At this point, we’re all pretty accustomed to celebrities doing sponsored posts on Instagram. At first, it seemed random and desperate for A-listers to be earning their paychecks over Instagram, but things have changed a lot. These days, even the biggest names are doing ads for everything from food products to lube, so not much throws me off anymore. But one #spon trend that’s always fascinating to me is the use of paparazzi photos as an advertising tool. If that phrase just shocked you, I’m sorry I disillusioned you, but it’s time to grow up. Paparazzi photos are not just random photos photographers capture of celebs in their natural habitat—they can often be used as promo.
I really feel like in 2019, paparazzi photos don’t get enough love. They were everywhere in the 2000s (think of all those classic Britney Spears photos), but the rise of social media changed the way we get our images of celebrities. Now, so many of them post their own photos that we don’t have to wait for them to go to the gas station barefoot to get a glimpse of what they’re up to. But paparazzi photos are still alive and well, and in the age of #spon, they often have deeper context than it first appears.
Now, both famous people and major brands have figured out how to take the standard paparazzi photo, and make it work for them. Rather than stars getting caught unaware without underwear on, we’ve entered an era of paparazzi pics as marketing gold. Whether by calling the paparazzi on themselves, carefully placing products in the photos, or fully staging fake pap pics, it’s all a complicated game to sell product. Nothing in life is really a coincidence, so let’s dive into the world of paparazzi photos as sponsored content.
What really got me thinking about all of this was this photo of Bella Hadid that JustJared posted on Instagram last week. At first glance, it’s just Bella, walking down the street in a typical ’90s throwback outfit. But look at how she’s holding the bag. That’s not how normal people hold bags. It’s important here to note that it’s very obviously a Michael Kors bag, and Bella is the star of this season’s Michael Kors ad campaign. Her face is literally plastered on the windows of every Michael Kors boutique in the world. Coincidence? No, I just told you there are no coincidences.
By itself, I might have seen this photo and just kept scrolling, but then I remembered something Bella Hadid had posted on her own Instagram. Here she is, in the exact same outfit, with the exact same bag. In her post, she name drops the bag, uses #ad, and uses the paid partnership tool. It’s very obvious that this is an ad for Michael Kors, and she’s checking all the boxes to make sure she’s not breaking any rules about disclosing a partnership.
But normally when you do a photoshoot for an ad, you would change back into your own clothes at the end, and just go about your day. Instead, Bella Hadid obviously brought the bag out on the streets of New York with her, and got photographed by the paparazzi while she was at it. This photo looks like an actual paparazzi photo, but I have a feeling they were tipped off about where Bella would be, and she made sure that the bag was clearly visible.
I’m not saying it’s not a cute bag, because sure, it’s not fugly, but I doubt a $298 bag plastered with the Michael Kors logo is what Bella Hadid would reach for on a normal night out.
While Bella Hadid’s paparazzi photo wasn’t fake, it definitely constitutes some careful product placement, and we know for a fact that she’s getting paid to be the face of Michael Kors. Another potential example of this kind of product placement was Ariana Grande with Starbucks last year. This was never confirmed as a paid partnership, but for months, basically every time she stepped out in public, Ariana was walking around with a Starbucks cup.
Again, I don’t know if Ariana was being paid for her iced coffee obsession, but I do know that homegirl made sure the logo was facing the camera at all times. That, along with the iconic green straw, makes it pretty tough to miss the fact that Ari just couldn’t get enough of her Starbucks. Does she not know about good coffee??
And also, just last week, Bella Thorne’s team tipped off the paparazzi on where she would be before her book signing, and she was very subtly holding the new book while being photographed. Mad respect, honestly.
Whether you realize it or not, it’s not super uncommon for celebrities to call the paparazzi on themselves. While someone like Beyoncé doesn’t need any help getting press coverage, there are lots of lower-level famous people who would kill to get their photos on TMZ. Exposure is valuable! For top stars, it can be annoying to have photographers around them everywhere they go; someone like Bella Thorne isn’t mad about the paparazzi helping her sell a few more books.
Moving on from the tasteful product placement, my actual favorite thing is when companies fully stage paparazzi-style photos. Sometimes it’s less obvious than others, but it’s always hilarious.
Case in point: this photo of Jenny McCarthy chilling by the pool with her Uncle Bud’s CBD skin care products.
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Actress & former Playboy Playmate @jennymccarthy seen moisturizing her skin with Uncle Bud’s new CBD skin care collection! As Seen In: @dailymail @usweekly @radaronline @okmagazine @hollywoodlife • • • • • www.unclebudshemp.com #hempstead #wellnessshot #mindfulnessmoments #cbdfrance #hempfood #naturaloilfinish #wellnesstip #positivitymatters #cbdwellness #mindfulnessreminders #wellnessholiday #naturaloilbar #hemper #plantaddictionisreal #cbdu #wellnesswarrior #plantaddictionproblems #cbdtopicals #cbdgummies #cbdforpets #mindfulnessbarcelona #healthylifestyle #hempbombs #positivitysquad #cbdhealth #wellnessevent #healthychoices #wellnessweek #cbdtherapy
How fun! How casual! How natural! It’s hilarious to imagine a paparazzi photographer taking these hi-res photos of Jenny McCarthy at her backyard pool, but that’s definitely not what happened here. These photos were written up in numerous tabloids, including The Daily Mail and Radar Online, so I’m a little suspicious. Jenny was obviously being paid for these very staged photos, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Uncle Bud’s also paid some of the tabloids to write about it. Not to be rude, but no one cares about Jenny McCarthy or CBD skin care, so I doubt all these publications would be clamoring to publish articles about this.
But whatever, Jenny McCarthy, get that check, and hopefully the CBD makes up for all those vaccinations you’re not getting.
Probably the most prolific example of fake paparazzi photos as #spon is Kim Kardashian, and specifically the ad campaigns for Kanye West’s Yeezy collection. Some of them feel more staged than others, but they’re more about a general aesthetic than actually fooling people. Take notes, Jenny McCarthy. Here’s Kim wearing a very weather-appropriate outfit on a 100-degree day in Calabasas.
Why is she walking past a gravel pit? Are there gravel pits in Calabasas? Does Kim know what gravel is? Many questions.
The best photo of the bunch is this one of Kim and a couple of her groupies just casually “running” on the beach. Barefoot. In matching outfits. And full hair and makeup. As we all do!
But without a doubt, the most iconic use of fake paparazzi photos was in January 2018, when the Yeezy Season 6 campaign featured numerous influencers and celebrities dressed up as “Kim Clones.” Nothing has ever brought me more pure joy as a gay man than seeing Paris Hilton dressed up in full Kim Kardashian drag. It’s glorious.
This is actually an incredible look for Paris, and if she ever decides to tone down her over-the-top outfits, this vibe would totally work for her.
Another set of Kim Clones were the Clermont Twins, who are some of my favorite people in the world. They first got famous by appearing on The Bad Girls Club, where they basically just yelled the whole time about how rich they are. Their Instagram is almost exclusively wild thirst traps in matching outfits, so they were a perfect choice for this campaign.