Tarte Cosmetics under fire: Beauty influencer branded trips have always been toxic and exclusionary

By Charlie Sawyer

Published May 13, 2023 at 09:00 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

Does anyone remember the golden age of YouTube? I’m talking about that blip in time during 2016 and 2017, when no-one had heard of the word Coronavirus yet, we hadn’t had to go through the experience of UK political Armageddon (I’m looking at you, Liz Truss), and social media influencers were still happy living out their lives in long-form content.

During this time, Emma Chamberlain hadn’t yet donned the Met Gala carpet, Shane Dawson hadn’t been cancelled off the platform and no-one had heard of Alix Earle. Long story short, beauty YouTubers ruled the small screen and the cosmetic market.

Names such as Jeffree Star, Tati Westbrook, James Charles and Nikkie Tutorials dominated the influencer space. TikTok was still in its infancy and the novelty of smooth skin, designer bags and monstrous mansions so easily reachable through our laptops hadn’t completely worn off just yet.

This period of internet history was also a time when beauty brand trips were at an all time high. Cosmetics companies would ship a cohort of the most popular online sensations to the Maldives or some other high-end tropical location and the group would spend a week or so documenting every single second of their beautiful vacation. They’d then include maybe one or two clips at most on how a particular Charlotte Tilbury lip liner “made” their entire trip… Yep, I’m sure the yacht parties had nothing to do with it.

It was a time where it was truly uncommon to be a YouTuber in the beauty space and to not have been on a branded trip. Some creators dedicated specific highly-produced videos to showcasing the vacation, others simply filmed weekly vlogs and had the product promotion intertwined within the clips, making for a more seamless sponsorship. While the videos didn’t always translate into a massive boost in sales, they definitely increased brand awareness and hype.

Then, everything changed, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, short-form content skyrocketed, beauty vloggers began to feel outdated and old news, and we all started becoming much more accustomed to a different kind of online content, one that felt more raw, gritty and real. The allure of extravagant displays of wealth wore off, and we all felt much more at home with the “down to earth” TikTok girlies who ate KFC in their cars and chatted about Vanderpump Rules.

That is, until an American beauty brand called Tarte Cosmetics decided to completely shake things up, and revitalise the beauty branded influencer trips. And let’s just say, it didn’t quite go to plan.

In January 2023, Tarte invited a group of 50 influencers and their plus-ones to an extravagant trip to Dubai. Among the cohort was big names such as the aforementioned TikTok star Alix Earle, influencer Meredith Duxbury (you know, the beauty creator who floods her face with foundation and always looks flawless), and twins Azra and Aisha Mian.

@miantwins

Dubai babyyy #dubai #trippinwithtarte #tarte

♬ original sound - 𝕷𝖎𝖑𝖎𝖆⁵⁰¹
@meredithduxbury

Trip of a lifetime!!! Thank you @tartecosmetics 🥹💕😱

♬ original sound - Meredith Duxbury

The cosmetics brand received a lot of negative backlash following this event. Mainstream media publications labelled the brand as inherently “out of touch” and far too happy to shell out a vast amount of wealth solely to boost sales.

In response, Tarte CEO Maureen Kelly released perhaps one of the most trivial and unhelpful statements of all time: “Every day, brands make decisions about how to spend their marketing budgets. For some companies, that means a huge Super Bowl commercial or a multi-million-dollar contract with a famous athlete or celeb. We’ve never done traditional advertising, and instead we invest in building relationships and building up communities.”

The criticism the cosmetics company had faced clearly didn’t make too much of an impact, because only four months later, Tarte whisked the same bunch of creators (plus a few add ons) away to the Miami Grand Prix for another excessive and exclusive weekend.

@

♬ -
@alixearle

Day 1 was a successs … wish us luck today! 💓🏝️ #trippinwithtarte #tarteisland #brandtrip #umiami

♬ Young Folks - Shindig Society

This time however, it wasn’t just the bill that had netizens up in arms. Unsurprisingly, considering the nature of both the online beauty space and the highly exclusive brands dominating the industry, one creator who’d been invited on the trip has shared how specifics concerning the weekend made her feel slighted and almost like a “second-tier” participant.

According to Insider, Bria Jones, a lifestyle influencer with almost half a million followers, stated in a now-deleted TikTok video that despite being invited to the initial Grand Prix festivities, Jones found out that she’d been excluded from the final Formula 1 race on Sunday—an event that all of her other influencer friends would be attending.

The influencer stated: “I will be damned as a Black creator if I accept anything other than equal treatment on these trips.”

Rather than taking immediate action and accountability, Kelly responded with a video of her own (which has also now been deleted) that reeked of passive aggression. In it, the CEO inferred that there had simply been miscommunication between the two parties, stemming from the fact that “arrivals and departures were staggered” for all creators and that no individuals were given preferential treatment over others.

While the incident seems to have now been smoothed over, with Kelly insisting that Jones has already been invited to Tarte’s NYC HQ over the summer for a “fun” photoshoot, the entire ordeal just feels like a story we’ve heard an uncomfortable amount of times. Black and Brown creators have always been disproportionately erased from mainstream brand campaigns, and the fact that it’s those influencers who’re also being “accidentally” left out of these kinds of snappable moments feels wrong on so many levels.

Regardless of whether or not cosmetics brands have a distaste for “traditional advertising,” these trips were already toxic in 2017, and they’re still toxic in 2023—nothing has changed. Beauty influencers may be having a comeback in the digital space, but it feels as though we’re just taking ten steps backwards.

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