“Welcome to Fyre Festival. Two transformative weekends. An immersive music festival. On a remote and private island in the Exumas. The best in food, art, music and adventure. Once owned by Pablo Escobar. On the boundaries of impossible. Fyre is an experience and a festival. A quest to push beyond those boundaries” (NETFLIX). This is the script to a 2-minute promo video that set fire in 2017 to what may be the biggest scam of our generation. Fyre Festival was claimed to be the next Coachella, but in the Bahamas. Social media was swarming with this one particular ad, but little did anyone know it would turn out to be just a glimpse of what people are calling, “the greatest party that never happened (NETFLIX). Guests were promised a luxurious 3-day weekend surrounded by beautiful models like Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner, access to private planes, jet skis, and yachts, an exotic cuisine unlike anything they’ve ever had, and an exclusivity to premiere musical talent.
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Twenty-five year old entrepreneur, Billy McFarland and famous rapper, Ja Rule were the main organizers behind this fantasy of an event. The festival’s mastermind, Billy McFarland is now serving 6 years in federal prison for various fraud charges relating to Fyre Media. The following statement was made in a recent article from The New York Times, “McFarland may be the one in prison for fraud, but the most fascinating thing about Fyre was how deep the scam reached” (Hess). Social media influencers have recently been brought into spotlight concerning their image as perpetrators of irresponsible marketing and the defrauding of their fans.
On April 27th, reality hit social media as the first festival-goers arrived at the sight of rain-soaked refugee tents in an undeveloped lot steps away from a Sandals Resort, stranded without adequate food, water, or shelter. Thousands of attendees had already arrived before Billy McFarland and cofounder Ja Rule had officially cancelled Fyre Festival, despite knowing long beforehand that the event was “dangerously under equipped and posed a serious danger to anyone in attendance” (Wang). The music festival was to take place over two “transformative” weekends in April and May of 2017, but panned out to be a disastrous 2-day event that was “much closer to ‘The Hunger Games’ or ‘Lord of The Flies’ than Coachella” (Wang). What is estimated at about 7,000 guests paid anywhere from $l,000 for the lowest priced tickets, and up to $250,000 for the most exclusive package available. Kanye West’s music label had artists on lineup including Tyga, Migos, and Lil Yachty, verified by Kendall Jenner in one of her posts leading up to the event. The luxurious villa-styled beach homes that were pictured on the company’s site were nowhere to be found, and “the best in food” referred to the infamous cheese sandwich that went viral on twitter. An island of young millennials turned immediately to social media to broadcast the events as they unfolded, across the same platforms that were used only days before by verified social media “influencers” to promote the wonder of the event (Hutchinson).
Recent talk of the scam reveals that disaster found sight of the festival months before festival-goers were expected to arrive. A local islander who was much involved in the set up of the festival told interviewers that he knew Billy McFarland was in over his head from the beginning. It was only 3 months prior to the festival and Billy did not have any of the logistics of the festival figured out prior to launching the promo video, which was in reality only a vision at the time (NETFLIX). The months leading up to the festival were discovered to have been spent partying on the island with Fyre Festival organizers, led mainly by Billy and Ja Rule (HULU). If this information would have reached as many as the promo video did, Fyre Festival would have never happened. McFarland was arrested and charged with fraud in June of 2017, yet while he was out on bail, he created another fraudulent company that offered “exclusive” tickets to events like the Victoria’s Secret Fashion show, which you are unable to buy tickets for in the first place. As you can probably guess, those tickets never existed. McFarland pleaded guilty to two accounts of wire fraud that led prosecutors to conclude that he cost investors $26 million in losses. The judge who pronounced his sentence said “The defendant is a serial fraudster and to date his fraud, like a circle, has no end, Mr. McFarland has been dishonest most of his life.”
Social media today is predominantly concerned with influence, which I can say through personal experience and with reputable sources to back me up. Davis Richardson wrote in his article about the festival, “Influencer marketing has long occupied a gray area of online advertising.” The author made clear that some of the blame belongs with the celebrity influencers who promoted the event without first investigating its legitimacy (Richardson). The festival was marketed by Jerry Media, an advertising company that is well-known across social media for their extremely popular instagram account called @fuckjerry, which has over 14 million followers. A former Jerry Media employee revealed during the Hulu documentary, “Fyre Fraud” that the company was complicit in the fraud, knowingly promoting the event despite their insider knowledge of how the festival was going to pan out. In the Netflix documentary, the CEO of Jerry Media actually stated that the event was “over-advertised”, but weren’t they the ones advertising it?
Not only is the advertising company itself being blamed for its part in the scam, hundreds of social media influencers are under fire as well for their role in promoting the festival. An article written a week before the event took place revealed their insight on the scam they saw coming, “Plenty of hopeful festival organizers want to convince wealthy millennials to dole out their (parent’s) money for the chance to improve their Instagram game, with less of a focus on the actual artists playing and more on partying on the beach in bikinis” (Abrams). There were predictions from several different sources claiming that the event would be “”complete chaos, with the headliners canceling after week one, forthcoming tent issues and no refunds issued” (Abrams). Yet hundreds of verified instagram accounts promoted the event as a luxurious music festival, which gave millennials all the validity they needed to drop thousands of dollars on a “once in a lifetime” experience.
Fyre Festival organizers managed to pull off one of the most eye-popping social media campaigns that’s ever come to instagram. The slick promotional video was not the only strategy they used to lure 5,000 guests to a remote island in the Bahamas. On December 12th, 2016, McFarland’s team of influencers all simultaneously posted a mysterious orange square. Clicking it started the promotional video that captured everyone’s attention and quickly put the festival on the map. During the Netflix documentary “Fyre”, Billy McFarland revealed his expectations of the promotion, “We have what will be known as the best coordinated social influencer campaign ever. We have 400 of the biggest people around the world, influencers, models, comedians, artists, actors, actresses, all at the same time posting the ambiguous burnt orange Fyre tile.”
Kendall Jenner was reportedly paid $250,000 by wire transfer for just this one post. And with no surprise, 95% of Fyre Festival tickets were sold within 48 hours of launching this campaign (NETFLIX). Overnight, Fyre Festival became one of the greatest modern scams we have ever seen, and this scam was not played out by some big con-artist. Billy McFarland was the farthest from it. The scam of Fyre Festival did not reveal a secret method to advertising, instead it highlighted the questionable actions of celebrities that promoted the event. Influencer marketing is different from traditional advertising, the perpetrators of influencer marketing have the ability to shape all facets of popular culture. And through this, celebrities have now become marketing machines. The concept of social media influencers and their role as scam artists has been perfectly exemplified in the fraudulent acts played out by Fyre Festival.
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