The fictional influencer – the sobering truth about Louise Delage

To her thousands of Instagram followers Louise Delage was an attractive Parisienne living a glamorous life. In reality she was a work of fiction created to highlight the rise in everyday alcoholism among young women.

By Alex Benady

Instagram added more than quarter of a million active new users every day over the last year. So no one paid much attention when on 5 August 2016,  a 25 year old Parisian woman called Louise Delage created a profile and posted her first image.

At first glance it was standard Instagram fare. A glamorous young woman poses against a wooden fence clutching what looks like a glass of oh so French pastis.

Over the next few weeks Delage became a regular Instagram presence, posting scores more photos of her summer. Sexy Louise in a bikini at the beach. Sultry Louise in full make up pouts in a night club. Happy Louise messes around with friends on a trip to Berlin. By early October she had posted 150 images.

Most reaction to the posts was positive, with hundreds of other young women admiring her joie de vivre, commenting that Delage was “so cool”, “tres, tres chic” and “bellissima”. Predictably many of the comments from males were more, um, earthy.

Only the canniest observer would have spotted anything odd about the account – although the signs were undeniably there. Most of the posts garnered between four hundred and a thousand views. Pretty impressive for an Instagram virgin. But a few of the posts had tens of thousands of views. One image of Delage posted in mid-September was viewed more than seventy-seven thousand times. And then there was the slightly odd fact, missed by most, that in nearly every photo Delage was holding a drink.

The truth of the account only emerged two months later when in early October two French magazines revealed that Louise Delage and images of her wonderful party lifestyle were a fabrication. They were a publicity campaign for French addiction charity Addiction Aide created by creative agency BETC.

“France and French women in particular have a growing alcohol problem,” explains BETC strategic planner Julien Leveque “There are 50,000 deaths every year related to alcohol. In 2010 ten per cent of women drank every day. Now it is 28 per cent. The Loi Evin has prohibited alcohol advertising in France since 1991, but alcohol brands have been targeting women.”

More pressingly, Addiction Aide, which had never communicated before, was launching a new web site in October. It briefed the agency to develop its first mass media campaign aimed at raising awareness of the charity by showing how easy it is to fail to spot that someone has a substance problem -even when they are hiding it in plain sight.

The articles, sold in by BETC for Addiction Aide, explained that Louise Delage was in fact an alcoholic and directed readers to a YouTube film which outlined what the campaign was trying to achieve. “We got 50,000 likes, but did people really know what they were liking,” asks the film?

By this time Delage had amassed ten thousand followers -although the ability of earned media to turbo boost a campaign was shown in the post-reveal publicity frenzy which saw that figure balloon to one hundred and eight thousand. The YouTube video has been viewed more than half a million times and the publicity around the hoax campaign generated coverage in 220 titles worldwide.  All-in the campaign generated more than one billion impressions, on a budget of less than twenty thousand euros for media and production says Leveque.

As is so often the case, it may well have been lack of money that led to the campaign’s success by forcing the agency to use owned rather than paid media, prior to an earned media reveal, says Leveque. “We met with the clients at Addiction Aide who are primarily doctors and concluded that the campaign should address the hidden problem of everyday drinking.”

The creatives came up with the idea of a ‘tease and reveal’ campaign – largely because it so closely mirrors the issues in identifying what you might call ‘everyday alcoholism’. The conventional signs of extreme drunkenness aren’t there, so it is very hard for friends and family to tell when a person has a problem. “It was a calculated risk,” admits Leveque. “Usually we don’t do teasers because people see either the tease or the reveal -rarely both.”

Initially the BETC team considered a film trailer or a press campaign. In the end, the agency recommended Instagram. “We liked it for its virality and because it was virgin territory says Leveque.” The young female bias and the way it can glamorise mundane subject matter also helped. And of course the fact that it was free was an important plus -the budget would scarcely have covered production costs of a conventional ad campaign, let alone media.

In July the agency put out a brief for a model who was “young, fresh, pretty and unknown but not too modelish.” But given the subject matter, a little due diligence on the model was essential. Having established that she had no drink problem herself -partly by trawling her social media record, BETC trained her how to take images for Instagram, armed her with an I Phone 6 and told her to get on with her summer.

By now BETC had just two and a half months until Addiction Aide launched its new site. Even the delectably chic Delage was never going to gather much of a following on her own by then, so BETC set about building an acquisition strategy for her with four components.

First content. “The images had to be in the style of a fashion blogger and there had to be a drink in the picture.” Then came hashtags, -generally between twenty and thirty were used to guarantee maximum connectivity. There was a bot strategy and lastly a key opinion leader strategy. “We recruited 12 Instagram influencers to post some of the pictures,” says Delage.  They were paid a small amount -three thousand euros in total.

While this was undoubtedly a clever and highly successful campaign, the fact that only some the influencers declared the payment was just one of a series of moral and practical questions raised for PR practitioners by the campaign.

The most obvious of these is that the campaign was, strictly speaking, built on a lie. It purported to be something it was not. According to Leveque, BETC chose Instagram for its “authenticity and credibility” with users. This campaign seems to undermine that credibility.

Is that ok? Perhaps surprisingly Instagram is relaxed about the subterfuge. “Instagram is a place where people follow their passions. We see this as a creative execution. Some brands set up accounts for mascots and we do clearly identify paid-for content. But as long as they don’t breach our community guidelines and as long as they follow local standards, we wont interfere,” says Amy Cole head of brand development at Instagram EMEA.

Does this mean brands can do pretty much what they like on social media? Most PR people seem to think not. “This is a very clever idea. This was a legitimate, culturally relevant, non-commercial public interest campaign. I don’t think you need to object to the subterfuge because when you are doing something for a higher purpose, you get some latitude,” says Adam Leigh, strategic director at W Communications.

Matt Rhodes head of digital strategy at Blue Fish takes has a slightly more McLuhanite take. He thinks the campaign works because the channel lends itself, if not to deception, then at least to what you might call “a curated view of life”. “This highlights the importance of choice of channel,” he says. “this campaign would not have worked on Face Book, partly for technical reasons, but also because Instagram allows people to present a more magazine-style view of their life. You get a filtered view of their existences.”

And that of course is precisely what Louise Delage did and what most alcoholics do.  As BETC trilled slightly pretentiously, but entirely accurately in its press release for the campaign, “the medium is the message.”

Tim Pritchard head of social media at ad agency Manning Gottlieb OMD agrees. “This campaign feels different and original. It’s about behaviour within the channel. You can get lots of mileage by playing with the medium.” But he warns would-be imitators to beware. Playing with the conventions of social media is a thin line and it is very easy to get it wrong. “You have to judge the appropriateness (of this kind of activity) case by case. It depends on the brand, the disposition of the audience and appropriateness of the channel.”

BETC’s Leveque agrees. “We didn’t tell Instagram what we were doing because we knew there was a risk they wouldn’t let us. It wasn’t until the PR coverage started rolling in that he knew it had really worked.”

So what was the return on investment? “Our KPIs were 8,000 followers and at least 50,000 likes. So we hit our targets. In addition traffic to the Addiction Aide web site increased five-fold. But we haven’t calculated our ROI. It’s still too early yet,” says Leveque.

This article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q1 2017.

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  1. The ethics of this are suspect on another level too. Associating alcohol with glamour through Instagram like this ‘normalises’ it: others will imitate the behaviour, even if unconsciously. So in trying to reduce addiction, the campaign could inadvertently have helped to increase it.

    1. An interesting comment Ron, but I disagree. As a twenty-something girl with a huge interest in social media, I will readily admit that the majority of the time I am scrolling, I am slumped in old pyjamas with a mug of decaf tea watching Coronation St. On the perhaps monthly occasions when I am dressed up, socialising and drinking then yes I will likely post a picture on Instagram. But I was already out; the photos of my prosecco are secondary. Alcohol was associated with glamour long before Instagram was invented.

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