In October 2020, someone—or something—slid into Nicole Blair’s Instagram DMs.
“We would love to collaborate with you as an ambassador,” read the message sent by Made With Melanin, a company selling T-shirts, jewelry, and key chains emblazoned with phrases like “Black Lives Matter.” “We would love to share a discount with you for everything on the site.”
Many Instagram users have grown accustomed to receiving such messages. Oftentimes, the missive is sent not by a person but by a bot aiming to convince an eager user to buy cheap product up front and promote the brand on her own channels later. The request hinges on a desire to commodify our social-media reach, to seem influential, and, perhaps, to align with a company that shares our values.
Over the past few years, amid a national push for social justice and racial equality, brands with rah-rah messaging have sprung up all over social media, selling slogan-covered products promoting and claiming to support causes that many young socially and politically active customers care about. Like the classic multilevel marketing scheme, these companies depend on ambassadors to spread the good word. Unlike one, reps are not always buying and reselling product; instead, they use their own social capital to help the brand increase its follower count and, thus, sales, with the hope of getting reposted. Boost your own following while supporting a good cause and demonstrating your enlightened political views? Who wouldn’t want in?
Blair wanted in. With hundreds of thousands of followers, Made With Melanin seemed legit. Its grid was filled with images of Black women, fists raised or smiling proudly in T-shirts that read “Black Girl Magic.” Purchases ostensibly gave back: “At Made With Melanin, we are the [sic] beyond blessed to be able to support the Black Lives Matter movement,” its home page claimed ungrammatically. Blair, a 19-year-old Black woman, was thrilled to be asked to be an ambassador for an ally brand. She followed the instructions Made With Melanin sent her and used a 30 percent discount code to purchase a necklace and a T-shirt. The brand messaged her (smiley face included) to post photos in her swag; in return, it might tag her.
Weeks passed. Blair didn’t receive any tracking info or an anticipated delivery date. Months later—still no package. “I DM’ed the Instagram account and I didn’t get a response,” Blair says. She asked for a tracking number over email but didn’t get one. When her package finally arrived, the materials felt cheap, the size of her shirt was wrong, and the design didn’t match the advertised photos. The products were so off, she threw them away. In frustration, she turned to the Internet to see if other people had complaints.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB), a nonprofit that tracks grievances about American businesses, was littered with warnings about the brand; reviews were grim. Blair’s search led her to YouTube, where she watched Kimberly Renee, a 38-year-old entrepreneur, unveil the findings of her own investigation. Renee and her friend had messaged Made With Melanin to find out if it was Black-owned and where it donated. “Being a Black woman business owner and watching someone use the stock image of a Black woman to suggest Black ownership—and take advantage of a moment that me and my ancestors have waited centuries for—makes me want to throw up,” Renee says.
Renee’s initial inquiry was met with an auto reply encouraging her to become a brand ambassador. Suspicious, she started digging. Made With Melanin’s website listed a North Chatham, Massachusetts, PO Box address for returns. She Googled the address and found that multiple e-commerce sites had recently used it. That’s when Renee realized this might be bigger than one rogue account. All of the companies were eerily similar: They sell low-quality merchandise (like flimsy bracelets and thin tees, some of which never arrives or arrives late, according to disgruntled customer reviews), recruit young brand ambassadors, proclaim a social mission, and tout their support for aligned organizations. There was Backed by Nature, which claims that “each purchase plants a tree” (address listed on the website: 123 Fake St., Toronto, Canada); the Love Bracelet, which purports that jewelry sales will help end domestic violence (alarmingly, the fine print on its website states, “[We] are not responsible if information made available on this site is not accurate, complete, or current”); the Buddy Bandana and Made by Meow, both of which insist they support animal shelters (the latter says it donates to “Best Friend’s Organization,” an apparent misidentification of nonprofit Best Friends Animal Society); and Her Team, which has 621,000 Instagram followers and advertises support for “women’s empowerment.”
It’s a pyramid scheme of promotion.
By the time Marie Claire began reporting, three months after Renee’s first video, Made With Melanin had changed its address for returns to a private mailbox in Boston. This one has also been used recently by Her Team and additional nearly identical sites, including the ecofocused Friendly Cup, which (nonspecifically) “prides itself on giving back”; Tht [sic] Sounds Gay, a brand that says it supports the LGBTQ+ movement; and Education Inspiration, which helps kids around the world who need “educational support,” full stop. (Shortly after Marie Claire ordered from Education Inspiration, the website shut down. Still waiting on that package.) The Friendly Cup even erroneously lists the Love Bracelet in its refund policy (with no acknowledgment of a connection). Meanwhile, the Buddy Bandana, Made by Meow, and the Friendly Cup have all been linked to the same North Reading, Massachusetts, PO Box.
While some of the brands are vague about if and how much they donate and where, making it difficult to confirm authenticity, Education Inspiration’s website had declared a relationship with UNICEF and Build a School Foundation Inc. Neither UNICEF USA nor Build a School says it has a record of ever receiving donations from Education Inspiration. Backed by Nature doesn’t share how purchases plant trees, but on Facebook an apparent brand ambassador links it to the NGO One Tree Planted; One Tree Planted told us it had previously asked Backed by Nature to stop using its name. (It is possible that any of the brands donated anonymously or via another name.)
Some of the brands did follow through with their professed charity. For example: Her Team advertises donations to “a wide variety of organizations” and says that “a portion of every sales [sic]” helps women; Marie Claire was able to confirm two donations to one group, the gender-equality nonprofit Global Fund for Women, though a spokesperson shared that Her Team’s usage of its logo on social media is in violation of its policy. One animal shelter provided statements proving donations from Made by Meow; it’s unclear what percentage of the company’s profits that accounts for. We did verify donations by the Buddy Bandana to shelters; the biggest it touts is $14,000 to the Animal Hope and Wellness Foundation. AHWF confirms it has received donations, but it has faced its own scrutiny. A representative from Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation can confirm one donation of $1,076 from Made With Melanin, dated after Renee posted her video.
Marie Claire reached out to all of the companies multiple times to inquire about ownership, donations, and more. We heard back from only three. None addressed all of our questions, and all stopped responding. The Buddy Bandana denied any connection to the other brands. Her Team also refutes any affiliations—yet it shares a merchant recipient with Tht Sounds Gay and a similar former Instagram name with Made With Melanin (Boss Babes Co). A woman named “Stacey” from Made With Melanin told us the brand shut down because of “harassment and misinformation from reporters, journalists, and others on the Internet.” The Backed by Nature and Friendly Cup websites shut down days after we reached out. The websites for Tht Sounds Gay, Her Team, the Buddy Bandana, and Made by Meow soon followed. At press time, the reason was unknown. It’s also not known if the shutdowns are permanent or if any of the brands will emerge with new names or Instagram handles.
Bots were answering Renee’s messages, but someone had to be behind this social-justice cottage industry. In sleuthing through the companies’ domain names and addresses, Renee connected some of the dots back to two 20-something men in New England. Our reporting found that the first man’s marketing agency shares a PO Box with Backed by Nature, and the address on his LLC filing matches the merchant payment address for Education Inspiration. He did not reply to numerous requests for comment. The second man owns the trademark for the Buddy Bandana via his LLC, and payment to the brand matches the address on his LLC; Marie Claire reached out for comment, and he affirmed involvement with the Buddy Bandana and maintained the company is aboveboard and is not connected to the others. The merchant address for Her Team and Tht Sounds Gay is associated with a third man—who appears to be friends with the second, per social media. Notwithstanding the web of overlapping contact information, the existence, nature, and extent of the relationship between or among the brands and these three men is unclear.
Socially conscious ambassadors are literally buying into companies that they think support worthy causes. In many cases, brands are tokenizing—and monetizing—minorities or Good Samaritans. Blair might have gotten a few new followers if Made With Melanin had reposted her pics, but it wasn’t offering a paid role; worse, it could have jeopardized her social capital. When influencers endorse a company, it validates that brand to their followers. While victims might not be stuck with thousands of dollars’ worth of leggings, they are still a mouthpiece for a fishy brand. It’s a pyramid scheme of promotion.
But these sketchy brands can be difficult to take down; accounts change their handles and URLs in minutes, evading detection. At the time of writing, Made With Melanin had changed its website name to Black Magic Co and its Instagram handle to @OfficialBlackMagicCo. Katherine Hutt, a national spokesperson for the BBB, shares that a lot of brands “mask their identity.” Last fall, the BBB issued a “scam alert” about phony companies recruiting brand ambassadors on Instagram after it received more than 100 complaints. More users were likely misled: Many of the items sold are inexpensive, with fees too trivial (around $30) for most people—including law enforcement—to do anything about it.
As for the platforms hosting the fly-by-night sellers and their sales transactions? Instagram pointed us to tools that enable users to report suspicious accounts and its “About This Account” feature, which shows if a brand’s handle has changed. But it’s available only for accounts with a certain (undisclosed) number of followers. In a statement to Marie Claire, a Shopify spokesperson said, “We have multiple teams who handle potential violations of Shopify’s Acceptable Use Policy.” It forbids “deceptive commercial practices,” which could include claiming some proceeds are donated. The platforms can adopt stringent use policies, but ultimately they’re playing a game of Internet whack-a-mole. Outside of lodging complaints, users are left with two simple but strong tools: intuition and Google. “It’s crazy how often it happens,” says influencer Jermany Coney, 28. “If something seems off or too good to be true, it probably is.” Practice due diligence when shopping brands that “give back.” If you’re approached as an ambassador, check if the company works with an agency, like Coney does. It’s a matter of recommending only brands you trust—which is a solid influencer strategy anyway. And if it talks like a bot and answers questions like a bot (instantaneously but nonsensically), it’s probably a bot.
For now, Renee’s crusade against the brands continues. “I don’t want anyone else to have their money spent in a way that they did not intend to,” she says. “If someone still wants to support [these brands] after knowing who they are, then do it,” she says. Blair, for one, has changed the way she approaches brand-ambassador partnerships. We can’t say the same for the company that catfished her. In January, Official Black Magic Co (ahem, Made With Melanin) reached out. “Hey, I am from Black Magic, Happy New Year!” the DM read. “We are looking for brand ambassadors who support BLM. Please send us a message.” And then, like it’s done before, Black Magic disappeared.
This story appears in the April 2021 issue of Marie Claire. In the days between going to press and digital publication, several of the companies listed here changed their names and/or URLs.
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Instagram Is Rolling Out Reels Replies, And Will Be Testing A New Feature Which Informs …
Instagram has added a few more social features to the platform, with Reels Replies being rolled out. Along with the Replies, anew feature is being tested that shows when two users are active together in the same chat.
Reels has been performing much better than perhaps even Instagram ever anticipated. The TikTok-inspired new video format (which officially claims to have absolutely no relation to the former) had some trouble really finding its footing initially. However, Reels has grown massively and while it may not be a source of the most direct competition to TikTok, it is indeed a worthy alternative.
Reels has grown to the point that it has a massive creator program attached to it, and the video format has even been migrated to Facebook with the goal of generating further user interest there. Naturally, with such a successful virtual goldmine on its hands, Instagram has been hard at work developing new features and interface updates for Reels, integrating it more and more seamlessly into the rest of the social media platform. Features such as Reels Replies are a major part of such attempts at integration.
Reels Visual Replies are essentially just what they sound like: A Reel that is being used to reply to someone. It’s a feature that’s been seen frequently across TikTok as well. Reel Replies essentially take a user’s comments, and reply to them in video format. The comment will then show up within the Reel itself as a text-box, taking up some amount of space, and showing both the user who issued said comment along with the text. The text-box is apparently adjustable, with users having the ability to move it around and change its size depending on where it obstructs one’s Reel the least.
Overall, it’s a fun addition to the Reels format, even if the credit should be going to TikTok first. At any rate, it’s an example of Instagram really utilizing Reels’ social media capabilities, outside of just serving it up as a form of entertainment.
Speaking of social media capabilities, a new feature might help alleviate one of the most common frustrations encountered across all such platforms. Isn’t it annoying when you see that a friend’s online, but isn’t replying to your chat? Sure, they’ve probably just put their phone down to run a quick errand, but there’s no way for you to know, right? Well, there sort of is now! Instagram is beta testing a new feature via which if both users are active within a chat, the platform will display that accordingly. It’s a work-around, sure, and one that’s currently being tested for usefulness, but it’s still a very nice, and even fresh, addition to the social media game.
— Yash Joshi (@MeYashjoshi) December 10, 2021
5 apps for scheduling Instagram posts on iPhone and Android
Alright, we get it. You’re an Instagram Nostradamus.
You know exactly what you want to post and when you’re gonna want to post it. Maybe there’s a meme or comment you want to make that you know will be totally relevant for a future moment or event. Or it could be that you’re an influencer and you want to make sure you keep a steady stream of content coming, so you want to schedule posts for times when you know you won’t be active (or won’t have internet access).
You’ll be happy to know there are apps that are specialized for just such situations. So listen up, InstaNostradamuses…Instagrostra…Instadam…Insta…uh…you guys (we’ll workshop it. No we won’t. We’ll probably just abandon that effort completely. You’re welcome) — these are the Instagram-post-scheduling apps for you.
While all of the iPhone apps below are free to download, they all have some in-app purchases.
We’ll start with “official partner” of Instagram, itself, Planoly — an Instaplanner that uses a grid to let you plan, schedule, and publish posts (as well as Reels) on Instagram. The app also lets you see post metrics and analytics so you can make sure your post didn’t flop.
Credit: buffer / app store
Buffer is another Instagram post scheduler that helps you plan your posts and analyze feedback once they’re published. Use a calendar view to drag and drop posts into days/time slots for easy scheduling.
Credit: preview / app store
Preview offers typical post-scheduling tools and analytics along with a few helpful extras. Get caption ideas, recommendations for hashtags, and more.
Credit: content office / app store
An Instagram post scheduler with a visual boost, Content Office allows users to plan and schedule Instagram posts while learning “marketing and visual guides to grow your brand on Instagram.” Like aesthetics and using visuals to create cohesive themes? Maybe this is the Instaplanner for you.
Content Office is available for iOS on the Apple App Store.
Credit: plann / apple store
You’ll never guess what “Plann” lets you do…
Aside from scheduling posts, get content ideas and recommendations, as well as strategy tips to ensure you’re maximizing your Instagram engagement. Ever wonder when the best time to post something is? Plann can offer you some help with that.
Social networking websites launch features to encourage users to get boosters
From Friday, users will be able to update their profiles with frames or stickers to show that they have had their top-up jab or aim to when they become eligible.
It follows on from people previously being able to show they have had their first and second jabs on certain social networking websites and apps.
TikTok also held a “grab a jab” event in London earlier this year.
I urge everyone who is eligible – don’t delay, get your vaccine or top up jab today to protect yourself and your loved ones
More than 16 million booster vaccines have now been given across the UK.
People who are aged 40 and above and received their second dose of their vaccine at least six months ago are currently eligible to have their booster.
A new campaign advert is also being launched on Friday, which shows how Covid-19 can build up in enclosed spaces and how to prevent that from happening.
Vaccines minister Maggie Throup said: “Getting your booster is one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself and your family this winter.
“It is fantastic to see some of the biggest household names further back the phenomenal vaccine rollout, allowing their users to proudly display that they have played their part in helping us build a wall of defence across the country.
“I urge everyone who is eligible – don’t delay, get your vaccine or top-up jab today to protect yourself and your loved ones.”