From Bachelor(ette) Contestant To Full-Time Influencer: A Timeline Of Social Media Shilling From The Beloved Reality Franchise
Since The Bachelor’s first season in 2002, its core tenets have largely remained the same. Namely: Thou shalt go on The Bachelor in pursuit of love and only love. If thou wishest to make it to the final rose ceremony, thou shalt have wavy ombré hair and be a white woman named Lauren. And finally, thou shalt most certainly not discuss such real world topics as religion, politics, or money on camera, else these moments will be left on the cutting room floor and thou will probably not get asked to return to the franchise as a Bachelor in Paradise cast member.
Over the years, on-camera conversations that have strayed from this last convention have stuck out as sorely as a dolphin onesie in a sea of sequined ASOS gowns on the first night out of the limo. But the paradigm into which The Bachelor was first born has shifted majorly since its inception in 2002. There’s Instagram now. And former Democratic presidential candidates who buy sponsored content in the form of Instagram memes. And FabFitFun, and Sugar Bear Hair. All of which is to say, in 2020, your odds of getting rich on Instagram after The Bachelor are a lot higher than of finding love on The Bachelor. And that’s why it’s so strange that the premise of the show excludes this narrative almost entirely — and shames the few who acknowledge it on-screen.
Making it to at least Week 2 means emerging with an Instagram follower count that can be monetized — and surely most contestants know this. Eric Bigger, a cast member on Rachel Lindsay’s season of The Bachelorette as well as Bachelor in Paradise, says the alums he knows can make anywhere between $1,000 and $30,000 for a single deal.
“It’s no different than applying to a Microsoft or Apple and working there and getting a six-figure salary. You apply for those jobs because they have a reputable brand and it makes you a lot of money. So the [Instagram] following sometimes equals monetary benefits. It’s part of the process, part of social media and TV,” said Bigger, who has 158,000 Instagram followers and works closely with Influential, an AI-based influencer marketplace that matches influencers with brands.
Most contestants leave the jobs they enter the Bachelor Universe with because they can make even more money without them. And that’s fine! The Bachelor in Paradise cast has to eat somehow once the free quesadillas run out. But why, then, is there no room for nuance when it comes to the way we treat those who are revealed to have self-promotional reasons for being on the show? Fame is an inevitable side effect of being on TV anyway — should it really be surprising that it’s one of the contestants’ goals going into the whole thing? They only have a small chance at a rose, but a 100 percent chance of notoriety. And yet, on the rare occasions that real world influences are actually acknowledged on the show, they feel like a rude shattering of a saccharine and heavily-padded fourth wall. Remember Luke S. on Hannah Brown’s season, who ultimately met his demise for allegedly going on the show to promote his tequila company? Or Derek Peth from last summer’s season of Paradise, who was exposed and shamed by John Paul Jones for basically just, like, having a podcast? At the very least, isn’t The Bachelor overdue for a reimagining of its identity as a squeaky clean on-screen entity impenetrable to the realities of capitalism?
The bucolic days of pre-Instagram reality TV
At first, there was no vocabulary or standardized metric by which the residents of the Bachelor mansion — and also, America! — could measure the authenticity of a contestant’s intentions for being on the show. But then a Bad Boy named Wes came along and ruined it for all of us with a simple strum of his guitar.
Wes Hayden went on Jillian Harris’s season of The Bachelorette in 2009 to promote his music career — a revelation that sent shockwaves through what was once an airtight echo chamber of declarations of love and commitment whispered in pearl-clad ears over untouched platters of chocolate-covered strawberries. Hayden took great pride in his rebellion, and also in the fact that he was apparently the first person in the show’s history to have made it to the top four with a girlfriend back home. Such flagrant offenses were easy to villainize. But as long as you didn’t come on the show with an already-existing career that you wished to promote or a significant other back home, your reasons were acceptable — a moral standard that came to be codified as the Right Reasons.
But then Instagram came along in 2010, and then eventually with it, the billion-dollar influencer marketing industry, which made it possible for, say, a software salesperson to go on The Bachelor and leave with half a million followers, a FabFitFun sponsorship deal, and at the very least, a podcast. With the advent of social media, a tool not available to Hayden in 2009, the scope of the show's influence — and that of its contestants — has grown exponentially. Brands are smart to want to cash in. But on the show, which famously and frustratingly ignores things like work, money, religion, and politics (four things you should, uh, talk about with your future spouse), these post-show influencer opportunities are rarely, if ever, discussed on camera. When cast members refer to the real world at all, it’s only as a vague notion awaiting them “after this.” This chasm — between the on-camera depiction of the bucolic real world and the sponcon careers that actually await contestants after filming — is vast, and made all the more stark against the backdrop of the puritanical Right Reasons.
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The sponcon revolution
Ask any brand rep, and their reason for wanting to partner with Bachelor alums will sound the same — unlike Vogue cover-grazing, jade-egg-touting members of the Hollywood Elite, Bachelor contestants are refreshingly down-to-earth. FabFitFun, a beauty and lifestyle subscription box service, is one of the pioneers in this influencer marketing space, and has worked with over 30 Bachelor contestants on everything from sponsored posts to product curation, content, events, and TV commercials.
“What’s so compelling about the Bachelor partners is consumers already feel invested in them as they’ve followed them on a very intimate level for so long. Because of the vulnerability on the show, they really trust them, they value their recommendations, and they want to support them. We specifically partner with the contestants who are authentic and share both the good and the bad in their lives — fans tend to gravitate to them long after the show is over,” said Jolie Jankowitz, Head of Influencer Marketing at FabFitFun.
Influencer marketing platform Tribe Dynamics estimates that in the first half of 2019 alone, two of Jade Roper Tolbert’s sponsored posts for FabFitFun amounted to $42,333.31 in earned media value for the brand. And according to the same Tribe data, Revolve, another Bachelor juggernaut brand, garnered a whopping $452,103.32 in earned media value from eight posts by Kaitlyn Bristowe in the first half of year, as well as $200,883.80 for six posts by Lauren Bushnell. Influencer marketing agency Mediakix estimates that Bachelor influencers with over a million followers, like Tolbert or Ashely Iaconetti, can earn ~$10,000 for an in-feed post or Instagram Story and over $500,000 to $1 million in one year. Those with follower counts in the 500k range could be raking in anywhere from $20,000 to 50,000 per month.
Since the dawn of time, basically, the Bachelor lead and final rose recipient have debuted as a couple on the cover of People on stands the week of the finale. It’s their big break — airbrushed, posing by a backyard water fountain — but now, the new generation of Bachelor couples possesses tools in their pockets that achieve this same effect even more immediately. With the ability to IG Story and live-tweet while episodes air, as well as tag brands in outfit pics and shill direct-to-consumer sunglasses on their IG grids, Bachelor alums have unprecedented direct access to their fans, and, if they make it far enough into the season without pissing too many people off, a near guarantee that they can make a few bucks on sponsored content. Which is to say, it’s a lot easier to gain influence and make money from being on the show than it is to receive the final rose.
“On The Bachelor, I really didn’t hear a lot of people talking about [influencing]. I don’t really think most people knew about it — I mean, maybe one or two girls did, but it wasn’t something that I was really aware of until after,” said Kendall Long, a contestant on Arie Luyendyk’s season of The Bachelor and the following season of Bachelor in Paradise, in an interview with Refinery29. Long has gained more than half a million followers since her time on The Bachelor in 2018. “On Paradise, people were talking about it, but it wasn’t really the main conversation. I think mostly when you’re there you get caught up in the world of wanting to be vulnerable and looking for a relationship, so things like money or cell phones or drama at home are left at home. And then come back from what’s almost like a summer camp in some ways into the real world — where you're like, Oh wow, all the sudden money matters and I have to pay for my meals again and for living and laundry.”
The Bachelor goes Gen Z
Now, we’ve entered yet another era. Pilot Pete’s horde of romantic hopefuls are seemingly younger than ever, including many card-carrying members of Gen Z — previously untrodden territory for the ABC franchise. Case in point: Mykenna Dorn, best-known for her wild tongue antics and dramatic exit, is described as a Fashion Blogger in her official ABC bio, and “CEO of Cringy Wine Dancing” in her Instagram bio. Dorn already had nearly 54k followers on Instagram prior to the show and a robust collection of wine dancing videos on TikTok. And yet, the existence of social media is scrubbed almost entirely from the show. In the world of The Bachelor, it might as well be 2002 instead of 2020 — there are truly no social media cornerstones depicted on-screen to demarcate what year it is in the outside world (aside from, I suppose, the creeping influence of Revolve gowns — which contestants had to model for a group date this season, a sort of tacit acknowledgment of the fact that many of them will go on to shill Revolve clothing on Instagram once the season ends).
Other comparable reality TV shows have figured out how to strike this balance — incorporating video recorded on Instagram a la Keeping Up With The Kardashians or acknowledging the inevitable influence of Instagram in conversation directly on camera, as we saw in Love Is Blind. When they fell in love in the pods, Damian Powers and Giannina Gibelli didn’t have access to their phones, and once they were dropped back into the real world after their stint in the utopian pods followed by a vacation in Mexico, we saw him struggle to handle how frequently his new fiancé reached for Instagram — especially during heated, real conversations about work and finances. It’s simply a conundrum that The Bachelor universe refuses to acknowledge — which makes it all the more bizarre when we do inevitably transition from watching contestants on-screen (where we aren’t, say, privy to their wine-dancing-social-media pasts) to their own personal social channels (where they do all the TikTok dances).
Similarly, we witnessed the pitfalls of finsta culture as this season of The Bachelor aired, with frontrunner Madison Prewett exposed for writing “you’re so genuine and real” on her own photo — a comment clearly intended to come from a fan account — leaving many to wonder if Prewett was… running her very own fan account. It’s a situation that Bachelor alums from years past haven’t faced, but points to the increased pressure contestants feel to be perceived positively on social media during and after the show. It also points to an obsession with asserting authenticity on the show — the absence of which earns you a ticket home. (See: this season’s Alayah.)
How can the show square these dual realities? It seems a revision of The Right Reasons is in order. On this season’s infamous two-on-one date, Tammy Ly accused Mykenna Dorn of being there for the sole purpose of building a brand — which Peter echoed when he asked her if she was all "about hashtags." By this same logic, aren’t they all after that same thing, with their public profiles and frequent direct-to-camera Instagram Story sponcon? If the show can learn how to acknowledge the reality that most of its contestants will go on to make money on Instagram, and perhaps allow the filming of the show to exist in a slightly more realistic world — one where there are considerations like jobs and student loans, and the producers let you keep your cell phone — maybe it would be easier to shake out whose reasons really are and aren’t the right ones.