 3, she visits the set of an advertisement that’s being shot for a luxury fragrance brand. She rightly cautions the client on the concept being too tone-deaf and sexist, but her solution a few minutes later in the episode is to put the commercial up on Twitter with a poll asking what people think! “Get a conversation going” about an advertisement that she herself has flagged as severely problematic!? Makes zero sense to me.

If you enjoyed this post, head over here to read about my take on another Netflix show – Masaba Masaba – and the role that social media plays in it

About Author

Bangalorean. Foodie. Bookworm. Animal lover.

2 Comments

  • Niviya Vas
    9th October 2020 at 7:11 pm

    Such a good piece!
    Also, agreed! This is problematic on so many levels. As entertaining as it is, it’s a bit scary to think how such shows can push young minds to view digital, social media and influencer marketing as an easy career, a low-hanging fruit made of gold, and based solely on one’s understanding or view of the world.

    Reply
    • Geetanjali
      9th October 2020 at 7:18 pm

      Thanks, Niviya! I like that the show was easy to watch, but I was bit uncomfortable with how these issues were portrayed for all the reasons you’ve pointed out.

      Reply

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