We’ve all seen them, the improbably beautiful people posing for photographs on the beaches of Dubai, snapping shots of their untouched lunch in a cool restaurant or taking selfies while trying on shoes in some fashion-forward mall boutique.
What might come as a surprise to people of a certain age is that, far from documenting their profligate, materialistic lives purely in the name of vanity, many of these online mannequins are, in fact, hard at work. They are the paid social media influencers, a uniquely 21st-century breed of marketeer.
Their mission is to attract as many followers as possible to their Instagram accounts and then feed them paid-for promotional posts alongside the breathless updates on their fabulous lifestyles.
Now Dubai Consumer Protection is advising consumers to think twice before falling for this stuff. "Some of them," the department warns in a slick video posted on Twitter – where else? – "are paid to advertise convincingly to you." To anyone born before 1978, this might seem blindingly obvious. But product placement on social media is a sneaky, opaque form of advertising to which aspirational young people are particularly vulnerable.
The UAE is one of the top destinations for social media influencers – search #Dubai on Instagram and play Spot the Product Placement among the 76 million posts – and the authorities have taken a pragmatic approach to the rise of the commercial lifestyle braggers: if you can’t beat them, regulate them.
Anyone in the UAE who makes money promoting brands on social media now requires two licences, a standard trade licence and a special e-media licence from the National Media Council, costing a total of Dh30,000. Don't worry, they can afford it. Persuading Kim Kardashian-West to share a snap of your dish of the day with her 119 million Instagram followers will apparently cost you half a million dollars.
But many others are making extremely handsome livings, including influencers in the UAE who charge between $1,000 and $5,000 for posting to their hundreds of thousands of fans. Close to three billion of the world’s seven billion people now use social media and many of them, it seems, are easily swayed. Those in Dubai, at least, can’t say they haven’t been e-warned.