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TikTokers on Tarte Cosmetics’ Latest Excursion Pulled Back the Curtain on Influencer Brand Trips

13 minute read

If you were one of the lucky influencers invited to makeup company Tarte’s latest brand trip, like TikTok “it-girl” Alix Earle, you’d be staying at a luxurious estate in Turks and Caicos that once belonged to Prince, receiving makeup goodies, and eating meals prepared just in time to satisfy your post-jet skiing hunger pangs. Your fees, accommodations, and schedule would be handled; all you’d have to do is post some Tarte-related content to your hundreds of thousands, or in Earle’s case millions, of followers.

For years, cosmetic brands have been sending makeup content creators on lavish trips to six-figure villas and exclusive beaches with the chance to try out unreleased products, as part of a larger trend of companies using influencers in their marketing campaigns. The exchange is mutually beneficial: brands get millions of eyeballs on their products and an influencer and their plus-one get a first-class trip to pricey resorts alongside influential peers. To people sitting at home scrolling TikTok, it may seem like all is well in paradise. But participants historically avoided sharing any negative aspects of the experience. Now, these “privileged” invites are undergoing a shift as TikTokers, who have recently popularized de-influencing trends and begun speaking more candidly about events like Coachella, have begun to do the same for brand trips. Their videos under the hashtags #influencertrip and #brandtrip, with over 100 million cumulative views, offer information on “what it’s really like to be on a brand trip” from the decor of the rooms to how they shoot content to how contracts work.

Nothing illustrates this change as starkly as this year’s Tarte Cosmetics brand trips. Earlier this year, Tarte invited a group of creators to Dubai, only for the trip to receive criticism online for being a “tone-deaf” display of luxury during a challenging time economically. Despite the backlash, the brand has remained committed to bringing influencers on trips to promote their new products. Their trips earlier this month, to Turks and Caicos and the F1 Grand Prix in Miami, both featured their own dramas. Most notably, some creators who are women of color felt they were not getting the same treatment as other, mostly white creators invited on the trips.

The fallout from the drama began to play out almost like a reality television show online, with social media users clamoring for updates arguably more than they were paying attention to the new products or hues. All of this has raised questions around the trade-off, for brands, of funding these trips when the resulting publicity may be less than positive.

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To understand this shifting landscape, it helps to break down just what happened on those Tarte trips, and how their aftermath could indicate a more significant shift in how brands and creators approach these excursions.

A Tale of Tarte and TikTok

Tarte has been inviting creators on brand trips for more than a decade. Tarte CEO Maureen Kelly told Digiday media outlet Glossy earlier this year that Tarte has “never done traditional advertising” and instead chooses “to invest in building relationships” with its influencer brand trips. But the attitude toward these trips has been increasingly skeptical in a post-COVID-lockdown world with the threat of a recession looming. Given the trips’ high price tags, there has been an expectation that influencers should promote the products more—a major criticism during the Tarte Dubai trip. If they post content unrelated to the sponsored company, it gives the impression that these creators are taking advantage of a free trip. But the Tarte team has faced increasingly harsh blowback, for a different set of reasons, for their Turks and Caicos and Miami trips.

The central drama that came out of a two-weekend Turks and Caicos trip was the issue of room size after creators began posting their customary “room tour” videos. Cynthia Victor, a South Asian creator known as @ShawtySin on TikTok, uploaded her room tour video and added the caption, “They [gave] me the smallest room, but I’m just happy to be here.” Victor, who was asked to stay for one weekend while some of her peers were invited for two, felt that she got “the short end of the stick” as a creator of color.

Victor got different answers from Tarte about the reasoning behind the room assignments. She then uploaded two videos to TikTok to call out Tarte, urging them to invite a more diverse set of creators in the future. According to data provided by Tarte, 41% of the creators on the Turks and Caicos trip were BIPOC creators, and within that 19% were Black. By comparison, 7% of creators sent to their Dubai trip in January were Black. A Tarte representative tells TIME that of the nine large rooms available on the trip, nearly half of them were assigned to BIPOC creators. None of the four smallest room options were occupied by a BIPOC creator and most of the creators assigned to those rooms had over 2 million followers. Victor, who has 1.7 million followers, was assigned a medium-sized room. On Tarte’s weekend-two trip, the creator with the most followers also stayed in a medium-sized room similar to Victor’s.

Sam Kitain, CMO at tarte cosmetics, wrote an emailed statement to TIME explaining that the “team coordinates room assignments in advance based on check-in/check-out, timing and plus 1’s.”

More Trouble in Miami

The drama continued when the makeup company invited a group of creators to attend the F1 Grand Prix race in Miami. One of the invitees, Bria Jones, a creator with over 460,000 followers, uploaded a teary-eyed video on TikTok saying that she was going to pull out because “even before getting to this trip, [she] was realizing that [she wasn’t] going to be treated like everyone else there.” Jones explained that she was invited to Miami for the warm-up races, while her peers were invited to stay through the day of the race. “I have more integrity than to get all the way to Miami and realize that I’m being treated like a second-tier person or like I’m being ranked,” Jones said in a now-deleted TikTok video to nearly half a million followers. (Three out of the seven influencers Tarte sent to the May 7 race day were creators of color; all seven creators had over 1 million followers.)

Jones declined to comment for this story. However, shortly after the trip she uploaded a video addressing what she called “miscommunication on both ends” with a caption that included, “The situation with Tarte has been resolved, and all parties are glad to be moving forward positively.”

The flames of controversy were further stoked after Fannita Leggett, a comedy creator, was invited to the trip at the last minute, seemingly after Jones pulled out. A creator Leggett was spending time with at the event named Niké Ojekunle (@specsandblazers) called herself the “Harriet Tubman of influencing” and said Jones “pulled a Jussie Smollett,” implying that she was lying about being discriminated by Tarte. Leggett responded with her own since-deleted video but felt that despite having little to do with the drama, she was being unfairly scrutinized for being a dark-skinned, fat Black woman.

“Fannita has no further comment on the matter,” a representative for Leggett tells TIME in an emailed statement. “[She] has moved on to focus on herself, her business, and new partnerships.”

Tarte initially agreed to have TIME interview Kelly for the story. Minutes before the scheduled call, however, the Tarte team canceled the interview. “The recent stories around Tarte brand trips have taken an ugly turn, and we don’t want to make the situation worse for any creators,” explained a representative. Instead, they sent a statement in which Kelly took full responsibility for the controversies on these trips. “A recent incident with our company has highlighted a serious issue affecting many creators and influencers, especially those from underrepresented groups,” the statement said. She also took responsibility for both situations in a now-deleted TikTok video, in which she talked about the complaints that Victor and Jones raised.

Viewers did not receive Kelly’s video well, and they filled the comments section with negative comments. “Y’all been making these same missteps for a decade,” @PabloTheDon commented. “[At this point], this is who Tarte is, and it starts with you and trickles down that [very] white staff.” Kelly has been Tarte’s CEO since 1999, but since 2022 she’s had more of a forward-facing presence, including launching her own TikTok page. Kelly later uploaded a since-deleted apology video in which she said the initial TikTok was “meant to be informative and conversational,” but it “missed the mark completely.”

Before the TikTokers Were the YouTubers

Brand trips rose to popularity on YouTube, long before the pandemic-fueled growth of TikTok. Over a decade ago, makeup brands like Tarte, ColourPop, and Benefit Cosmetics began inviting popular beauty YouTubers in exchange for content featuring their makeup collections. A viral tweet with nearly 65,000 likes from earlier this year reinforces this history: “I forget not everyone was entrenched in beauty YouTube from 2011 to 2018 because half of TikTok is learning what a brand trip is and how it works for the first time.”

During those early years, YouTubers usually refrained from disclosing any downsides of these exclusive trips. However, last September, “OG” makeup influencers Laura Lee and Manuel Gutierrez, better known online as Manny Mua, who started their YouTube channels in 2013 and 2014, respectively, decided to break the YouTube norm and speak candidly about what the brand trips are really like. They revealed that brands would often send extravagant gifts like drones and designer shoes to their hotel rooms, as an extra bonus to potentially sway influencers to be in more in favor of their brand. (They’ve been to several destinations, including Fiji with Smashbox; Hawaii with Benefit Cosmetics; Morocco with YSL Beauty.)

Catalina Goanta, an associate professor at Utrecht University whose research focuses on social media influencers and influencer marketing, tells TIME that the landscape looks different than when Lee and Gutierrez got their start. “TikTok has completely changed the game because people no longer look at overly curated pages being the goal, but [instead] more of an authentic experience,” she says. With the vast proliferation of lifestyle content, as one-time beauty influencers like Lee and Gutierrez broaden out from solely covering beauty, longer-form content like podcasts, and the rise of TikTokers, the internet now rewards relatability and honesty over unachievable aspirational content.

According to Lee and Gutierrez, the trips are not as glamorous or relaxing as the vacations may seem. “It’s not a vacation. It’s a work trip,” says Gutierrez on their Fool Coverage podcast. And while posting products seems like a simple ask, it’s important for influencers to recognize the power of using their platform to endorse a product. “Our business is our socials, so when we are posting a product like this that’s using our name to promote this one product,” says Gutierrez. Lee continues, “You have to look at social media as not a fun or side thing. It is our actual business and our job. We have to be very careful of it and protective of what we post.”

The Future of the Brand Trip

All these dynamics beg the question of whether these free trips are still worthwhile, for both creators and businesses. Mega influencers with large followings could avoid the hassle and, instead, use their fee from a single sponsored post, which can bring in upwards of $10,000, to fund a luxury trip not bogged down by work obligations.

Despite this, most influencers with the highest follower counts still attend these trips, due to the perhaps unquantifiable value of their social, networking, and visibility elements. This includes Lee, who, despite the downsides she pointed out on her podcast, recently went to Coachella with clothing brand White Fox and Ibiza with skincare brand OLEHENRIKSEN.

For brands like Tarte, Goanta believes it’s likely they’ll continue to invest in these trips, but with a greater awareness that the trend in more transparent content may lead to more drama-filled exposés. “It’s a marketing tool that is very risky,” she says. “You’re at the mercy of the influencers, their stories, and their choice to say something about what’s happening.”

Goanta also says there are legal concerns around the lack of advertisement transparency, as influencers rarely include “ad” or “partner” tags in their brand trip content or from their freebies. However, she predicts that “brands are going to keep finding ways to avoid disclosing the veil of advertising, especially in the age of authenticity, instead of going towards what should, from a regulatory perspective, be transparency.”

But as newer creators join the ecosystem, the expectation for greater inclusion and transparency is being demanded of brands like Tarte. If brands fail to address these issues, it’s to be expected that another TikToker like Victor will be vocalizing their concerns to their followers eager to listen.

In the statement Tarte sent TIME on behalf of Kelly, the company laid out a set of steps that the brand will take after the recent string of controversies. The team vowed to “review [its] creator program to ensure that it is inclusive and equitable.” The brand will also “take immediate action whenever [it] finds inequalities or errors within [its] programs” on top of “fostering a culture of trust and transparency,” starting a creator advisory group, and taking steps to hire a “dedicated DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) employee.”

CMO Kitain says Tarte is “really identifying the risks and rewards for the brand” when it comes to the future of their creator programs like brand trips. In a separate statement, she says Tarte is working to increase Black representation at the company by hiring a diversity recruiting firm. She shared that so far the Black employee percentage has “grown from 6% to 10%” and Black leadership representation “from 5% to 7%.”

For her part, Victor says if companies like Tarte continue their strategy of inviting the most prominent creators on their trips, they will organically begin to work with a more diverse pool of highly-followed creators. “Now, the most popular creators have changed, and they look different,” she tells TIME. “People who are Instagram models or have millions of followers were always white women of a specific race or body type because people gave them that power. However, TikTok gave power to real people.”

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Write to Moises Mendez II at moises.mendez@time.com and Mariah Espada at mariah.espada@time.com