Influencers Get Access to Actors Union as the Internet Gains on TV Advertising

Sarah Favot

Favot is an award-winning journalist and adjunct instructor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She previously was an investigative and data reporter at national education news site The 74 and local news site LA School Report. She's also worked at the Los Angeles Daily News. She was a Livingston Award finalist in 2011 and holds a Master's degree in journalism from Boston University and BA from the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.

Influencers Get Access to Actors Union as the Internet Gains on TV Advertising

Influencers paid to promote everything from Gucci to Dunkin' Donuts on TikTok, YouTube and other social media platforms could have union protections under a new agreement reached over the weekend with SAG-AFTRA.

The move from the union, which already represents 160,000 artists and media professionals, folds in artists from the multi-billion-dollar, social media-based influencer industry that has been eroding the power of television commercials and their stars.

The Screen Actors Guild-American Federal of Television and Radio Artists approved the agreement at its board meeting over the weekend, deeming "influencer-generated branded content" a type of advertising. The ads must have a video or audio element to fall under the pact, Backstage reported.

It's unclear just what the impact will be across the industry, where the line between influencer and celebrity has been blurred as celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston promote beauty products to her 36.2 million followers on Instagram to so-called "micro influencers" like fashion influencer Tonya Smith, who has 145,000 followers.

The agreement gives the union a line into a booming new world of advertising. Talent agencies have already picked up influencers they hope will go big. Major studios including Netflix have scouted actors for shows such as "Haters Back Off," which features YouTuber Colleen Ballinger. Brands are set to spend up to $15 billion on influencer marketing by 2022, according to a report from Mediakix.

The protections provide health and pension benefits and earn union income.

"Making it easier to cover this type of work has been a top priority for our organization. I want to commend the efforts of our staff in creating an agreement that will benefit SAG-AFTRA's current members as well as allowing all creators an opportunity to join the union. As new ways of storytelling emerge, it's imperative that we embrace and lift up these artists," SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris said in a news release.

The SAG AFTRA building on L.A.'s Wilshire Boulevard.

YouTubers had been covered by the union. The new agreement extends eligibility to influencers on all social media platforms, including Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and Twitch.

Influencers must also be incorporated and have a contractual agreement with an advertiser to promote products on its behalf, according to Backstage. There is no mandated contract minimum.

The growing social media marketing economy relies on individual contracts with top influencers like teen TikToker Charli D'Amelio, who earned at least $4 million in 2020, according to Forbes. Lesser-known influencers may receive free products or trips in exchange for posting videos on Instagram or other platforms.

Social media allows companies to target specific audiences with more precision than a television or radio commercial. As a result, the number of online influencers compensated to peddle products has shot up.

Backstage reported that there had been three and a half years of research and discussion within SAG-AFTRA about whether to admit influencers after several instances in which the union was approached by individuals for guidance as they negotiated contracts.

The union said more details will be forthcoming.

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David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

A Fisker electric vehicle.​
Courtesy of Fisker

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