Young adults in American have grown up in an era where social media “influencers” regularly push products into their news feeds. But while a majority say they’re comfortable with online personalities partnering with lifestyle and consumer brands, a newly-released NBCLX/Morning Consult poll reveals Gen Z and Millennial adults prefer influencers to keep their politics to themselves.
Poll respondents between 18 and 38 years old indicated strong approval for influencer posts about food, wellness, travel, fashion, and consumer brands. But the support dropped off precipitously for posts regarding political candidates and political issues.
Paid political partnerships were essentially unheard of in the fast-growing influencer industry until former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg made headlines during the 2020 Democratic primary race, paying people with large social media followings to post about his campaign, and in some cases, create funny memes about him.
The partnerships were initially panned by many in the influencer community, but the former New York mayor, one of the world’s wealthiest individuals, received an enormous amount of free “earned” media from the venture - the kind of priceless return on investment that many brands aim for when partnering with online influencers.
When asked about social media influencers endorsing products they use, 65 percent of Gen Z (18-22) and Millennial (23-38) adults signaled they approved of the practice, compared to just 14 percent who indicated they disapproved. However, when asked about endorsing political candidates they personally support, just 50 percent of Gen Z and Millennial adults approved, compared to 25 percent who disapproved.
The support cratered among young adults when it came to products (18 percent) and candidates (14 percent) influencers don’t personally support, with a clear majority disapproving of both partnerships. “Selling out” and “inauthenticity” were cited numerous times by respondents explaining their answers.
But it’s not always clear if a post was inspired by a personal preference or a paycheck.
“I wouldn’t ever promote something...I don’t actually believe in,” said Tim White, a lifestyle influencer and musician who partnered with the Bloomberg campaign for a sponsored Twitter post in February. “If it crosses (that) line, it’s probably going to look inauthentic enough that people aren't going to believe it, and it would be bad for my brand as much as it would be bad for me.”
Bloomberg’s breakneck spending strategy was enough to propel him into the presidential conversation, but not enough to earn him the 2020 Democratic nomination. However, his social media strategy of partnering with online influence company Meme2020 could have life far beyond this year’s election if more influencers embrace the deep pockets of political campaigns.
Politicians will first have to convince influencers and their audience that sponsored political content is no different than sponsored product content.
“People get passionate about politics in a way that they don't get passionate about products,” said White. “It’s a very tribal thing; everyone has their team and...if you’re not with them, you’re against them.”
Only 34 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 38 said they had a favorable view of influencers posting about political issues, but a majority (52 percent) said they had favorable views of posts about registering to vote, indicating a willingness to engage more in political conversations that weren’t as partisan.
“I have to put the brand first…(and) it is just a fine line when it comes to politics,” said Sai de Silva, lifestyle blogger at ScoutTheCity.com. “Politics is something that is just very personal and when that favorite influencer of yours pushes their political views on you, it's a different ballgame.
“We are all so highly-opinionated in that area; we all have so many different views. You can't possibly think that (an influencer) is going to get the same reaction from, ‘hey guys, try this beauty cream’ to ‘hey, look whom I want running our country or being our governor or mayor.”
De Silva says she generally avoids posting any political content, after seeing how worked up her followers got from even the slightest mention of a partisan issue. But the outrage she’s witnessed to sponsored political posts has been even more fervent.
“The minute that you're taking some sort of money in exchange for promoting (a candidate), it just falls off and it just does not look authentic,” she said.
White added that certain platforms are more conducive to political posts. He added that he limited his partnership with the Bloomberg campaign to just Twitter.
“People don’t go on Instagram for politics; they go on Instagram to get away from politics,” he said. “People go on Twitter to engage in politics and engage in more controversial topics.”
Bloomberg’s partnerships with influencers didn’t just generate buzz and criticism; it also generated new policies at social media companies, like Instagram, which required influencers to better-disclose paid partnerships. The New York Times reported the sponsored posts were not as easily-identifiable on the accounts of micro-influencers - social media personalities with thousands of followers - as they were on the accounts of major influencers, followed by millions of people.
The NBCLX/Morning Consult poll surveyed 2,200 adults between the ages of 18 and 73, between March 10-14. Forty-four percent of all respondents said they followed influencers, including 86 percent of Gen Z adults and 64 percent of Millennials, but just 28 percent of adults over the age of 38.
Older adults also expressed less of an appetite for sponsored posts of any type, with only 10 percent of adults over the age of 38 approving of influencers posting about products they don’t personally use, compared to 18 percent of Millennials and Gen Z adults. When it comes to products influencers personally use, only 52 percent of adults over the age of 38 approved of sponsored posts, compared to 65 percent of Millennials and Gen Z adults.