On August 19th, a video appeared on the Macy’s website. It opens with a light-flooded room, in which a young woman sits in front of a mirror. “Macy’s” is spelled out on the wall in gold, glittering cardboard letters attached to a string with clothespins, like decorations at a child’s birthday party. The woman—Isabel Campbell, a digital assistant in the petites department at Macy’s—introduces herself. “I am a very relaxed type of girl—I love to just shop around, have brunch with my friends,” she says. “And this”—gesturing to her clothes—“is my go-to outfit: an oversized sweater from Free People and a Free People jean skirt.” If you like what you see, you can click the links that appear nearby to buy similar products from Macy’s.
Most people have never heard of Campbell, and that’s the point. Weary of celebrities who demand high salaries and unreliable Instagram “influencers,” Macy’s is making it possible for its own employees to serve as its brand ambassadors, through a project it calls Macy’s Style Crew. The strategy shift comes as brands are raising concerns about how many of their customers are truly being reached by digital advertising. Last year, for the first time, advertisers spent more on digital ads than on TV spots. Yet this is a season of disillusionment with social media—beyond its well-documented problems with hate speech, election malfeasance, and emotional manipulation. Instagram influencers with large followings are raising their rates to feature a company’s product in a sponsored post. Many of the influencers rarely follow federal disclosure requirements about advertising. Some wind up embarrassing brands with inappropriate comments or bad behavior. And occasionally it turns out that influencers aren’t that influential at all, and have audiences that can include fake and paid-for followers.