Why the drama behind Tarte’s extravagant influencer trip stands on a weak leg

What’s behind the green curtain of influencer culture? Amid a wave of de-influencer trends, influencers who once kept silent about seemingly luxurious brand partnerships are finally opening up about the darker sides of the experiences. 

Under the hashtags #influencertrip and #brandtrip, with over 100 million cumulative views, these influencers are offering information on “what it’s really like to be on a brand trip” from the decor of the rooms to how they shoot content to how contracts work.

One of the brand partnerships at the centre of this content is commentary on the controversial Tarte Cosmetics to Dubai. Tarte invited a group of creators to a luxurious trip earlier this year only for the content to receive criticism online for being a “tone-deaf” display of luxury during a challenging time economically. Despite the backlash, the brand has remained committed to bringing influencers on trips to promote their new products. Their trips earlier this month, to Turks and Caicos and the F1 Grand Prix in Miami, both featured their own dramas. Most notably, some creators who are women of colour felt they were not getting the same treatment as other, mostly white creators invited on the trips.

The fallout from the drama began to play out almost like a reality television show online, with social media users clamouring for updates arguably more than they were paying attention to the new products or hues. All of this has raised questions around the trade-off, for brands, of funding these trips when the resulting publicity may be less than positive.

The central controversy that came out of a two-weekend Turks and Caicos trip centred around colourism. Cynthia Victor, a South Asian creator known as @ShawtySin on TikTok, uploaded her room tour video and added the caption, “They [gave] me the smallest room, but I’m just happy to be here.” Victor, who was asked to stay for one weekend while some of her peers were invited for two, felt that she got “the short end of the stick” as a creator of colour.

Upon questioning the brand, Victor got different answers from Tarte about the reasoning behind the room assignments. She then uploaded two videos to TikTok to call out Tarte, urging them to invite a more diverse set of creators in the future. According to data provided by Tarte, 41% of the creators on the Turks and Caicos trip were BIPOC creators, and within that 19% were Black. By comparison, 7% of creators sent to their Dubai trip in January were Black. A Tarte representative tells TIME that of the nine large rooms available on the trip, nearly half of them were assigned to BIPOC creators. None of the four smallest room options were occupied by a BIPOC creator and most of the creators assigned to those rooms had over 2 million followers. Victor, who has 1.7 million followers, was assigned a medium-sized room. On Tarte’s weekend-two trip, the creator with the most followers also stayed in a medium-sized room similar to Victor’s.

More drama from influencers followed at Tarte’s Miami F1 event earlier this month. Bria Jones, a creator with over 460,000 followers, uploaded a teary-eyed video on TikTok saying that she was going to pull out because “even before getting to this trip, [she] was realising that [she wasn’t] going to be treated like everyone else there.” Jones explained that she was invited to Miami for the warm-up races, while her peers were invited to stay through the day of the race. “I have more integrity than to get all the way to Miami and realise that I’m being treated like a second-tier person or like I’m being ranked,” Jones said in a now-deleted TikTok video to nearly half a million followers. Having said that, three out of the seven influencers Tarte sent to the May 7 race day were creators of colour; all seven creators had over 1 million followers.

If I am brutally honest, a lot of this drama feels unnecessary. As a queer, mixed race, left wing creator myself I find these claims to be shallow and believe more research should have been done in private between influencer and brand before such content was shared. These influencers are freelance employees of these brands and are thus representing them. Both creators suggest being singled out due to their race and following size but this doesn’t hold up when you see that other creators of the same race and following were booked in bigger rooms or attended more populated days or when you note that white creators and/or creators with bigger followings were booked in smaller rooms and attended less populated days. No one is right or wrong it just points to a need for more research. 

Moving forward, for brands like Tarte, it’s likely they’ll continue to invest in these trips, but with a greater awareness that the trend in more transparent content may lead to more drama-filled exposés. 

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