If you happen to be in the market for a home in Grand Junction, Colorado, an unlikely person might sway your decision on a real estate agent: Ice-T, the rapper and star of television shows like Law & Order: SVU and Ice Loves Coco. “Get at Christie DeHerrera, okay?” he says in a front-facing camera video. “She’s the best in the business, she loves her work, she gets the job done. And plus, she’s a fan of Ice-T.”
Why is Ice-T suddenly a spokesperson for Christie DeHerrera, Colorado real estate agent? It’s the result of a new feature from Cameo, the app where people pay celebrities and influencers to record personalized messages for them, but this time for businesses. Promotional Cameos, which soft-launched in the second week of July, offer average companies the chance to hire, say, a Barbara Corcoran or a Lance Bass to vouch for their homemade soda or IT software, minus the legal hurdles and enormous price tags of traditional celebrity endorsements.
This is how we get videos of 2000s pop icon Christina Milian offering a promo code to streetwear site Drillionaire Dreams, which has 57 followers and Facebook and a website that comes with a security warning. For a generation accustomed to seeing A-listers post Instagram sponsored content for little-known brands, it was only a matter of time before a platform came along that removed the possibility of getting swallowed in a star’s Instagram direct messages tab while considerably lowering the price.
Cameo, which launched in 2017, is among the few companies for which the coronavirus has been a boon; Leopold says the app has seen a big rise in interest, and 500,000 of its 1.2 million videos have come from just the past four months.
The reasons are fairly predictable: Celebrities are in fact just like us, in that they were also under quarantine for most of the spring (albeit in far nicer houses), furloughed from film sets, concert tours, and red carpet events and suddenly finding themselves with a lot more free time. On the flip side, during quarantine nearly everyone was in at least some kind of long-distance relationship with friends and loved ones, and a shoutout from a favorite reality star or athlete could go a long way.
Still, there is something viscerally weird about scrolling through a website and seeing a dollar sign attributed to a celebrity. “You know local night clubs? If one in Colorado all of a sudden has Akon performing there, you’re like, ‘What happened?’” jokes Joe Gagliese, co-founder and CEO of influencer talent management company Viral Nation.
Our ideas about what counts as “desperate” for celebrities to do or shill have drastically evolved over the past 30 years; what seemed like “selling out” in the ’90s is now often praised as hustling. (As Real Housewife of Beverly Hills favorite Lisa Rinna, once an official spokesperson for adult diapers, says, “I’ll do anything to make a buck.”) The A-list will always be mostly untouchable: “You don’t see a lot of the huge celebrities on there because they’re not going to take a half-hour of their time for a thousand bucks when they make $500 million a year,” Gagliese explains.
But Cameo has succeeded because it culls from the ever-growing caste of microcelebrities and nano-influencers like 90 Day Fiancé villain Larissa Dos Santos or TikToker Lauren Godwin, or, what a Medium profile of Cameo described as “the D-list.” Here, shamelessness is heralded as a virtue rather than a fault; that Cameo is seen as “the gig economy for niche celebs” is not exactly an issue.
The influencer economy at large has remained mostly stable throughout the pandemic, too. “Through this climate of unexpected events like Covid, like Black Lives Matter, I think it shows you the power of authentic digital content is relevant to consumers,” says Qianna Smith Bruneteau of the American Influencer Council, the new (and first) trade organization for digital creators.
Today, endless sponsored posts on famous people’s Instagrams have blurred the line between influencer and celebrity, and as more influencers rise in status, more celebrities start looking like professional endorsers. It’s why distinguished (literally) actors like Sir Anthony Hopkins and Dame Judi Dench are joining TikTok and Will Smith and Naomi Campbell are becoming vloggers; social media flattens our ability to separate celebrities into tiers.
The top talent on Cameo — your Mandy Moores, your Sarah Jessica Parkers — often view Cameo as a way to give back to fans. Scrolling through, many famous faces tout the causes they’re participating for. According to Leopold, however, only about 1 percent of Cameo talent donate their fees to charity.
The pandemic has only made the distinctions between celebrity and influencers muddier. There are now more famous people than ever before in history, and a current conversation in these spaces is: What are they all for?
On June 16, writer and podcaster Akilah Hughes tweeted a video with the message, “If you’re an influencer and you are on the beach right now and posting pictures of that and ignoring Black Lives Matter and the moment this country is in, you’re not an influencer, you’re a salesperson for brands.” Cameo lays this dichotomy bare by asking what celebrities are willing to do for money. A hilarious Jezebel investigation into whether famous people would say things like “tax the rich” and “join the DSA, comrades” showed that for many celebrities, questions like “What am I actually doing here?” aren’t exactly top of mind.
“Creators are in a legitimacy crisis from public perception,” Bruneteau says. “Brands one hundred percent understand the value of creators, but the public sees people taking selfies, going to events and getting free products, and they think that this is not a real job.”
Organizations like the AIC are attempting to change that perception and help people understand that to be an influencer often means essentially running a small business where the product is oneself. That influencer marketing is thriving and growing rapidly — a 2019 poll conducted by Lego showed that one-third of children ages 8 to 12 aspired to be a vlogger — isn’t up for debate. But the idea of an influencer’s job as exclusively “product endorser” isn’t a world anyone wants to live in.
Is there another way? What will the future of sponsored content look like? Bruneteau hopes the answer lies in education, as some colleges are now offering programs on digital marketing and content creation. Gagliese sees the exploding influencer economy as a necessary replacement for the old models. “Influencer marketing is a really great frontrunner in the diversity of marketing space,” he says.
“What I think Covid did was speed up the deterioration of classic media. You look at TV campaigns and traditional advertising, they were on their way out. We sped that process of light years, so now you have all these brands who are like, ‘Well, I have all this money that I was going to spend at X or Y places, but now where am I going to put it? I think there’s going to be a big move of marketing dollars into the influencer space.”
The obvious question, though: Doesn’t Ice-T have virtually unlimited dollars from his wildly successful syndicated network television drama? Does he need the $2,500 it pays to promote Colorado real estate agents?
I received a reply from Ice-T’s email that, unfortunately, “Ice is going to pass” on answering my questions. None of the celebrities I reached out to were willing to sit for an interview, but via a publicist, Floyd Mayweather told me, “I like to go through the requests and choose which products and services I can just speak into without reading a script. So, to me my business shout outs have to be organic, and I need to either love it or want to learn more.”
Though the company has yet to seriously push its latest offering, COO Arthur Leopold says they’ve had “hundreds of requests” from businesses in its first week and about 1,500 celebrities and influencers have opted in (prices for Promotional Cameos are about five to ten times higher than their normal rates).
The move for Cameo was a natural one: “We started to see a bunch of mom-and-pop type companies booking Cameos to promote their car dealership or whatnot, which we thought was great,” he says. “Some talent were willing to do those, and a lot of talent weren’t. We realized that there was an opportunity to create a marketplace that democratizes access to celebrities in such an easy way.” Prices vary widely; while a regular Cameo from Ice-T will cost you $350, one from recurring Seinfeld guest Fred Stoller is just $20.
Is it legal? Traditional celebrity endorsements involve layers of coordination between managers, agents, brands, and lawyers, not to mention the cost of all of these things on top of the actual celebrity’s fee. The FTC, meanwhile, has repeatedly enforced its guidelines on proper sponsored content labeling, though regulations are up for review for the first time in a decade this year.
The rules don’t apply, however, when the celebrity doing the endorsing doesn’t post the video to their own social channels. Cameo technically owns each video, which customers are buying the rights to license. What happens if, say, a pizza restaurant hires Brett Favre to say how great their pizza is, and then it turns out the pizza gets a bunch of people sick with E. coli? “We can take down a Cameo if it’s being used nefariously or if the talent is uncomfortable with it,” Leopold says. “But in 1.2 million Cameos, I think we’ve taken down about four or five.”
Promotional Cameos are a rather hilariously on-the-nose example of the transactional nature of stereotypical influencerhood, which is why I imagine it will be successful. Personally, I look forward to seeing former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich or Tomi Lahren shill for a car dealership in Missouri. If this is the future of influence, at least we’ll get to laugh.