I've been writing a column for the French magazine Café Racer for a decade or more, and, when I remember, I post some of them on this blog. Here's one from last year.
It was a comment that raised my hackles. ‘No one should accept that new lobby. Starting by you… Influencers!’
The sentence is somewhat garbled, because it was typed by a Frenchman, who wrote in English, and now it’s been translated from Pidgin English into French [it hasn't, because you're reading it in English. GI]. The comment was in response to an image I posted on Instagram, of a computer render created by a friend, showing his idea of what an electric Indian FTR dirt track race bike might look like. It was clearly labelled as unofficial and nothing to do with Indian.
It created a lot of debate, ranging from people wondering why an electric bike needed a ‘petrol tank’, others saying they liked it; others, inevitably, expressing the opinion it was a shame it won’t make the right noises. Then one comment asked, ‘You think it’s fun?’ I replied that electric bikes are fun. Then came the reply that opened this column. I objected, in strong terms, of being dismissed as being an ‘influencer’, explaining that I’ve been a motorcycle journalist for nearly 25 years. The term influencer is so dismissive and, for a journalist, weighted with negative connotations. The guy who made the comment wrote another, and it became clear that he didn’t know the difference between a digital age influencer and someone who might have influence. He said, because I have an audience I have some influence. That’s debatable, but just because a person has influence doesn’t make them an influencer. Valentino Rossi has influence, he influences people to buy AGV helmets. If his designs were on Shark helmets, people would buy those too. That doesn’t make him an influencer.
So what’s my problem with influencers? Well, I don’t have a problem, but I don’t want to be mistaken for one, and it’s nothing to do with snobbery. Social media has given anyone with a smartphone an outlet for their thoughts, opinions and messages. This is good and bad, and we don’t need to go into the thousands of reasons for that right now. We simply need to know that most often those who shout the loudest get heard, whatever they’re saying. They can shout really loudly with their appearance and style choices as much as their words, too.
Let’s stick to talking about motorcyclists and consider the impact and use of influencers by manufacturers. Motorcycle makers, like virtually every industry, has long tried to link its products to either specific celebrities or characters. How many Harleys were sold off the back of Easy Rider? And Harley didn’t have to spend a dollar for that link up, but they sure saw the potential after the fact and milked the cultural and visual references for decades. But Triumph negotiating for a bike to be used in a Mission Impossible film is different to the use of social media influencers, and that’s because an influencer just does what they’re told, repeating the message without question or complaint.
This is an example of how it works. The bike company sees someone they think will appeal to potential customers and gives them the long-term loan of a motorcycle. The influencers post photos of them with the bike, sometimes giving the impression they actually bought the bike, without ever saying it. That is definitely the idea the manufacturers wish to convey. The influencers also parrot press releases and new products from the same company, often with shallow displays of excitement for a product – ‘Wow, look at these killer new socks!’
It’s a new kind of advertising and if it works for the manufacturers, helping them survive tough times, then I’m not against it. Neither am I anti-influencer. It’s a career for some people, the biggest influencers being paid millions for one or two posts, and, in a way, not that different to a magazine like Café Racer accepting advertising, it’s just a new version of it. And Café Racer isn’t being paid millions…
So why am I annoyed at being called an influencer and what makes me, as a journalist, different? After all, I also run a small magazine and take money from companies in return for advertising. Two words: cynicism and integrity. It doesn’t matter how much someone is paying me, if I don’t believe or, more importantly, can’t prove what’s being said then the most I’m ever going to say is ‘The manufacturer claims…’ or, ‘This taken straight from the manufacturer’s website.’ I’m quoting, not saying it. Perhaps it’s too subtle, but I hope not. The distinction is clear. I’m not saying the new bike weighs this, does that or is improved by this much, until I have the opportunity to test it myself, or have someone I trust test it. I’m not going to tell anyone the sun shines out of a particular product’s arsehole unless I’m convinced that it does. Sure, beyond the hard facts of dimensions and performance there is a certain amount of opinion involved in reporting how a motorcycle behaves. Some people love V-twin baggers where others prefer supersport 1000s, but a good journalist’s opinion comes from a place of honesty and a certain amount of experience. They’re not going to overlook a flaw or problem the same way an influencer would. The influencer is a spokesperson for the brand, pretending to be one of us. The journalist is an advocate of the readers, trying to protect them from wasting their money or buying a product that isn’t what they thought it would be.
A healthy level of cynicism is more important than ever. While on-page advertising is regulated, influencer messages are not, perhaps that explains a lot about the growth and importance of influencer marketing to the companies using it. And new generations don’t seem to have the same instinct for not believing everything they’re told, especially if they buy into the influencer and their personality. In some ways cynicism has been weaponised and turned inside-out, by those who dismiss anything they don’t agree with, or something they want to hide, as fake news.
Integrity is harder to develop and easier to lose. I see a lot of motorcycle influencers giving their integrity away for the loan of a new bike. Journalists get the use of free bikes too, but they’re almost hoping for something to go wrong to prove their integrity in highlighting a problem that their test regime and mileage and caused. At least that’s how it’s been in my experience. I will sometimes share details of a product I would not personally want to own, but I won’t endorse it. Reporting is different to influencing. This new bike has been released is a fact. An influencer saying what a great time they’re having with that new bike might also be true, but its clouded by a business arrangement.
Perhaps, with so many messages, so much influence being exerted, it’s hard to pick up the subtle but important differences.
Returning to the comment that kicked this all off. ‘No one should accept that new lobby.’ Not only was I being labelled an influencer, I was being accused of being a lobbyist – ‘a person who takes part in an organized attempt to influence legislators’. The accusation there is, because I didn’t agree with the person’s view on electric motorcycles I must be getting paid to say these things, or, at least, have some kind of ulterior motive. Now influencers have become so pervasive, that a comment as simple as ‘Electric bikes are fun’, causes mistrust and argument. So, I’d say, don’t become one of those conspiracy theorists, who love to tell us to 'Trust no one', just be careful who you do trust, because influencers are going to do anything in their power to influence.
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