Similar to sales, marketing is one of those professions that gets a bad rap. There are those striving to help clients grow their brands with nothing but the best intentions. And there are those who lie, cheat, and steal to get ahead.
That’s essentially true of any profession, hearkening back to the old saying, “One bad apple can spoil the bunch.” However, the spotlight has been shown on the marketing industry a little more as of late. With the recent release of Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, the power of marketing (particularly social media marketing) was shown in full force.
While countless people interact using social media on a daily basis to communicate with friends, family, and customers, many businesses use it to develop their brands. This in itself is a completely harmless concept. But with the Fyre Festival, brand development was twisted into a dark machination of fear, corporate greed, and felony-level fraud.
The story of the Fyre Festival seemed to start out harmless enough. Successful entrepreneur Bill “Billy“ McFarland, coming off of profitable startup Magnises, founded Fyre Media alongside American rapper Ja Rule (real name Jeffrey Bruce Atkins). Fyre Media’s business revolved around their own proprietary app, which allowed users to book celebrity-caliber musical talent.
After a lavishing vacation in the Bahamas, McFarland and Ja Rule conceived the idea of Fyre Festival. Initially, this was to be a strategy designed as a mass-promotional technique for their app, however, it quickly boarded the hype train towards a music festival on the scale of Woodstock. This grand vision encompassed villas built from the ground up. They promised musical talent, including Blink-182, Disclosure, Migos, and more. And, of course, let’s not forget the luxury experiences from yacht parties to private cabanas. It was to be a complete celebration of art, music, and food in a locale resembling nirvana.
McFarland and Ja Rule arranged for some of the world’s top models to come to the island. Once there, they collected hours upon hours of video footage, primarily aimed at more carnal desires: lust, gluttony, and greed.
“To living like movie stars, partying like rockstars, and f***ing like pornstars.”
– Ja Rule, American Rapper & Investor
With the help of marketing firm, Jerry Media, they orchestrated a well-coordinated social media influencer campaign. The campaign started with 63 social media influencers posting an orange tile accompanied by #FyreFest. Meanwhile, the Fyre Festival social media channels, showcased women in bikinis, drinking, a stunning beach, and more, conveying the image of a paradise in the Bahamas.
But expectations quickly failed to meet reality. After being told that festival staging along could cost upwards of $12 million, McFarland began trying to do as much as possible in-house. In Netflix’s documentary, there’s even a great moment where it’s revealed that their plane pilot learn how to fly through Microsoft Flight Simulator.
In spite of this, McFarland and co continued to spend money hand over fist while simultaneously failing to acquire the seed capital they needed to create the properly advertised experience. This led Billy to get creative with his circumstances, announcing that Fyre Festival was a “cashless” event, requiring future attendees to debit money towards their own individual bracelets. These bracelets would essentially replace a credit card or cash during the festival, utilizing payment technology that hadn’t been tested. Instead, this money was quickly gobbled up by McFarland and his team as they robbed Peter to pay Paul.
Meanwhile, the actual festival itself was falling vastly short of expectations as well.
Attendees were promised villas. They received soaked hurricane tents and mattresses.
They were promised musical performances by major acts. Blink-182 pulled out hours before the event was set to begin.
They were promised gourmet meals by celebrity chefs. Take a look at the now-infamous sandwich meme below.
On the day of the festival, guests arrived early to what would be 48 hours of hell. The Fyre Media team on the island instructed guests to temporarily camp out at a restaurant near their tents, but after several hours and a barrage of complaints, Billy McFarland threw in the towel and told them to grab any tent. This led to mass chaos as a stampede of guests clamored to claim tents in a perverse first-come-first-serve mentality. But it didn’t stop there.
During a mosquito-ridden night, drunk, angry, and petrified guests, formed a looting mentality as if it was the end of days. In the drunken chaos, valuables were stolen, guests were lost, and fighting broke out. One guest openly admitted to poking holes in tents and flipping over mattresses to ensure they wouldn’t have any surrounding neighbors.
Even after officially cancelling the festival, the next day wasn’t any better. Countless contractors who went months without payment saw that the event was done for. Out of retaliation, some of them placed hits out on the Fyre Media team. Event Producer Andy King discussed how he swapped clothes with a local and laid flat in a car to escape the area for fear of his safety. The rest of the Fyre team secured the guests charter flights off the island, but even then, the guests were stranded for a second night without food and water in the local airport.
“We’re selling a pipe dream to your average loser. Your average guy in Middle-America.”
– Billy McFarland, CEO, Fyre Media
In the aftermath, it was revealed that Billy McFarland still owed over $30 million to contractors who catered and worked the festival grounds. To this day, most of them still haven’t been paid. Fyre Media ultimately shut down, and it was revealed that the Fyre Media brand was formed to help pay off McFarland’s earlier company, Magnises.
At present day, Billy McFarland was sentenced to six years in prison and subpoenas and class-action lawsuits are still flying around; after the documentary dropped, it was revealed that the slew of social media influencers may face civil repercussions as well.
What Fyre Festival Teaches Us About Marketing
Wow, that’s…a lot. The frightening part of all of this is that we’re just scratching the story’s surface. There are mountains of explicit details pertaining to the setup and aftermath of Fyre Festival that we’re not even discussing in this blog. I promise that with a Google search, you can very easily go down the bottomless rabbit hole that is Fyre Festival horror stories.
But what has this event taught us about marketing?
In general, the minds at work behind the Fyre Festival social media marketing campaign preyed on one common facet of human behavior: FOMO, or fear of missing out.
As McFarland said, the entire experience was designed to garner the interest of those who live normal lives in “Middle-America”. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a person living an average life, social media marketing has grown increasingly aggressive in the approach, constantly hammering down the allurement of an alternate reality, one that includes people with super modelesque beauty, exotic locations, and luxurious accommodations.
The entire marketing campaign was based around these concepts. And the fact is they appealed to a lot of people. But the success wasn’t merely based on content, it was based on reach.
“They captured a ton of footage, which, from a marketing perspective, was second to none.”
– Mick Purzycki, CEO, Jerry Media
To maximize their campaign’s reach, the marketing team at Jerry Media utilized the best models in the world and social media influencers, those who already have a massive following.
Bella Hadid has 22.5 million Instagram followers.
Kendall Jenner? 103 million for which she received a meager $250 thousand for a single Instagram post.
With audiences that large, many of them undoubtedly falling in the 18-35 demographic, Fyre Media had no issue accessing their target market: Millennials. This ingenious strategy paid dividends for their marketing approach at the time. But things have now grown complicated for their influencer team.
“The real Fyre Festival happened multiple times. It was the shoots. What the commercial was what everybody wanted. The shoots were parties. It just happened to happen for 60 people versus 6,000.”
– Brett Kincaid, Director, Matte Projects
In recent news, these models and influencers have been subpoenaed for their roles in the marketing of Fyre Festival. Although many of them claim that they “didn’t know anything”, this begs the question: To what degree should influencers be held accountable for their role in creating massive fraud?
In addition, many of them are potentially open to civil penalties of their own. While the Fyre documentary mentioned that including “#Advertisement” would suffice as an acknowledgement, a court recently decided that this is not transparent enough for those having posted sponsored content.
Instead, these influencers should have made transparency a top priority. Many websites add “Sponsored Content” to written posts, and this could have applied to each image’s description. Some sites have even gone further now. For instance, NewsGuard, a nonprofit website dedicated to monitoring new sites in terms of credibility, trustworthiness, and transparency, encourages news platforms to not only mention when content is sponsored, but to also clearly indicated who the sponsors are and what the sponsorship is used for. This level of transparency has helped credible websites to stand out among all of the imposters. Had Fyre Media’s influencers dedicated just as much time to their transparency, they wouldn’t be in the situation that they’re facing currently.
On the Fyre Media side, things were even worse transparency-wise. Early on, they had realized that the event was a pipe dream. According to the documentary, numerous individuals encouraged leadership to back out to no avail. The direction to push forward was reflected across social media channels. On a daily basis, Fyre Festival pages would be flooded with comments and questions, requesting additional information or some type of assistance. Originally, the team encouraged these users to send them an email to their info box; none of these emails were ever replied to. Users quickly caught on and began demanding answers, so the strategy shifted to deleting negative comments, before, ultimately, removing the ability to comment at all. This mentality helped to shape the eventual monsoon of negativity that slammed Fyre Media and anyone associated with it.
But Fyre Media couldn’t resist one last unethical practice that is similarly fear-based: overpromising. I say this is rooted in fear because in general, someone overpromises when they’re afraid you won’t like them. This happens all the time in business out of fear that individuals won’t win over a client because they didn’t promise the world.
However, in this case, it led to felony-degree fraud. As a matter of fact, it was later revealed that Fyre Media was started because Billy McFarland overpromised on the results of his last venture, Magnises, and he still had a tab to pay. So, the entire concept of robbing Peter to pay Paul didn’t start with Fyre Festival, it continued with it. After Billy was out on bond, he unbelievably attempted this same old shtick yet again when he started selling fake VIP passes, ultimately, earning himself yet another conviction.
To this day, allegations and lawsuits linked to Fyre Festival are still being tossed around. With the dueling documentaries, Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened and Hulu’s Fyre Fraud, gaining mass social appeal, the models associated with the festival have recently been subpoenaed. Ja Rule and Jerry Media’s reputations are in tatters, and Billy McFarland’s corporate executive career is over.
As a parting thought, I’d like to leave you with this: Social media is a rapidly rising medium, and has taken over the world in a matter of years. If brands, partners, and customers are not holding themselves accountable for their messaging, then no one will.
“I reflected on myself and I was questioning to what extent was I guilty, to what extent was I complicity in all of this. And I looked back at my posts on social media and it was like all beautiful beaches and sunsets. You know? And I was going through the hardest experience of my life, and yet if you had seen it, you would have been like, “Wow, what a great life this guy leads. He’s living in the Bahamas, going to beaches all day.” And Fyre shows what happens when you take that to the extreme.”
– Marc Weinstein, Music Festival Consultant
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