Have you ever been randomly invited to become a brand ambassador? Are you amazed that people fall for this scam? Here's how it works.
The email that popped into my inbox last week was from Jody, a runway and influencer director, explaining that she'd spotted my Instagram, loved my work, and had presented it to a "Runway Fashion Label in New York City" who now wanted to work with me. Exciting stuff.
According to Jody — writing to me from her office in the Empire State Building — this company has more than 178,000 followers on Instagram (which jumped to 500,000 in the next email), and they were allowing me to be featured along with the chance to reach 5 million followers worldwide.
Jody — who later became April — didn't seem to know whether she was writing to me from CHIC NYC RUNWAY or Global Influencer Agency, shifting within the space of a sentence. Signing up would make me one of Global Influencer Agency's "professionally managed" influencers, part of a team of 15,000 content creators who want to help me on my influencer journey and promote me to the 80,000 followers via their Instagram account. Not only would I gain 500 followers a month, but I'd also be invited to events and runway shows and receive a 75% discount on exclusive clothing that's been featured at New York Fashion Week alongside Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors, and Giogio (yes, "Giogio") Armani.
Al I needed to do was choose a T-shirt and use the 75% discount code I'd just received. Despite the clumsy email, the psychological nudges were subtle: I'd need to place my order before 11 pm that night (no time zone mentioned) and then post a photo of me wearing my new clothes tagging @chicnyc, @NYFW, and @womanslook. The time restriction was to encourage me not to spend too long researching Chic NYC and the tease of tagging New York Fashion Week and Woman's Look (a huge fashion freebooting account with 1.3 million followers) was to make me assume that these other accounts might feature my photo.
Just How Deceptive Is This?
This brand ambassador racket is misleading, but calling it deceptive is not entirely accurate. You could argue that people are being teased rather than lied to, and no one is handing over money for something that they don't receive (although the Better Business Bureau reviews may suggest otherwise). This scheme operates by preying on people's desire for Instagram fame and functions as a slightly more complicated "pay-to-be-featured" style account. There are hundreds of thousands of Instagram users who want to be the next prominent fashion blogger, and to those who are too excited or naive to look beyond the surface and examine the details, this looks like a shortcut.
Because Instagram has done very little to counter the purchase of fake followers, creating an account and giving it the appearance of reach and authenticity is alarmingly simple.
As a business model, it seems straightforward. In essence, the customers are not only buying the products but also then advertising them, posting their purchases to their own Instagram accounts for their friends to see and gaming the Instagram algorithm by tagging. It certainly seems to be working: according to the report kindly provided to me by HypeAuditor, @chicnyc has been tagged in 1,071 in the last 90 days.
Even better, the products on sale are massively marked up, and in theory, there's no need to hold any stock. Anything that can't be drop-shipped can be bought online from a cheap vendor and then sold on with a considerable markup. Many items on these stores can take a month to be delivered.
Digging into the details of CHIC NYC RUNWAY makes for some amusing discoveries.
This Thailand Candy handbag is listed on CHIC NYC's website for $390. Having just received my 75% discount, I could now buy that handbag for $97.50. That may sound like a bargain until you discover that the same handbag is for sale on Ali Express for a mere $35.46. As you might have guessed, it's the same for numerous items on the CHIC NYC website.
If the multiple spelling mistakes and strange formatting in the emails aren't enough, the website with its low-res images and bizarre products should be an immediate red flag.
The emails from Jody claim that CHIC NYC Runway is "NOT fast fashion" and that materials are sustainable and locally sourced, all of which jars violently with the hilarious "THIS GUY NEEDS A BEER" T-shirt available for just $129.
The Global Influencer Agency websites (there are two of them — one singular, one plural) are not much better. A quick search on TinEye shows that perhaps inevitably, the images are stolen from elsewhere. The events listed on GIA's Instagram give the impression that they are exclusive and invitation-only, but a quick Google shows that tickets are freely available to the public.
Search engines are not kind to either Chic NYC nor Global Influencer Agency. Google's autocomplete suggestions generally include the word "scam," and the reviews on Trust Pilot, Yelp, and Glassdoor are full of complaints.
Chic NYC and Global Influencer Agency appear to be the work of Brittany C. Avcioglu (you can find her on Instagram) and Mr. Oguzhan Avcioglu. Both are based in Naples, Florida and were previously the owners of several businesses, including Mirina Collections LLC (a defunct Twitter account is here), which was launched in October 2015 and then administratively dissolved on September 23, 2016, after failing to file an annual report. The Better Business Bureau report notes that it received numerous complaints about the business: Mirina Collections contacted people on Instagram asking them to become brand ambassadors, offering gifts that had to be paid for and selling products that did not match the description and could be found on sites such as Amazon and Ali Express at a fraction of the price. A related company, Nora NYC, appears to have been closed down following similar complaints.
Ms. Avcioglu has not responded to inquiries, and Jody/April from CHIC NYC Runway did not reply when I asked them to put me in touch.
This should not need saying: if a company approaches you asking you to be a brand ambassador and asks you to hand over some money, say no. The worst offenders — including CHIC NYC and Mirina Collections — can be found on a list of scam companies to be avoided as compiled by The Daily Influencer. One of the companies on that list, Paris Runway Ready has a website that is very similar to CHIC NYC Runway, says it has offices in Naples, FL, and New York City, and has the same phone number as that listed on the Global Influencer Agency website.
Are Brand Ambassadors the New Normal?
CHIC NYC is the brand ambassador racket at its most extreme, but such practices by smaller companies are not unusual. In essence, you've probably encountered brands that hunt through social media for potential customers, offering a discount on products in exchange for content to be used for advertising. Whether this is disingenuous largely depends on whether those customers like the brand that they're giving money to and whether they would have spent that money had they not been teased with the prospect of social media exposure.
My research shows that it happens in the photography industry. In essence, companies approach "ambassadors," offering meager discounts on products such as backdrops in exchange for giving the company photographs and videos for use on social media. For small brands, offering an incentive for delivery of "community-generated content" is far quicker and cheaper than more conventional forms of advertising. Again, the honesty of such methods probably depends on whether these ambassadors genuinely like the products that they are endorsing.
Have you been asked to be an ambassador? Whether it's by a high-end fashion brand that weirdly sells "I Love My Girlfriend" T-shirts or by small companies that are offering discounts on authentic products, please let me know your experiences in the comments below.