Our project entitled “What is Beautiful is Trustworthy: The Deceptive Role of Attractiveness in Influencer Marketing” by Sara Alida Volkmer and Martin Meißner will be presented at the 29th Annual Conference of the Society for Risk Analysis – Europe in June 2021.
What is this research project about?
Social media platforms have become an integral part of everyday life leading to impactful changes in society: Users can benefit from building and maintaining social relationships with others online. Individuals who grow exceptionally large networks can establish themselves as professional influencers. They provide entertainment and information to other users; however, not without risks for their followers. Since social media platforms such as Instagram are built around images and videos, visual cues can have strong effects on follower behavior. For example, social media users may see an attractive influencer and mistake her as a credible source of information using attractiveness as a cue for expertise – an effect that could be especially prevalent in the health influencer context due to its focus on looking fit and healthy, changing the “what is beautiful is good”-bias to “what is beautiful is trustworthy”. Naturally, this bias can have negative consequences for consumers: They may purchase products promoted by attractive but non-expert influencers and risk wasting money or even potentially damaging their health.
The present study investigates consumer risk resulting from social media users’ tendency to use attractiveness as a cue for expertise. We utilize an experimental design that tests the effects of attractiveness (low versus high) and expertise (low versus high versus pretended high) of an Instagram influencer selling a dietary supplement on source credibility. Downstream consequences on consumer behavior (electronic Word-of-Mouth intentions, purchase intentions, and product attractiveness) are also examined. We predict that high influencer attractiveness as well as pretended and high expertise increase the influencer’s perceived credibility. As will be further discussed, the use of attractiveness as an expertise cue, however, implies substantial physical, psychological, and financial risks for social media users.
This study contributes to a better understanding of risk dimensions related to social media endorser’s credibility in a health context. In particular, we address the risk of consumers following questionable advice from influencers due to the “what is beautiful is trustworthy”-bias. We argue that consumers should be informed about the risk of conflating attractiveness with expertise which may be especially prevalent on aesthetics-focused social media platforms. Additionally, we test the risk that consumers mistake influencers who use non-protected terms that suggest an expert-status (e.g., nutritionist) as true experts (e.g., dietitian). Finally, to address such risks, existing social media policies should be expanded and force social media platforms to add a certification system for health influencers.