Welcome to the Era of Branded Engagements
An influencer’s “surprise adventure” was apparently pitched to brands months before it even began.
Updated at 2:48 p.m. ET on June 20, 2019.
On Tuesday, Marissa Casey Fuchs, a fashion influencer known on Instagram as @fashionambitionist, shared a video to her 160,000-plus followers. In it, her boyfriend, Gabriel Grossman, professes his love and tells her that she’s about to embark on “an extraordinary adventure.”
“I have the most important question of my life to ask you,” he says. “The problem is, we’re not really into traditional weddings. It’s not really our style.” But, he adds, he figured out how to provide “something to experience, enjoy, and, you know, capture for the ’gram so we know it happened.” The video had originally come from Grossman’s feed, and when Fuchs reposted it to her own, she added a caption: “WHAT IS HAPPENING?!”
The 48 hours since have been a whirlwind, as Fuchs embarked on a scavenger hunt, orchestrated by Grossman, that took her from New York City to Montauk to Miami to Paris. Along the way, she has collected two diamond-and-gold necklaces (which, fans can see from the packaging, came from the brand Jade Trau) and documented her every move on Instagram.
Between her posts, Fuchs has peppered in commentary from her fans to build excitement. “There’s a surprise engagement wedding (no one really knows right now) happening on @fashionambitionist Stories this Tuesday and I am completely invested in it!” reads a post she shared from one Instagram user, @geneelizabeth908. Media outlets including People, Elite Daily, and the Daily Mail all covered the drama as it unfolded. “Gabriel Grossman’s Instagram Story Proposal to Marissa Fuchs Is What Viral Dreams Are Made Of,” the Elite Daily headline reads. “Is this the most extravagant proposal EVER?” wondered the Daily Mail. Fuchs has gained more than 20,000 followers since first posting about the proposal.
But as fans waited eagerly for each new surprise, brand marketers couldn’t believe it was all going to plan. Many knew exactly how the proposal would play out, hour by hour. They knew the couple’s engagement hashtag. They knew what hotels Fuchs would be staying at, where she would eat, and when she’d post to her feed. They had seen it all before, in a pitch deck. The viral proposal appears to be a meticulously planned marketing stunt.
Before the proposal scavenger hunt ever kicked off, marketers at various brands and agencies had received a PDF outlining the future engagement in the context of a potential sponsorship. The multiday stunt would be “a one-of-a-kind proposal experience for a one-of-a-kind female ambitionist,” the deck, which was obtained by The Atlantic, reads. “This summer, Marissa of @FashionAmbitionist will be pulled into a surprise adventure created by the center of her life, Gabriel. He will remotely ask her to take an unexpected and sentimental journey to him, a journey that will encompassing [sic] many familiar stops along the way that offer their own unique gifts … We’re pleased to offer your brand the opportunity to align with this momentous occasion and the beautiful cities she will be visiting along the way.”
The deck features private photos of Fuchs and Grossman at various destinations, along with a full biography of Fuchs and a summary of her metrics. It gives an overview of her blog and a full page of background information on the couple’s relationship. (Fuchs and Grossman did not respond immediately to a request for comment.)
Most important, the deck also contains an itinerary detailing how the proposal will proceed, including when and what Fuchs will post. “Video Announcement *IG Journey Long-Form Video Kick-Off Post*,” reads the description for Tuesday morning, and Fuchs delivered. “Gurney’s Resort Breakfast/Check-Out *IG Short Film Next Stop Post*” reads another; again, Fuchs followed it. So far, there have been only minor discrepancies between the pitch deck and Fuchs’s posts: On Tuesday night, she and her friends dined at Scarpetta Beach rather than the Crow’s Nest, as originally noted in the deck. She also did an unpacking post as opposed to a packing one.
After nearly two days of Fuchs’s posts, word about the deck began to spread. Late Wednesday night, Fuchs’s friend Elicia Blaine Evans took control of Fuchs’s phone and posted a story on Instagram to stamp out any rumors that the proposal was a setup. In it, she describes the deck as a “logistical plan” created with Grossman and a few of Fuchs’s friends. “So I’m stealing Marissa’s phone for the next God knows how long,” Evans says in the post, “and we’re going to get through this.”
But if the deck is simply a plan, it’s a weird one. The PDF not only is expertly designed, but also directly solicits brand partnerships and was sent to marketers under the guise of a possible sponsorship. (It’s unclear whether Fuchs and Grossman ever did receive sponsorship for the proposal—Fuchs has tagged numerous brands in her posts, but none contain an advertising disclosure.)
Bryan Pedersen, an advertising executive who saw the deck himself, balked at the suggestion that Fuchs was unaware of the contents. “Either her fiancé has been intimately involved in every single aspect of her business and influencer marketing career and knows every detail of her influencer partnerships, or she has had some input into that pitch deck,” Pedersen said. “There’s no way a friend or potential fiancé would know how to put together a pitch deck with that detail.”
Influencers’ relationships with brands are precious, and many often vet potential sponsorships with clients. The notion that someone else would be pitching a detailed posting schedule for Fuchs’s feed, for money, without her knowledge is a stretch. Brands also like to assert control over sponsored content and potential partnerships, so they would be unlikely to broker a deal without the subject’s consent. Fuchs herself is the director of brand partnerships at Goop, so she is likely aware of how such deals work.
Grossman, Fuchs’s soon-to-be fiancé, reached out on Thursday afternoon and was adamant that Fuchs has no knowledge of the deck or imminent proposal. He said it was actually Evans, a social-media marketer who has done work for Michael Kors and Audi, who put the deck together and suggested reaching out to brands. Grossman told Evans about his plans for the scavenger hunt, and Evans, knowing which brands Fuchs regularly works with, helped mastermind the partnerships.
According to Grossman, the trio received no direct payment for Fuchs’s posts. In fact, he said, most brands didn’t even respond. Almost all the ones that did were companies that Fuchs already had a good working relationship with, such as Flywheel, which put on a free, private class, and the clothing designer LoveShackFancy, which sent Fuchs some free dresses. Glamsquad, an on-demand beauty service, provided free hair and makeup styling. The only major new partnership to develop from the proposal came after Evans got in touch with Flytographer; it provided three photographers for free. Grossman also received a hefty discount on the Jade Trau jewelry he gave Fuchs, but Fuchs has been friends with Trau for a long time and regularly receives discounts on her designs.
Grossman said that he understands why some people might criticize his plan, but that he just wanted to make Fuchs happy. He’s watched his girlfriend spend hours responding to Instagram messages from young fans, and he thought she would enjoy it if the proposal included that part of her life. “I was trying to do something that I knew Marissa would love,” he said. Grossman, who works in finance and is generally more private on social media, said he was happy to step outside his usual box if it made her smile. “It’s not like the rest of my life is going on Bravo,” he said. “I can be public for a bit for this one moment in our lives; then it will go back to normal.”
Kelsey Hodgkin, the head of strategy at Deutsch Los Angeles, an advertising agency, viewed a portion of the deck and said she was unsurprised that the couple would try to make money off such a momentous life event. Celebrities, reality stars, and other influencers already monetize their weddings, their pregnancies, and their breakups; an engagement is par for the course.
“I think it’s completely insane, but very of the moment we’re living in now,” Hodgkin said of Fuchs’s proposal. “Influencer marketing is a free-for-all at the moment. Everyone is like, ‘How far can I push it?’ … This current state is unsustainable. The more influencers are fabricating scenarios for brands to be part of, the less influential they become.”
Jack Wagner, the creator of Like and Subscribe, an online show that skewers influencer culture, said that at this point, parodies like his own are often indistinguishable from reality. “What’s crazy to me is the nature of creating a pitch deck for your engagement,” he said. “What is the price where you’d brand your engagement and sell it away? It’s such a special moment in your life. What is that price that makes it worth it? It’s weird that we’re at a point right now in culture where that’s a question.”
Even if Fuchs had a hand in the whole thing, her fans likely won’t care. Influencers have a unique bond with their audiences, who have proved to be extremely loyal, even when the object of their fandom vlogs a dead body in a forest or posts racist tweets. “The audience doesn’t just see an influencer as an [entertainment] channel or celebrity; they see them as a friend,” said Pedersen. “And if it’s a friend, you’re going to forgive anything.”