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Outdoor Voices broke into the saturated athleisure market by harnessing the influence of a specific type of woman on Instagram: the type who kayaks before work, runs half marathons for fun and brings oil paints to picnics. The brand was selling a lifestyle that “frees fitness from performance,” “gets the world moving” and, above all, promotes #DoingThings in slogan-clad hats. 

The brand was founded in 2014 by Tyler Haney — a graduate of Parsons School of Design — when she was 25 years old, and she infused her winsome personality into the company’s ethos. It’s not gear for winning the Olympics; it’s monochrome sets to wear to go hiking with your dog. More whimsical than Nike and more down-to-earth than Lululemon, the brand quickly joined the ranks of the original digitally native cool-girl brand Glossier

Years ago, I came across the @outdoorvoices gridlay of minimalist heathered workout clothes, employee yoga breaks and unedited models who were proud of their cellulite. I consciously crafted my identity to fit their sunny, sweaty, Instagram-square-sized mold.

When they advertised their campus ambassador program, I applied immediately in hopes of free clothes, filling out a surprisingly intensive application involving both an essay and a letter of recommendation. I soon received an email saying that they “liked my content” and wanted me on the Campus Crew, signed with “high fives.” I felt validated. I also felt vaguely disconcerted realizing that I was going to allow a brand, albeit one I loved, to purchase posts I made on a medium I had long considered a personal outlet. I succumbed to selling my personality and downloaded the required app, SocialLadder, which gave me challenges such as tagging @outdoorvoices in a grid post for a payout of the point-equivalent of $40 in-store credit. The app also had a feed of the other influencers’ social media activity; it ranked us by our posts, fostering a sense of competition. 

I felt welcomed into the company. Sometimes they would hold campus crew-specific events — like virtual explainers on their corporate sustainability policy — which allowed us to learn more about the company. The corporate point-person occasionally mentioned that she, too, had been a campus ambassador before working her way up to a full-time job, hinting of advancement opportunities at our fingertips. The official account would frequently use user-generated content in its own communications, and I always hoped I would be featured. 

The gig was fun for a while, especially when surprise packages arrived. But I slowly realized that I wasn’t cut out for it. Even though I identified with the brand’s mission, I remained conflicted about the inauthenticity baked into posting paid promotions, especially when the ads weren’t clearly disclosed. From a waste standpoint, I didn’t feel good about encouraging people to spend too much money on clothes they probably didn’t need, even if the company was moving in the direction of environmental sustainability. I knew in the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be shoving these products down people’s throats if I wasn’t getting them for free, and — for that reason — the whole thing felt disingenuous.

Instagram marketing mimics age-old word-of-mouth advertising, especially in cases of “nano-influencers” with fewer than 2000 followers. The biggest difference is the subtlety of the cash flow. Not only do nano-influencers make money for their posts, but Instagram also dangles the product a click away from a user’s feed. The “Checkout” feature allows for impulse buys within the app. Companies have financial incentive to turn average people into walking billboards; average people have financial incentive to promote products they might not even like.

In an effort to win over the enviable young adult demographic, companies have created campus rep programs where they enlist peppy 20-year-olds to hook their peers on products. Typical duties involve social media posts, giveaways, events, and pop-ups: a full program of guerrilla marketing. At universities, programs exist for GoPass, Coca-Cola, PINK, Red Bull and more. Boasting trips to brand headquarters, hourly wages and mounds of free stuff, influencer programs have established themselves as a vital connection to Gen Z. To help brands tap into the market, boutique marketing firms like Campus Agency and Riddle & Bloom have sprung up to maintain campus campaigns. 

I called LSA senior Joyce Jeong, a campus rep for PINK, who broke down the hierarchy of influence for that particular program. There are two campus reps, who apply after writing essays and going through an interview process. Once hired, they get an hourly wage and the responsibility of planning events, like a scavenger hunt for coupons or a “panty frenzy” party. They’re in charge of an unpaid campus team that staffs and publicizes events in exchange for free apparel. “It’s an easy way to make money and it’s a flexible job,” she told me. The PINK program sounded fairly similar to the one I did, though it’s a bit more focused on in-person events than social media posts. The bottom line is the same, though: students get free clothes in order to be seen wearing them.

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In response to the blurry line between Instagram users making genuine recommendations, promoting a product for compensation and posting fake sponsored content for the “influencer” status, the Federal Trade Commission Endorsement Guides have become increasingly stringent, requiring that influencers clearly disclose sponsored posts if they received compensation. Influencer territory isn’t quite the Wild West anymore, but regulation is still spotty at best. I’ve only ever seen a handful of nano-influencers follow these guidelines (one is “don’t mix your disclosure into a group of hashtags or links”). There’s no public data available about FTC compliance. Outdoor Voices never mentioned anything about disclosure to me besides requiring the use of the cryptic #OVUCrew hashtag (which stands for Outdoor Voices University).

My four-month foray into nano-influencing came to an end when I failed to complete a mandatory post about new periwinkle leggings. The night before the deadline, I’d ventured outside in below-freezing weather and attempted to self-photograph my sumptuous pants, but all the photos looked weird, and I didn’t want to post any of them. Preoccupied with upcoming exams, I decided that it just wasn’t worth it. As expected, I got a stern email saying I was no longer part of the campus crew; this time the email was signed “best,” not “high fives.” I let out a sigh of relief, suddenly realizing that I never actually liked being an unpaid brand fanatic.

I like to think that I’m now more skeptical as I scroll through feeds of distorted recommendations, more aware that casual posts can be camouflaged ads. It all seems like a slippery slope, and I worry that brands can pay regular people to say just about anything: First, you’re promoting a benign product, then maybe you’re defending a company’s ethically dubious business practices. I was unaware at the time, but while I was an ambassador Outdoor Voices was silently undergoing a financial and culture crisis that led to the departure of its founder and CEO. In an era of value-driven consumerism, brands are held to moral standards, and when a company fails to be perfectly virtuous, its proponents may have to share some of the blame. 

Still, I can’t deny that ambassador programs hold a number of benefits— I joined for a reason. Campus influencer programs can link like-minded people together, and I truly did meet cool people. I’m still friendly with the girls I met on OVU crew — our affinity for the lifestyle brand confers similarities beyond our taste in monochrome skort sets. We’re all interested in fitness, branding and social media— and the happy-go-lucky air of Outdoor Voices. Beyond meeting friends, ambassador programs introduce participants to business connections, offering a foot in the door for competitive jobs at places like TikTok and Apple. To be on friendly terms with staff members, to have immersion in the company’s language and policies, and to have demonstrated tangible interest in the company might make the whole thing worth it. 

But high fives and all, I don’t think it’s for me. 

Statement Columnist Annie Rauwerda can be reached annierau@umich.edu.