Has Sponsored Content Destroyed The Way We Understand Women’s Health?

Look, I don’t mind being the first person to put my hands up and say that being a blogger or ‘influencer’ or whatever has its perks. It’s great being in a position where a company is willing to pay you to promote its products and services. But that does sometimes come with a caveat – an expectation that you’ll provide a wholly positive endorsement no matter the circumstances.

That of course begs the question, who are you posting for if your review isn’t honest? Are you willing to be positive about just about anything as long as you’re paid?

I receive pitches from wellbeing brands regularly. Fortunately, I’m in a position to turn many of them down. It isn’t that I don’t want the work. I say ‘no thank you’ because I’d rather not post glowing reviews of products I know I wouldn’t personally use, enjoy using or recommend to others.

The problem with sponsored content

The whole CBD craze was a point of conflict for me. I didn’t have high expectations for the oils, the gummies or the facials but was happy to try anything that promised to help with anxiety and sleeplessness.

But here’s the thing – it takes a while for CBD to work. You have to dose for at least a few days, maybe weeks, in order to notice a difference. But when you’ve already been sent the product and been paid, what are you supposed to say about CBD before you actually start to notice the stuff working? Side note, it actually didn’t work for me at all. In fact, it made me feel more anxious. But I’d already been paid.

This little bone of contention really bothered me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And I began to notice all the other posts about CBD products. About instant results. I knew it was nonsense and it made me uncomfortable. Not just because I knew these people weren’t necessarily being genuine in their posts – they might have been, CBD works wonders for some people – but because I’d done exactly the same thing. I’d taken the money and said nice things about the products, despite the fact that they didn’t work for me.

After that experience I decided that I’d commit to honest writing and genuine product reviews only. But I knew that I and my 20K followers weren’t about to change the influencer marketing industry in one fell swoop.

Is sponsored content authentic?

Sponsored content, celebrity culture and user generated content have impacted the way women perceive and relate to their health. It’s been a slow but deliberate process underpinned by the transformation of traditional advertising.

Traditional ads have been replaced by more ‘authentic’ marketing campaigns. But here’s the thing. The ads themselves haven’t changed much, they’re just reaching you via a different channel. And what’s great for most companies who work with influencers, is that influencers are honest, trustworthy and above all, real with their followers. Well, they’re supposed to be.

Community over cash-money

I should say at this point that the majority of the shopping decisions I make are the result of influencer marketing. Because I do believe that influencers are more honest than women’s magazines. I go to beauty bloggers for skincare advice, petite influencers for style tips and wellbeing bloggers for crystals, sex toys and silk sleep masks. I can DM these women and ask them private questions about these products and usually, they’ll reply with honest answers.

But if I type ‘best foundation for dry skin’ into Google, the first few hits will be listicles penned by interns – not beauty experts – and hosted by women’s glossies. The contents of these lists will comprise a handful of products that have been sent over to the editorial team, some that are well known for being ok for dry skin and one or two that the magazine is tied into a contract with. The intern writing the piece probably hasn’t tried any of these products.

Sometimes the first hit for that search will just be an article about a single product. The brand has paid for that article, it’s sponsored content. Does the product do what the magazine promises it does? I’d if good for dry skin? Who knows.

False claims in sponsored content

And what about if the product is weightier than foundation? What if the brand pushing it makes some pretty serious claims about what it will do for your health. And what if no one’s holding the journalists or influencers repeating these claims accountable?

We saw that things can get pretty ugly pretty quickly with the outcry against vaginal eggs in Goop-gate. Gwyneth Paltrow provoked the rage of thousands of keyboard warriors, medical professionals among them, with a piece on her wellbeing and lifestyle platform about jade pussy eggs. Goop eventually had to pay out a hefty settlement for making false and misleading health claims.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with the idea of a jade egg, but I totally understand the sentiment behind the backlash. The problem is, women have always looked to other women, to journalists and to advertising for answers, because education on women’s health and sexual health has never been as comprehensive as it should be. Obviously we’re going to head to sources we believe to be authentic for information about how to look after ourselves.

But that puts us in a challenging situation. If we’re not receiving accurate healthcare education and advice from our school curriculum, from medical professionals in our communities, from our media and from influencers and celebrities, where the hell are we supposed to go for answers? Because at this point, we’ll believe anything.

I know, that’s a little extreme. But my point is that women don’t fully understand their bodies and that leaves them vulnerable. We’re an impressionable crowd and there’s an awful lot of information out there to sift through. It upsets me if I see a bunch of bloggers unanimously agreeing that a fancy serum or a £60 jade egg changed their life. Because I’ll buy it. And it won’t change mine. Is that because we have different needs? Absolutely. But were those women also all paid to say basically the same thing? Absolutely.

Women deserve better than spon-con

Sponsored content or spon-con has a lot to answer for when it comes to the complex ethical issue of doling out health advice to women. And the funny thing is, despite the brands paying out for positive reviews, the true authenticity lies in the DMs we send asking, ‘hey honey, is this actually any good?’

Influencers and celebrities have a responsibility to be real with their followers up to a point but why shoot the messenger? Everyone’s got to make a living. It’s brands that need to address the claims they’re making about their products, and how they’ll continue work with reputable media sources and celebrities to hawk their goods to women endlessly searching for answers.

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