Why the Internet Became Fixated on an Influencer Trip to Dubai

7 minute read

Last week, several influencers known for uploading makeup and lifestyle content began posting that they were heading to Dubai with Tarte Cosmetics for the launch of a new foundation product. They included TikTokers like Meredith Duxbury, a makeup influencer with over 16 million followers; Alix Earle, a relatively new influencer who recently gained popularity for her “get ready with me” content and has over 4 million followers; and Monet McMichael, a beauty and lifestyle blogger with over 2 million followers. As the creators started posting their travel vlogs on their way to Dubai, people began noticing they were sitting in business class. Once they got to their destination, they showed off their own personal villas at The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah and a wealth of beauty products, clothes, and gifts that awaited them.

Shortly into their trip, questions began to arise online. One of the first videos to call the trip into question was from a creator named Jack McGuire, which he uploaded last Thursday. In two separate videos, McGuire, who works for Barstool, attempted to poke holes in the trip’s feasibility. These videos and many others began circulating on the platform, gaining hundreds of thousands of views. Some followers on TikTok wondered how much money the extravagant trip cost the brand and whether Tarte paid the influencers in addition to travel, room, and board (its CEO later confirmed that they did not). Some took it upon themselves to “investigate” exactly how much money Tarte spent on the trip. Others shared their opinions about how the trip was “tone-deaf” as the United States is on the verge of a recession. All of the conversations, commentary, and questions surrounding this trip did exactly what the company set out to do: get people talking about their brand. The hashtag #TrippinWithTarte has over 140 million views, and #TarteDubaiTrip has over 20 million views.

Brand trips are not typically this widely discussed, especially back in the early days of YouTube. In fact, they were staples among the beauty and lifestyle vloggers who were invited by brands like Benefit to different destinations where they could create content while using the brand’s products. Even Tarte has done many similar brand trips in the past. But to social media users who were not deeply aware of the height of beauty and lifestyle YouTubers in the 2010s, these extravagant trips can feel off-putting and seemingly wasteful. For the brand, however, even the bad press may be paying off.

The trip inspires strong reactions, followed by explanations

Brands have understood, long before the influencer age, that traditional advertising is not the only way to promote their products; now, it’s hard to find a major brand that hasn’t partnered with an influencer or celebrity whose social media following can translate into dollars when they hawk their wares.

In the case of the Tarte trip, the makeup brand invited a group of 50 influencers and their plus ones from eight different countries around the world to join them in Dubai for the launch of their foundation. But rather than sheer excitement, one of the predominant reactions to the resulting content inspired was shock at the overwhelming extravagance of the trip. Fueling these reactions were, naturally, a lot of unchecked assumptions.

Some creators jumped in to dispel those assumptions. One TikTok creator who says she used to manage influencer trips, @jill_justine, uploaded a video in which she explains that in her experience, “these types of trips are a lot more affordable than you think.” In the video, she says that trips she organized included destinations like the Bahamas, Grand Cayman Islands, and Jamaica, where guests would stay in places like the Ritz-Carlton and go on various local excursions. “Most of the time, all of those things were free because we were partnering with the hotels, with the event, with the experience, because all of them are getting exposure as well,” the creator says.

The brand also got exposure from the creators without having to pay them per post. Someone like Earle, who is estimated to charge anywhere between $40,000 to $70,000 per brand-sponsored post, uploaded 15 posts from her trip. Maureen Kelly, the founder and CEO of Tarte, spoke exclusively with Glossy and confirmed the brand did not pay the content creators in addition to the trip, nor did they have any requirements for posting. Some noted that the creators who went were not creating content solely with Tarte products, which has been customary for other brand trips in the past.

Kelly also spoke about the perceived controversy surrounding the trip and countered many of the rumors that loomed over the trip. She first explained that Tarte has long “prioritized their marketing budget into building relationships with influencers.” Although she declined to share the total amount spent on the trip, she confirmed the brand partnered with Sephora Middle East. Glossy writes that the rooms are “filled with gifts from other like-minded brands, many of which Tarte has now partnered with for years.” As for the flight, whose expense had become a focal point after McGuire estimated that it would cost upwards of $22,000 per ticket for each influencer and their plus one, she argued that these influencers were putting their lives on pause to get on a 14-hour flight, so they wanted to “make this as seamless and pleasant [an] experience for everyone.”

The evolving optics of the extravagant influencer trip

A common feeling among influencers’ critics is that they make too much money or are afforded opportunities by doing little to no work, deeming them unworthy of the perks they receive. On the surface, it seems like an easy job to be an influencer. But while it’s certainly not hard labor, there’s still plenty of work that goes into creating content—coming up with original ideas, filming, editing, brand deals, travel, and more. This Tarte trip to Dubai is yet another example of that feeling manifesting online.

There was also the question of the optics of the ostentatious trip. Kelly did not address criticism over tone-deafness during the interview. But the Tarte trip is hardly doing anything unique here when it comes to lavishness—beauty and lifestyle YouTubers like Emma Chamberlain have gone on brand trips with cosmetic or beauty brands in the past. Now, though, in the age of TikTok, and following an uptick in the app’s popularity during the pandemic, the concept is new to many users who did grow up watching these influencers. For years, it was expected that influencers would live a certain lifestyle and receive certain once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to make content out of them. But as that style of content creation has spilled over to TikTok, it’s facing more criticism with a more politically and socially aware Gen Z audience, prompting conversations and controversy.

In the end, though, even if the optics of trips like Tarte’s Dubai experience are becoming strained, the attention this trip received suggests that we’re not quite finished with them yet. Both the brand and the influencers got exactly what they wanted—for people to talk about them.

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Write to Moises Mendez II at moises.mendez@time.com