I was going to make a blog post about Netflix’s much-hyped documentary FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened but since Hulu sneakily beat them to the punch (which, good on you, Hulu… petty, but I see you), I’m turning this post into a review of Fyre Fraud and will perhaps revisit the Netflix rendition at a later date. Sorry, Netflix! You snooze, you lose.
Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud” promotion poster
As a brief run-through for those unfamiliar with either Fyre Festival or it’s massive, fiery downfall (pun intended), the festival was essentially marketed to be the highest caliber of a festival experience. Their deceptive trailer promised beautiful women, gourmet dining, crystal-clear tropical waters and an unparalleled music experience on an island creators *claimed* was previously owned by Pablo Escobar. It was supposed to be something the world had never seen before. Pulling a direct quote from the trailer, “the actual experience exceeds all expectations.” Boy, were they off on that one.
Screengrab from the Fyre Festival official promotional video
Instead, festival-goers arrived to post-apocalyptic conditions, with the gravelly island where Fyre Festival was situated covered in FEMA tents instead of the glitzy villas they were promised (the festival organizer supposedly “lost the keys”). Water was scarce, food was notably not gourmet and nearly all of the acts canceled last minute, unbeknownst to the attendees, of course.
Screengrab from Fyre Fraud of attendees arriving at their luxurious private villas (*cough cough* FEMA tents)
While much of the media’s focus after the festival’s massive failure was on how funny it was that stupid, rich millennials would get scammed so badly, the more interesting story happened before festival-goers arrived on the island. The real story of Fyre Festival is that of Billy McFarland, a serial con-artist, and the marketing strategy that allowed him to scam so many people. It’s a story about one person’s idea can spiral into something so massive and so out of their control when they have a fun personality cocktail of narcissism, charisma and a lack of self-blame and a large team to support their fraud.
WARNING: The rest of this post contains spoilers
Who is Billy McFarland?
Billy McFarland in Fyre Fraud
It’s clear from the start of Fyre Fraud that Billy is the star of the show. He has a boyish face and bright, hopeful eyes, appearing younger than one would imagine someone capable of scamming people out of millions of dollars would look. From the first minute of Billy’s interview, it’s obvious that he places very little blame for the festival’s failure on himself. He throws around flimsy words like “mistake” and “luck” and promises that there was “no hidden secret” and “no hidden agenda.” This was something that he really wanted to happen. But passion isn’t the problem.
Billy McFarland had always been passionate. He became a serial entrepreneur at a young age, from a vague project in elementary school involving to the sale of crayons to his peers to a web hosting company he created in fifth grade for which he employed three full-time workers in India. In short, Billy was definitely the kind of child who was told he was special a few too many times.
Crayons and web hosting snowballed into larger businesses, from one he created for a company pitch competition in college to a company called Magnises that created an exclusive credit card, where he began dabbling in fraud, to Fyre Festival when his scam-fueled dreams finally came to a head.
Screengrab from Fyre Fraud of Billy with Rick Ross, flashing his ultra exclusive Magnises credit card
From the beginning, the concept for Fyre Festival was a bit of an advertise now, plan later kind of deal. That’s the kind of guy Billy McFarland is. His priorities were out of whack from start to finish, best shown by his feverish determination to buy a pirate ship for the festival instead of, I don’t know, maybe making sure literally everything else didn’t fall apart?
There were so many signs that pointed to Fyre Festival not happening as planned. The idea of planning any kind of festival in such a tight time frame was outlandish, let alone a festival that promised swanky lodging and five star dining. People urged Billy to cancel or reschedule but he was so determined to see Fyre Festival through to the end that he ignored everyone.
Even after the festival, Billy covered fraud with more fraud, covering massive holes of debt with even more money, with little remorse. He was so disillusioned that he spoke of plans for Fyre Festival 2018 even after his 2017 rendition ended in people crying, passing out and running to catch planes off of the island.
But wait, how did Billy manage to get to that point? How’d he convince so many people to willingly buy tickets to this sh*tshow? Let’s jump into it…
When all of this went down, my first thought as someone in marketing was: how much are their marketing and PR teams to blame?
From the perspective of a marketing professional, the tactics the team employed to sell tickets to this sham were brilliant. They knew exactly who their audience was – social media-obsessed millenials willing and able to pay top dollar – and what would drive them to buy. From the opinion of a human being, Billy McFarland is a self-centered scam artist. From the opinion of someone in digital marketing, Billy McFarland is a genius. Of course, that opinion comes with a complete disregard for moral code but whatever.
The marketing team that supported Fyre Festival knew that the idea was a disaster right off the bat. According to one social media specialist employed at the time for the agency that handled Fyre Festival’s marketing, both agencies that pitched to Fyre left the meeting and agreed that the idea was insane, but that they might as well do it. Definitely a questionable approach, but if you were faced with what was probably a couple million dollar project for what promised to be a one-of-a-kind, never-been-seen-before music festival that would be held for years to come, you’d probably take it.
The team was essentially tasked with marketing a fantasy, something that had not been created yet – and would never be. The main focus of the team’s strategy was on influencer marketing. This form of marketing employs people with social clout called “influencers” to make a statement on social media about a company, product or festival doomed to fail and defraud people of thousands of dollars. Somehow, this team managed to rope in huge names like Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner along with dozens of micro-influencers to help get the word Fyre Festival out there. And it worked! With the color orange and a single video, Fyre Festival was able to sell thousands of tickets. Influencers gave Fyre Festival its legitimacy when solid plans couldn’t.
From Bella Hadid’s Instagram, the infamous orange square that became a symbol of Fyre Festival
As the film says “we’re living in an era in which you can convince millions of people to do anything just on marketing alone.” This is super exciting for anyone working in marketing or corporations with thousands to put towards marketing, but should scare just about everyone else. Paid social media provides a new avenue for companies to put their names out, drilling themselves into our subconscious without us even noticing.
Aren’t millenials kinda to blame though?
I mean, I guess so. But then so is anyone that buys those gummies that are supposed to grow your hair or the sketchy gel that’s supposed to instantly whiten your teeth just because someone hot with lots of social media followers posted it to their gram with #ad at the end. People were willing to pay thousands of dollars to experience something they thought would be unique but ended up playing involuntary Survivor. It was their fault in the sense that they put their well-being at risk, but their desire to go to Fyre Festival was simply human nature.
If we’re going to blame millenials, we have to blame the society that’s raised us. As the documentary notes several times, we’re glued to our phones. We have such bad FOMO that we’re willing to drop thousands on something just because a model posted about it. We’re anxious and self-obsessed and I’d venture to say a lot of that has to do with social media and the image of ourselves we feel compelled to create. Fyre Festival, if it brings no other positivity to this world, can serve as a catalyst for the discussion around the trust we put in social media and what we’re willing to put on the line for the sake of dodging FOMO.