Coachella. Made in America. Lollapalooza. Fyre Festival.
One of these music festivals is not like the others
One of them just doesn’t belong
One of these festivals sold consumers a dream
that turned into a nightmare with no food, no songs
Fyre festival: an appropriate name for an event that went up in flames the way this music festival did. Many of you may remember the tweets and memes that went viral in April 2017, as festival-goers arrived in Great Exuma, an island in the Bahamas, to find that the luxury villas and gourmet food accommodations they paid thousands to reserve turned out to be hurricane relief tents and a thin slice of cheese between two pieces of bread.
Fyre Festival is back in the headlines this week after Netflix and Hulu each released documentaries detailing exactly how the disaster unfolded. Tickets were sold for accommodations that were unfeasible. Performing acts were booked for twice their going rate. The island’s infrastructure couldn’t support the sheer number of attendees. Natives and local businesses in Great Exuma worked tirelessly for months, never to be paid. The revelations in the documentaries are a mix of hilarious, incredibly sad, and downright shocking.
Social media played a big role in the rise and fall of Fyre Festival. Of course, Twitter and Instagram were along for the ride as disappointed festival-goers shared photos and videos of their dismay for the world to see. But it was also social media—or better yet, social media influencers—that helped promote the festival to begin with, and set the stage (no pun intended) for the festival that never was.
A social media influencer is essentially anyone with a large enough social media following to monetize their feed with ads and promotions. In the months leading up to the “big event,” Fyre Festival hired influencers, including celebrities and models like Bella Hadid, Chanel Iman, and Kendall Jenner, to shoot an ad for the festival and/or share promotional photos, videos, and other posts online. The initial ad describes Fyre as “on the boundaries of the impossible” (yeah, no kidding!) and features influencers partying and having a great time on an island. Influencers shared and promoted the ad with captions celebrating the upcoming festival and asking others to “join” them there. The problem? Most of these influencers failed to disclose that they were paid for the posts—Kendall Jenner was reportedly paid $250,000 for a single post—and many of those featured in the promotional video were not in attendance at the festival and never planned to be. From the perspective of consumers who saw these ads, they purchased tickets not only to enjoy the music and the island (which turned out to be a different island than the one pictured in the ad), but to do so in the company of models and other celebrities. They paid thousands of dollars for the promise of living like celebrities for a weekend.
In recent years, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been cracking down on deceptive marketing on social media. Weeks before the festival was scheduled to take place, the FTC “sent out more than 90 letters reminding influencers and marketers that influencers should clearly and conspicuously disclose their relationships to brands when promoting or endorsing products through social media.” This is often accomplished simply by posting #ad or #sponsored in the caption or alongside the post. According to the FTC’s guidelines,
“if there is a “material connection” between an endorser and an advertiser – in other words, a connection that might affect the weight or credibility that consumers give the endorsement – that connection should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed, unless it is already clear from the context of the communication. A material connection could be a business or family relationship, monetary payment, or the gift of a free product. Importantly, the Endorsement Guides apply to both marketers and endorsers.”
In other words, by failing to disclose the “material connection” with Fyre Festival in these posts, these influencers played a role in misleading festival-goers, and opened themselves up to potential liability.
Several lawsuits have since been filed against the creators of the event, Ja Rule (Jeffrey Atkins) and Billy McFarland. One class action suit states that “[i]nstead of world-class cuisine and entertainment, concert goers found themselves without adequate food, water, shelter, and basic medical care” and that “[a]lmost all of the 400 influencers who shared the promotional videos and photos never noted the posts were actually advertisements—despite the fact that the Federal Trade Commission requires social media users to clearly and conspicuously disclose their relationships to brands.” Another class action suit, which also names 100 John/Jane Does—i.e., unidentified defendants—who “committed the alleged misconduct in the false and misleading advertising” for the festival, alleges that the “Social Media ‘influencers’ made no attempt to disclose to consumers that they were being compensated for promoting the Fyre Festival. Instead these influencers gave the impression that the guest list was full of the Social Elite and other celebrities.”
Billy McFarland is currently serving a six-year prison sentence for fraud in relation to the festival.
For those interested in helping, a GoFundMe has been set up to help repay Maryann Rolle, a local restaurant owner featured in the Netflix documentary, who lost $50,000 after going unpaid by Fyre Festival.
“It has been an unforgettable experience catering to the organizers of Fyre Festival. Back in April 2017 I pushed myself to the limit catering no less than a 1000 meals per day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were all prepared and delivered by Exuma Point to Coco Plum Beach and Roker’s Point where the main events were scheduled to take place. Organizers would also visit my Exuma Point location to enjoy the prepared meals.
Fyre Fest organizers were also checked into all the rooms at Exuma Point Resort.
As I make this plea it’s hard to believe and embarrassing to admit that I was not paid…I was left in a big hole! My life was changed forever, and my credit was ruined by Fyre Fest.”