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Friday, February 16, 2024

Companies Are Stealing Influencers' Faces

The first time Lucy Kyselica’s face was stolen, it turned up in the window of a beauty salon in small-town America. Kyselica is a Dutch beauty YouTuber who mostly makes videos about historical hairdos, but she had also made a video showing her subscribers how to thread their own eyebrows. The salon took a screengrab from that video, enlarged it to poster size, and used it to advertise their eyebrow threading services. Across the ocean in the Netherlands, Kyselica only found out because some fans recognized her, and asked her if she was working with the salon or if she even knew her image was in its window. She wasn’t; she didn’t. She sent an email, and never heard back. “It may still be there,” she says.


In the six years since, Kyselica has seen her image used to sell other people’s products over and over. She’s been the face of hairstyling tools, hair thickening products, and beauty pills. “The products are always kind of dodgy,” she says. Most recently, it was clip-in bangs sold by a Chinese merchant on Amazon. Kyselica decided to publicize her problem, and made a video about it: “I Ordered My Own Bangs Off Amazon 🤔 🙅‍♀”. You see, Kyselica’s bangs, which are her signature look, aren’t actually clip-ins. They grow from her scalp.

Image theft isn’t unique to Kyselica, or even social media influencers. If you’ve ever seen (or bought) a designer handbag or a pair of sunglasses that “fell off a truck,” you’ve seen a version of this before. The internet has made selling knockoffs a breeze, especially because vendors can just use a picture of the genuine article on the listing and the customer won’t know the difference until the inevitably plasticy and awful fake shows up on their doorstep.

As influencer marketing has grown in popularity, using images from their accounts has became the logical next step. Instagrammers often complain about Chinese fast fashion companies copying their looks and using their photos (often with their faces cropped out) to sell cheap knockoffs. Beauty YouTubers constantly encounter ads featuring their own eyes, nails, or whole faces, as well as inboxes and DMs full of fans telling them about such ads. In an economy based on audience trust, the products can be a real blow to their businesses. More often than not, they have no idea what to do next.

While it certainly isn’t good, a brand making a low-rent dupe of your outfit and selling it with a photo of your headless body can be a sick sort of best case scenario. For one, you’ve got that plausible deniability: If I really endorsed this (crappy) product, why would they crop out my face? Plus, for some, the scandal of it all can actually be a benefit.

That’s what happened to YouTuber Bernadette Banner, who makes historical sewing videos. One morning around 6 am, she found her DM inboxes—Facebook, Instagram, Etsy—stuffed with messages from fans. They were all telling her that a fast fashion company was advertising one of her dresses—a 15th century gown she had copied from a painting and hand-sewn over the course of over 250 hours—with her (headless) image for $40.98, which is not even half of her materials cost. “I had just woken up. I was incoherent. I never got to the point of rage,” Banner says. “I thought, ‘What would happen if I bought it? That would make really good video content.’ Without getting out of bed, I ordered the dress.” The resulting video, which she calls “an educated roast,” went viral. It got 3.5 million views, doubled Banner’s subscribe count, and made her five figures in revenue.

Banner’s business is based on showcasing her expertise: She didn’t design that dress, and she doesn’t sell it anywhere, so the knockoff didn’t really cost her anything in lost business. It’s the same for many beauty influencers. They derive their income from images of their faces, hair, and nails, so they stand to lose a lot more when those images are stolen. Even celebrity YouTubers have been affected. Nail artist Simply Nailogical, who has 7.5 million subscribers, has experienced so much image theft that she watermarks every image and video she uploads—and people still swipe them for advertisements. Makeup guru Tati Westbrook, who has over 9.5 million subscribers, has made a video detailing every time her image and voice have been used to promote products she doesn’t endorse.

People are almost always dismayed when this happens. “It's just kind of creepy to see my face in something I’m not associated with in any way,” Kyselica says. “It hurts my business. Also, on a personal level, the trust of my followers means a lot to me. I feel iffy about having my face used when the products are made in a way that is likely not ethically produced, like in a sweatshop in China.” The ethics concern comes up a lot: Banner is publicly critical of fast fashion companies in general, so to have her dress copied by one was extra frustrating. “There is probably somebody working basically as a slave to make this dress,” Banner says. “I got uncomfortable buying it, but I’d like to think that I’m keeping hundreds or thousands of other people from buying it, too.”


Among YouTubers and other influencers, there’s a sense that nothing can be done, of screaming into the void. There is frequently a language barrier between the influencer and the seller; the companies rarely (if ever) respond to their emails, and the images often pop up online again as advertisements for different companies entirely within a few days or even hours. (Typically the brands all share a parent company.) “It’s always disheartening to find out that it’s happened again,” Kyselica says, especially because, in its own way, it’s a symptom of her success. “It’s our job to produce nice images of ourselves and make them findable on Google,” she says. “When you Google images of girls, it's not surprising that we come up.” Put another way, SEO is now an occupational hazard.

However, if the products are being advertised on US-based platforms like Instagram or Amazon, recourse is possible, though somewhat complex. Using someone’s image for your commercial gain without their consent is illegal. “The platforms are supportive, but need to be communicated to in their format. If someone is sending an email that says ‘I want my image off here,’ it's not sufficient,” says Fred Dimyan, CEO of Potoo, a company that handles this issue for hundreds of major brands. “You have to note the specific infringement. Is it a trademark, or is it a registered trademark? That’s the level of granularity.” People without lawyers or platform experts on hand will find that difficult, but it’s not impossible.

For now, platforms are not proactively dealing with image theft on behalf of influencers. It’s up to the individual to report it. But fortunately for them, they have legions of fans watching feeds on their behalf, and can publicize the misuse of their images when it happens. Sometimes it even helps. After talking with me, Dimyan agreed to help Kyselica approach Amazon about the advertisement for those clip-in bangs. Her images have been removed—for now.

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