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Last week I wrote about envy, and this week I wanted to consider the topic from another angle: the ways in which objects of envy accumulate power, and what they do with it. This is about influencing, celebrity brand deals, and the pursuit of wealth as the ultimate American virtue.
In 2019 I was offered $8,000 to “clean up the beach” with Evian and post about it on my Instagram. The brand deal entailed something like three in-feed posts and a spate of stories over the course of a few months, and it was the most money I’d ever been offered as an influencer. The campaign was to be focused on plastic-water-bottle brand Evian’s sustainability efforts, namely their commitment to being “fully circular” by 2025, and when I first heard the number they were offering me, my stomach dropped like I’d fallen in love.
At the time I was the digital editor of a women’s media site, working something like 70 hours a week for $65,000—more than my $48k starting salary as a junior editor, less than I’d made three years prior as a mid-tier HR associate. My boss at the media site saw the social followings that we’d gained through our work there as a perk of the job, and told us we were free to pursue influencer work on the side as supplemental income. She told us this as if it were part of our compensation package, and only later rescinded it (to “quell competition” between the employees and the company) when the company was struggling financially, which caused such a stir that it was eventually reversed in an attempt to prevent employees from quitting. But the reversal came with a catch: a portion of all influencer earnings had to be paid out to the company. The side hustle had become intertwined with the work itself.
I never liked the idea of selling my followers’ attention to brands, especially considering my ambitions as a writer. But I figured if I was picky enough and subtle enough, no one would really blame me. “Get your bag,” was the prevailing response to sponcon at the time, and still is: a full reversal of the sellout critique we grew up around in the ‘90s. I didn’t exactly agree with it, but I benefited from it anyway, bringing in $15,000 in 2018 from seven different brand deals. Most of them entailed posting a single photo on Instagram with a clever caption—the easiest, most well-paid work of my life. It allowed me to move out of my basement apartment with roommates into my own place. Compared to my late nights editing, it felt like breathing. When Evian approached me in early 2019, I thought of the six figures I could break that year, then sweat about it for a week. The gig would involve documentation of me volunteering, an almost sure-fire way to shield me from critique, but in the end, I declined. I could lie to myself, but not that well. Months later, I watched my boss sit on a panel for the brand.
This may paint me as some kind of altruist, but I went on to make seven more brand deals in 2019, bringing in another $15,000 before I quit influencing for good six months later, and then my job at the media company six months after that. Sometimes I think that first “no” to Evian primed me to leave that work behind. I was surprised by how good it felt to make a principled decision, and then wanted more of that feeling. Ironically, it was also my willingness to say “yes” that had brought me to the financial position to strike out on my own. Would I be here writing to you now if I hadn’t once pedaled the latest Birkenstock colorway on Bleeker street? It’s a question I ask myself from time to time.
The celebrity stamp
This interdependence between creative work and brand marketing grows stronger every year. Consider the celebrity brand endorsement: From high-brow “creative partnerships” (BlackBerry announces Alicia Keys as Global Creative Director), to sponsored events (Lady Gaga’s dive bar tour brought to you by Bud Light), to not-so-subtle product placements (“40 Music Videos With Blatant Beats-By-Dre Product Placement”), to classic swindling (Jennifer Anniston hawking drugstore makeup; Lisa Rinna hawking adult diapers), these deals take infinite forms. And by now they’re so baked into how Hollywood operates that to critique celebrities for “selling out” would almost seem like a bid to do away with show business entirely.
What’s interesting to me is that as eager as the general public is to critique celebrities for their missteps, rarely do we question them for hoarding wealth they don’t need through non-stop corporate brand deals. In 2014, Taylor Swift was in the throes of controversy around how many men she’d dated and written songs about. Meanwhile, she was signing a $26 million-dollar endorsement deal with Diet Coke. Last month, Beyoncé and Jay-Z were briefly pilloried online for unveiling a previously unseen Basquiat painting they owned in a Tiffany’s ad, yet I saw no one question why a billionaire couple needed to sell their image to a diamond company in the first place. Celebrities are easy targets for moral policing—and not necessarily the most egregious capitalists—but it’s distinctly American that we rarely target them for greed.
Taylor Swift is the perfect avatar for this value system. Known most for her down-home approachability—posting photos of her cats, writing songs about her life, letting fans into her actual home—Swift is one of the quickest celebrities to align herself with faceless corporate behemoths. Apple, Capital One, CoverGirl, Diet Coke, Comcast, Sony, Verizon, Subway, Walgreens, American Express, Target. She almost never misses an opportunity to make more money. I like Swift’s music, but it seems a fairly cynical way of doing business, and she’s rarely critiqued for it despite being critiqued for nearly everything else. Why? Or more pressingly: Why does a musician who makes unspendable amounts of money on her art still do cringey commercials for banks? The answer, I suspect, is just as depressing as the question.
Growth at all costs
In America, the pursuit of wealth has become a virtue in its own right. To work hard, to hustle, to get your bag—these ideas are increasingly divorced from achieving the means to live well and have instead become goals in themselves, regardless of what we actually need, and regardless of who’s exploited in the process. When Donald Trump was critiqued for not paying his fair share of taxes, his strongest response was that he simply abused existing loopholes in the tax code. He was just doing what was best for his business, he implied, like anyone would. This kind of thinking isn’t necessarily conservative. I imagine many influencers and celebrities who consider themselves politically progressive use this same reasoning to justify their willingness to shill for morally dubious corporations: They are simply seizing opportunities made available to them. And everyone else is doing it too.
It’s easy to see how this way of doing business lost its social stigma. Greed has received a dazzling PR treatment in recent years. The Kardashians aren’t greedy, they’re enterprising. Silicon Valley isn’t selling our data, it’s improving our lives. Serial entrepreneurs aren’t trying to strike it rich, they’re dreamers. They’re rising and grinding, they’re 30-under-30. This kind of vocabulary enjoys a sheen of social progress while blatantly side-stepping the economic implications of such a value system, like say, 1% of the US population holding almost a third of its wealth. If the idea of hustling and securing the bag were once proliferated by the poor to get by (these terms specifically gaining popularity in Black culture), it should come as no surprise that the bourgeoisie embraced it to launder their greed through a virtuous framework. It begs the question: If the poor hustle to survive, to what end do the uber-rich do it?
Of course, plenty fall somewhere in-between. The girlboss is a great example of a middle to upper-middle class figure who was, from some angles, a bastion of social progress, and from others, the opposite. The fact that she buckled mostly under the scrutiny of social critiques over economic ones doesn’t surprise me; America struggles to criticize ambition in any form. My own reason for pursuing brand work was an extension of that. At times I felt bolstered by the opportunity to monetize the audience I’d gained from my work as a writer. Under the purview of the girlboss, it was the resourceful, industrious thing to do. Over time though, it became clear to me that I was using my social position at a feminist-leaning website to sell shit to women that they didn’t need, sometimes in direct opposition to the ideas I hoped to explore in my writing.
I don’t think everyone working jobs they might consider ethically murky is capable of taking some divine principled path—for many it’s simply not possible or fair for them to bear such a burden. I also don’t blame influencers for getting in on one of the quickest, easiest ways to make money in a broken country. Just as selling out has become a prerequisite to fame, moral compromise has become a prerequisite to existing under capitalism. But we should acknowledge that part of our assimilation into this system is the way we become indoctrinated by it. When I refused to do work with Evian, it flipped a switch in my brain not because I’d done something good for the environment (someone else got the gig), but because I finally understood the extent to which I’d adopted a convenient American ethos to soothe my inner conflict. In fact, I could have survived without pushing products on my Instagram page. By choosing to do it anyway, I’d participated in a long tradition of rebranding my self-interest as rugged individualism—if only to myself. The social costs of such a compromise may have been small in my case, and forgivable for those less privileged than me, but it’s not a framework that scales.
“We live in a contradiction,” philosopher Alain Badiou once said, “a brutal state of affairs, profoundly inegalitarian—where all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone—is presented to us as ideal.” It’s true this mess isn’t all our fault, but we can’t denounce the horrors of capitalism without also turning a critical eye towards the values we’ve assumed in its name. This is especially true for the most powerful, rich, and influential among us (maybe exclusively so). They may be savvy or even stylish in their propensity to create more wealth for themselves through cynical business deals, but there’s nothing to be gained by calling it anything but greed. Not even our own salvation.
Pick of the week:“What Does it Mean to Love a Person Who Doesn’t Exist?: An Interview with Sally Rooney” by Rosa Lyster for Hazlitt. I know the hype around Rooney can be annoying, but in my opinion she continues to transcend it.
Honorable mention: The incredible trivia item that Oprah was actually born “Orpah” but changed her name after enough people mispronounced it.
Pic of the week: I’ve been trying to spend a bit more time on the roof of my building before it gets too cold. I feel like such an asshole every time I’m up there and pretend I invented not being online.
Thanks for reading! Hope you have a nice Sunday.
This month a portion of subscriber proceeds will be redistributed to Center for Popular Democracy, a pro-worker, pro-immigrant advocacy group and network of over 50 community organizations working in low-income communities across the United States. They’re currently focused on the eviction crisis.