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PopSugar Stole Influencers’ Instagrams — Along With Their Profits

The lifestyle website stripped bloggers’ affiliate links from their posts and added the site’s own.

Photo: Hollie Fernando/Getty Images

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On Sunday evening, Maren Jensen, who runs the blog Midwest in Style, logged on to a Facebook group where she swaps advice and support with about 2,000 other members who work with the affiliate platform RewardStyle and its Instagram product The top post was a screenshot another member had taken from the lifestyle website PopSugar: it looked almost like the blogger’s own Instagram — with her handle, profile picture, and feed of several hundred photos — but every post linked to a shopping page where visitors could purchase the items.

In place of the usual RewardStyle affiliate links — which drove commissions on $1 billion in sales in 2017 and are a significant source of many bloggers’ incomes — there were PopSugar’s own affiliate links, meaning any revenues generated would go to the site, not the influencer.

Jensen plugged her handle into the URL (which PopSugar took down on Monday morning, but which was nested under the site’s “Shop” vertical in a category called “Looks,” as shown through the hundreds still visible through the Wayback Machine) and discovered a similar situation: several hundred photos of her and her young children, none of which she’d granted the site permission to use. In the Facebook comments, which by the evening were up to more than 300, bloggers expressed outrage and confusion.

“My No. 1 concern was: Okay, they’ve taken my photos, but not just of me — also my children. And then they’re using it to make money,” says Jensen. “I never consented to this. And I think that was the general consensus among all of us: Just because this is on a social media platform doesn’t mean you’re entitled to it. It doesn’t mean you can just take it and use it for what you want.”

That has become increasingly clear in the days since: RewardStyle founder Amber Venz Box sent out an email to the network on Tuesday stating that thousands of “falsified vanity pages” containing millions of images belonging to the network’s content creators were put on PopSugar without her company’s “knowledge or consent,” and influencers told Racked on Monday and Tuesday that the group was considering pursuing a class-action lawsuit against the site.

Particularly egregious was the fact that Venz Box’s own profile was aggregated there, with 1,800 photos linking out to shoppable items stripped of their original links. Her inclusion, however, made it fairly clear that this was not a curated effort from the editors of PopSugar, but rather an algorithmically generated product added to the site in the name of innovation (and, more to the point, monetization) that failed to account for the intellectual property issues at stake. (Contacted for comment on Tuesday, a spokesperson for RewardStyle said Venz Box was not available for comment, as the issue was now a “legal matter.”)

On Tuesday evening, PopSugar co-founder and CEO Brian Sugar tweeted an explanation: The tool was developed during a hackathon in summer 2017, “to analyze fashion and beauty bloggers and the products they featured,” and the URLs, which were intended for internal use only, were mistakenly left open, albeit hidden from search engine indexing and social media. The developers used publicly available APIs, he continued, but they abandoned the experiment after they realized it wasn’t working. The pages did, however, make some money: $2,695 in commission to be exact, which the site says it plans to pay out to the appropriate influencers.

Still, some bloggers wonder why it took more than 48 hours after they began reaching out to the site to receive an explanation, and argue that whether they generated direct revenue or not, their photos were still used on the site.

Unlike Jensen, a marketer whose blog is a side hustle, many of the women (and so far, it is all women) who found their profiles on PopSugar are full-time influencers. Nita Mann of Next With Nita says she moved to California last year to pursue blogging after finishing law school, and now she and her husband, who is a photographer, work on it together. When she saw her page on PopSugar, she says that even with her law degree, “I was confused because I didn’t know whether it was legal.”

Websites and brands reach out over email or direct message frequently to ask her permission to use her images, and for on-site use, her husband charges a flat fee for the original photography. “I think this is 100 percent different because they didn’t ask for permission,” Mann says, adding that she and her manager planned to send PopSugar an invoice for the 615 images on the site.

Many smaller influencers don’t have representation, and combined with the relative newness of the profession and the less-than-aboveboard copyright practices that were widespread just a few years ago, not everyone was confident they would have any recourse against their images being used.

”It’s tough as an influencer because you create content, you put it on Instagram, you try to grow, you sign up with various networks, so your content does get spread far and wide — that’s kind of a double-edged sword of it,” says Shantel Rousseau, who runs her blog Simply Shantel full time.

PopSugar, according to data from its corporate website and comScore, has a global audience of 400 million and reaches one in three millennial women. In 2013, it sold the shopping search engine ShopStyle to Ebates, which is owned by the Japanese e-commerce conglomerate Rakuten; however, it has continued to use the underlying technology to generate affiliate links and populate stories with shoppable products. Following the backlash, ShopStyle’s affiliate network tweeted that PopSugar will no longer be able to generate monetized links pending further investigation.

The site’s sheer scale — it’s among the biggest in the online-native fashion and lifestyle space — made the incident especially galling for many influencers and is one reason some say they are skeptical it could have made such a mistake.

Such an oversight isn’t unthinkable, however. These sites are constantly trying to make their content more shoppable to make up for the paltry pool of ad dollars available, and generally aren’t as flush as they might seem to a casual visitor. Five years ago, they might have been able to get away with putting together 100-slide galleries (most likely compiled by an unpaid intern) of photos pulled from around the web, but the influencer economy has evolved, with management agencies and legal practices springing up to address their evolving needs and tap into their growing bank accounts.

RewardStyle’s network, in particular, has set the standard for affiliate linking. “These bloggers are some of the best of the best,” Rousseau says. “They’re paying attention to things in a different way, and the business acumen with RewardStyle bloggers is relatively high.” They’re all hyperaware of best practices (perhaps unsurprisingly, since that’s how they get paid). “You want to tag things that are relevant; you want to tag things that are in stock,” Rousseau says. “If you’re going to do something like [what PopSugar did], that’s going to be the best pool to pick from because chances are, 90 percent of what we’re tagging is in stock, it’s available.”

Rousseau argues that if bloggers are going to be held to a high standard on issues like Federal Trade Commission compliance for sponsored posts, “I think brands and websites — especially a website like PopSugar that’s predominantly recycled content — it’s really important that they’re doing their due diligence and paying the people that they obviously see value in. There’s nothing wrong with paying for good work, and good work deserves to be paid for.”