Fyre Festival – what was touted by hip hop mogul JaRule as being the ‘cultural experience of the decade’ has now become the most talked about festival flop of all time. The subject of newly-released Hulu and Netflix documentaries Fyre Fraud and FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened respectfully, the event has opened many discussions on the unethical use of social media but also shown it to be a tool for positive change in the wake of the debacle.

So, how was Fyre Festival, an unknown brand and event, able to sell-out tickets within 48 hours of being released, and what does this tell us about marketing to millennials? The answer: the clever manipulation of social media via major influencers.

Scheduled to take place on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma over two weekends in April and May 2017, the festival was organised by Fyre Media founder Billy McFarland and rapper JaRule as a luxury music festival to promote the Fyre booking app.

A promotional video was produced with the specific intent of giving audiences FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), a form of social anxiety rooted in the concern that others might be having rewarding experiences that the individual is not a part of. The video combined persuasive messaging such as ‘immersive’, ‘transformative’, ‘remote and private island’ with imagery of supermodels living their best lives – a carefully crafted illusion of what was in store for attendees, should they be willing to spend thousands of dollars to partake.

As McFarland explained during the making of the video: ‘We’re selling a pipe dream to your average loser’.  What is truly sad about this is, it worked.  After the video was complete, another cleverly engineered social media tactic was employed to generate a buzz around the festival’s launch.  McFarland commented that the video’s release would be known as the, ‘Best co-ordinated social influencer campaign ever’.  400 of the ‘hottest’ celebrities around the world including artists, comedians, influencers and models posted an ambiguous burnt orange ‘Fyre tile’ across their Instagram accounts using the #FyreFestival and each inviting their followers to ‘join me’. That was it.  It garnered over 300 million impressions within 24 hours. The event sold out and rival festival organisers were stunned as investors tried to pull money out of their events to put into Fyre.

Fast forward a few months and they needn’t have worried.  Fyre festival was shown to be a completely fraudulent event.  The ‘Best in food, art, music and adventure’ was a sham. Attendees were met with a desolate scene of soaked disaster tents, no security, a hugely reduced artist line-up, oh and cheese sandwiches. In fact, an image of the latter – two slices of bread with plastic cheese in a polystyrene take-away box – is the most associated image of the failed event, having gone viral after posting.

McFarland was proven to have defrauded investors out of $27.4M and is currently serving six years in prison for his offenses.  Not only did investors and ticket holders lose out – though compensation is in the process of being handled – so did local islanders.

Bahamian restaurant owners Maryann and Elvis Rolle had their catering services requested by event organisers, but payment was never received which meant they lost around $50,000 of their savings paying staff that had been taken on to work 24 hours a day throughout the event.  Now, from out of the ashes of this disaster, comes hope as a fundraising campaign shared across social media – the same vehicle used to hoodwink people into buying into this event – has raised over £140,000 (over $181,000) for the Rolles, securing at least one happy ending for those involved.

So, where does this leave us? One takeaway from analysing the rise and fall of this event is a reminder of the true power of social media and Instagram influencers. It also provides great insights into the value system of the millennial generation, a generation thought to be driven by social media and who supposedly rate their self-worth based on the level of interaction they gain through posts.  Fyre’s messaging was all about ‘exclusivity’, which triggered FOMO in its audience and the desire to gain one-upmanship on their friends and followers by finding a way to attend such a sought-after event.

The constant capturing of content both professionally and through social media meant that the event’s downfall went viral immediately with Twitter trending topics of #FyreFraud and #FyreFail. This footage has also been instrumental in seeing the perpetrators brought to justice.  With the public’s addiction to social media and mobile usage at an all-time high, the success, and reputation of any event will be revealed through people’s devices. Organisers will be fully accountable and will have to be prepared to take on both negative and positive commentary.

It would be nice to think that this kind of event won’t happen again, and with the ongoing backlash it is receiving, it would be unlikely.  However, the tactics used by Fyre Festival marketeers and organisers to pray on influential, insecure youngsters; millennials who are hard-wired to be in tune with, and desire to be involved with ‘the next big thing’, are unfortunately repeated every day.  Perhaps not to the same blatant extent, but subtly by brands in their use of messaging and imagery.

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