Tarte’s Dubai Trip and the Tricky Ethics of Influencer Marketing

UPDATED: March 29, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 20, 2023
social media influencer posing for picture

Of all the viral and internet-breaking moments of the last decade, few have been as unexpected as an influencer trip to Dubai earlier this year. 

In mid-January, the cosmetic company Tarte took a group of content creators, including big-name TikTokers like Meredith Duxbury (17.8 million followers), Monet McMichael (3.1 million followers) and Alix Earle (4.8 million followers) on a lavish trip. Attendees got more than just a wealth of cosmetics and other gifts—they flew in business class and stayed in personal villas at The Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah. And they posted the whole thing for their followers in a series of “get ready with me” videos, room tours and more.

Brand trips like this are nothing new. Anne Puzakova, influencer marketing and operations director at HypeFactory, says they’re “a very common thing for influencer marketing.” They’re also, for the most part, not very widely discussed. In fact, Tarte itself has done a number of trips like this one in the past, with destinations including Hawaii, Bora Bora and Costa Rica.

But this particular outing set off a firestorm of controversy, calling into question the ethics and sustainability of brand trips. The trip has been widely discussed everywhere from TikTok (where the #TrippinWithTarte hashtag has more than 170 million views) to Time magazine (“Why the Internet Became Fixated on an Influencer Trip to Dubai”). Multiple articles and comments called the extravagant excursion “tone-deaf,” particularly as the U.S. borders on another recession

Questioning the marketing ethics of the Tarte Dubai trip

So why is it that this trip—one of roughly 20 Tarte has taken since 2015—caused such an online uproar? 

For one, Puzakova explains, much of the story unfolded on TikTok. That’s something Tarte likely wanted, as it gives them access to the app’s largely Gen Z audience. But younger social media users might not know how common these trips have been throughout the internet era, beginning with brands bringing excited vloggers around the world in YouTube’s heyday. 

In fact, adds communications and public relations specialist Mark McClennan, trips like this have long been an ethical gray area for journalists, publications and professionals of all kinds, whether it’s a speaking engagement at a conference in Cabo or a trip to Paris Fashion Week for a group of magazine editors. 

“The thing about ethics—I think it’s a trap people fall into: ‘Oh my gosh, this has never happened before,’” says McClennan, who’s also the founder of ethicalvoices.com, a weekly blog and podcast dedicated to communication ethics. “With influencers, it’s the same thing you’d be dealing with with reporters back when earned media was the dominant stage. The channels can evolve, the core ethical issues are core ethical issues because we’re human.”

When a brand’s actions don’t match its mission

The speed with which stories can spread once they get lodged in the TikTok algorithm is new, though. And there’s another catch: Gen Z and millennials are placing a higher focus on environmental and social issues than other generations. “What they did in the trip does not really correspond with the values of the generation,” Puzakova says. “It does not correspond to the values of the people who are following along this trip.”

“We know that purpose-driven brands sell four times better than non-purpose-driven brands with younger audiences,” McClennan adds. “Are you going to be doing something that ties into this, or is your purpose giving them a lavish vacation?” 

And while being out of alignment with the values of a generation is one thing, Puzakova notes that the graver offense could be that the Dubai trip doesn’t align with Tarte’s own supposed beliefs. The company’s branding touts “naturally-derived ingredients” which it promises are “good for you and the environment.” “We’re not just a cruelty-free company—we also place a priority on sustainability, health and giving back to local communities,” the website pronounces, in a paragraph positioned by a photo of grinning volunteers in Tarte tees with a Habitat for Humanity sign. 

HypeFactory Marketing and PR Director Daria Belova adds, “It seems like wrong time, wrong target.” 

“They are very much about honesty, about authentic experience. That’s why they value creators and influencers who are real people, like them,” Belova says of Gen Z shoppers. “And that’s why they can be sensitive to what brands tell them if it’s not consistent with the brand values.” 

That’s why, Puzakova says, the trip to Dubai doesn’t seem to make sense. To use a common Gen Z catchphrase: “This math is not mathing,” she chuckles. “The picture doesn’t add up.”

For the brand to really build trust, both Belova and Puzakova agree that it’s important to be transparent. Puzakova notes there are plenty of beauty brands whose marketing is built solely on influencers, so it’s not a question of whether to use influencers. “The question is talking to your audience in the right way,” she explains.

Regulations of influencer marketing

A bigger area of concern for McClennan is that in addition to concerns about ethical issues, trips like this can enter a legally dubious gray area. “The FTC and the SEC have both developed regulations, very clearly, that when you’re engaging with influencers you need to disclose,” he says. It’s no longer the Wild West out there with regards to brands using influencer marketing. If you’re a business looking to work with influencers, the most important thing you can do is disclose it—and make sure they disclose it as well. 

Social media influencers should disclose each and every time when they are talking about a product or service they are paid to promote or received as a gift,” McClennan adds. “That is what we ask our influencers to do. There is no assurance that a viewer will have seen your previous post where you disclosed the gift or paid promotion.”

Belova says that, especially in the U.S. and the U.K., failure to disclose the sponsorship can lead to fines, lawsuits, “or even what is worse, actually, especially for big brands, is some damage to reputation. It’s not only about the sum of the fine, but more about the reputational damage.”

At the end of the day, even in the midst of a scandal, Tarte did exactly what they set out to do, which was spreading their brand name like wildfire across online platforms. 

“What was the big scandal two years ago?” McClennan asks, rhetorically—neither he nor I can readily recall what ethical drama seized social media even a few years ago. The internet is a big place, but it has a short memory. 

That doesn’t mean you want to court a scandal, of course, especially as a small business. McClennan notes that Tarte wouldn’t have planned to have to handle this backlash in their communications calendar, which means it took time away from the brand when they could have been doing other things. He notes that it’s important for smaller brands specifically to know where their marketing team will be focusing their time and energy in a similar situation.

The staying power of influencer marketing

But he adds that while a trip to Dubai might be ill-advised or out of the question for many small brands, that doesn’t mean you should write influencer marketing off entirely. “If you’re a small business, working with influencers can make a lot of sense,” McClennan says. There are a number of different levels of influencers, including nano and micro-influencers who may have a strong following in a particular region, culture or market. “They might not have 12 million followers, but if they have 40,000, if they have 10,000—if that’s who you’re trying to reach, that’s a cost-effective use of time.”

Puzakova notes that HypeFactory does a number of influencer trips like this (though she’s not at liberty to say with which brands). The important thing is to choose the audience you’re targeting wisely, and to find influencers with similar values to the brand. “They can act like ambassadors to the brand through the trip, so there are no misalignments with actions and words.”

“There’s a reason why they continue to do these trips,” Puzakova says, adding that while it’s possible Tarte will retool their approach to influencer marketing after this trip, “It seems to me that they’re kind of satisfied with the results. They got huge coverage in the media, and their products were mentioned multiple times all across the internet. It all might have paid off already.”

“Although, I would hope that this campaign should not serve as a good example for how to make the brand’s name spread across social networks and the internet,” she laughs, noting that it’s more of a case study—or a cautionary tale, perhaps—in building trust with your audience in the modern era. “You can learn from this case, and I hope that we’ll learn from it.”

Photo by wee dezign/Shutterstock

Cassel is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor, a co-owner of Racket MN, and a VHS collector.