Kim Kardashian, Sponcon, and the Rules of Being an Influencer
COM student and TikToker on how celebrities play the game
On Monday, Kim Kardashian settled with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), agreeing to pay $1.26 million for failing to disclose that she was paid to promote a cryptocurrency sold by EthereumMax.
While the reality TV billionaire included “#Ad” in her problematic June 2021 post (“Are you guys into crypto????” she asked her (then) 225 million followers), the SEC’s rules require the Keeping Up with the Kardashians star to also mention that she was being paid $250,000 to push the token. As part of the SEC settlement, she is now barred from promoting any crypto product for three years.
Kardashian is not the only celebrity guilty of playing fast and loose with the government’s rules about social media. “Sponcon,” or secretly sponsored content, is a sneaky way for celebrities to make it appear that they casually use a product. “With the internet and social media, there is a seemingly infinite supply of content to regulate and almost no transparency, which makes it exceedingly difficult for the agencies charged with enforcing the rules to know when they’re being broken,” journalist Sara Morrison writes in a recent Vox investigation of some influencers’ shady social media practices.
Sophia Caffrey (COM’25) agrees with Morrison’s assessment. An intern with BU’s social media team who hopes to one day do marketing and advertising for a tech company, Caffrey is also a budding TikTok star: she has more than 22,000 followers on the platform, 3.4 million likes, and she has herself been paid for creating sponsored content. She says she wasn’t shocked by the news that the SEC was making an example of Kardashian.
BU Today spoke with Caffrey about what Kardashian did wrong, what goes into being an influencer, and ways influencers sneak advertising into their posts.
with Sophia Caffrey (COM’25)
BU Today: What was your reaction to this Kim Kardashian news?
Caffrey: I’m not shocked that a big influencer would be paid a lot of money to promote crypto. And brands that are paying that much money don’t expect a celebrity like Kim K to overpromote them. She was paid $250,000 to do it, and because it’s Kim K, [EthereumMax] wasn’t shocked that she didn’t outright state that it was a sponsored post. I know she did put #Ad in, but that’s pretty much it.
BU Today: Can you explain why “#Ad” isn’t enough? What should she have done?
Caffrey: So I think the rules differ depending on who you’re partnering with. I’ve done sponsored posts, and there are sponsorships where you don’t have to overtly say, ‘This is a paid promotion,’ or something like that, you can flip it into a video and then tag [the sponsors].
But I know the crypto laws are different. When you’re investing in a certain type of [cryptocurrency], like Elon Musk promotes Dogecoin, that’s a big statement to make to your followers or the people who love your content. Followers don’t know much about crypto, so they risk putting their money into something that they haven’t done much research on. And they can potentially lose a lot of money. We know that Kim K is probably not using this crypto that she’s getting paid to promote. And that’s dangerous.
BU Today: Do you think that the SEC is making an example of Kardashian?
Caffrey: Yes. And crypto has been one of those dicey subjects, with people promoting crypto that they wouldn’t use themselves. But with somebody like Kim Kardashian, it’s kind of a warning to other influencers that they need to be careful about what they’re promoting. Because, yes, a company can offer you a lot of money, but you need to make sure that you’re doing your research on the product, and that you’re not promoting bad brands, or brands that stand for bad things, to your audience. That’s not going to reflect well on you as an influencer.
BU Today: How much money can a top influencer, like Kim Kardashian, make per post?
Caffrey: Well, I would bet she has a PR team that usually does her posts for her. Charli D’Amelio is a big one and Kim K, they get a minimum of $100,000 per post. I know Charli did a hummus Superbowl ad, and she got paid over a million dollars.
BU Today: How did you get started on TikTok?
Caffrey: I’ve been using TikTok for years now. I’ve been into content creation and making videos since I was little. I was on TikTok when it first went public. I’ve been following the trend, [working to] understand the algorithm for years. But I never started consistently posting until last year, and that’s when my following started to pick up.
BU Today: So when you first started, were you just making goofy videos to show your friends? When did you realize that you could grow your following?
I realized I could [grow my account] when I got to college. Algorithms cater to people around you. I arrived at BU and started making content. I made silly videos but ones with relatable humor, centering around what Harvard, MIT, BU, and anyone who goes to a Boston school could relate to. I believe that they [TikTok] cater my videos to a specific audience because they know this is where a lot of colleges are. So a lot of people around the area will pick up my videos.
BU Today: How do you describe the content? What do you make videos about?
It’s definitely entertainment-based. So some of them are about college itself. Some of them are about dating and boys, but the ones that really do well are goofy, fun ones, just because I think they’re refreshing.
BU Today: Can you tell us about the sponsored post you did?
I’ve only done one paid promotion in Boston because my content is Boston-related. And it was a grocery company. But I will only take promotions that I think people would benefit from and that I personally use myself.
BU Today: When you do a sponsored post, how does it work? Does a company reach out to you?
Companies have contacted me—they will comment on a video or send me a DM request. And then they’ll talk logistics. If you have a big following, you can reach out to huge brands that you want to partner with, but that’s not guaranteed. I feel like most people get sponsorships from brands that reach out to them.
BU Today: What kinds of questions do brands ask before agreeing to work with an influencer?
There are criteria you have to meet. There is a level of professionalism that has to be in your videos. You can’t be too much of a controversial influencer, and that goes for every platform. YouTube will not monetize your video if you’re cussing in it or talking about inappropriate things—they’re a bit picky. TikTok is different because it’s really catered to a younger audience and the rules are less strict.
BU Today: How do you strive to be honest in your sponsored posts?
I know that I don’t appreciate people who promote things that they would not use, or products that are not good products and that they wouldn’t normally use in their day-to-day lives. So I only partner with brands that I think my demographic would benefit from as well. So, one of the brands I promoted, I personally used in the past, so I was happy to work with them. I would never partner with a brand that I know is phony or has bad product quality just for the sake of money, because you’re going to get bad feedback and lose followers.
BU Today: How much were you paid for your post?
I’m a smaller content creator so it’s about $400 per video. I’m just starting out and I like creating content, so it doesn’t feel like work. So I’m happy to do that and it doesn’t take too long.
BU Today: Do influencers ever do shady things, like product placement?
Yes, it’s a big thing on TikTok. You can just hold something like a drink, and depending on how big you are, that would be a paid promotion. Or [stars] pretend they always take certain supplements before going to the gym and make videos like “Come get ready with me for the gym.” They slip it in that way.
BU Today: And they’re not revealing that it’s a paid promotion, with a #Ad at the bottom?
No, not usually.
BU Today: Is that just because they figure no one will hold them accountable?
I think you have different requirements, depending on how big you are. If Charli D’Amelio is doing the same sponsorships that a smaller influencer is doing, the company might tell her that she doesn’t have to put seven hashtags in her post, she can put one. Brands seem to be more lenient with bigger influencers because they’re gaining a lot back with that promotion.