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On Saturday, March 10, at the Hotel Bel-Air, Khloé Kardashian held her baby shower. The event — designed by Mindy Weiss, the most famous party planner in the world, and Jeff Leatham, the most famous florist in the world — was an explosion of pink: Guests entered the dining room under an enormous archway of roses to a room in which thousands of flowers cascaded from the ceiling and onto a bed of bright pink balloons.
Topiaries in the shape of elephants and giraffes towered nearby. A neon sign had been constructed in Kris Jenner’s exact handwriting. Invitees included beauty moguls and supermodels and more than one Real Housewife. All in all, the baby shower was a fairly standard Kardashian-caliber event for such a momentous occasion in every way but one: It was sponsored by Amazon.
The reason Amazon sponsored an event that the host almost certainly could have afforded otherwise became clear when the party pictures were posted for Kardashian’s nearly 77 million Instagram followers, dotted with preapproved language and hashtags mandated by Amazon Baby Registry.
The backlash, as it so often is, was swift. Many criticized Khloé for teaming up with the oft-maligned online retail giant and shilling for the company owned by the wealthiest man in the world. Others accused her of tastelessness for using a baby shower as “product placement” and of profiting off her unborn child.
My immediate thought was of something totally unrelated: that time The Hills star Audrina Patridge announced her pregnancy in a tweet that was also an ad for Clearblue. Way back in 2015, it felt hilariously shocking, almost Onion-esque. But that was also when an influencer posting sponsored content was a newsworthy topic of discussion rather than a normal part of being famous.
In the years since, influencer marketing has exploded, And more recently, one area has proven to be particularly lucrative: sponsored content that involves kids, or spawn con, if you will.
Arranging these deals are agents like Paul Desisto, who works with reality stars including the Bachelor franchise’s Carly Waddell and Jade Roper. Having overseen close to $30 million-worth of influencer marketing deals, he says there are a few reasons why spawn con is so profitable: the limited pool of talent, the rise of Instagram shopping, and the success of the direct-to-consumer model.
Any old influencer can market tea-toxes or gummies that claim to give you better hair, but not everyone with 100,000 loyal followers on Instagram happens to be pregnant. “If you’re a baby company or if you’re putting out a product for a mother that’s about to have a baby or if you’re currently pregnant, you’re kind of limited in the amount of influencers out there to work with,” he explains. “So, as you can imagine just for supply and demand, it makes you a lot more valuable because the pool of talent is very limited.”
And then there’s the fact that many of these moms are American millennials selling to other American millennials, all of whom are well acquainted with the act of making a purchase on their phones. Instagram shopping in general has boomed, in part thanks to a new class of brands existing mostly or entirely on the platform.
Finally, the direct-to-consumer model, perhaps best known for $99 hipster glasses and mattresses that advertise on podcasts, also happens to work quite well for maternity products. “The products tend to not be cheap,” Desisto says. “It’s a lucrative space. Every single brand I talk to in the motherhood space is all trying to go direct to the consumer. They’re really trying to get out of retail.”
The DTC business model generally lowers costs for both the company and its customers, which is particularly important in the saturated baby market; it’s incredibly expensive to secure shelf space in chain stores like BuyBuy Baby. And since moms-to-be aren’t going to be seeing these DTC products while strolling through store aisles, getting them to make purchases while scrolling through their feeds is all the more important.
Influencer marketing, for maternity products or otherwise, also has the benefit of working very, very quickly. Companies will see sales from an Instagram post in virtually the same amount of time it takes for a fan to “like” it, and generally in a corresponding ratio, which makes it easy for brands to grow in very short amounts of time.
“I know companies that when I started working with them three years ago, were under $1 million in revenue a year,” says Desisto. “[They] spent about 90 to 100 percent of their influencer [spending] with me personally.” Now, he says, they’re making revenues between “$60 and $70 million” per year.
We did it! Our little sweetheart is here! She arrived on her own terms, quickly and 4 weeks early, but she is perfect in every way, healthy and doing well. Precious little girl, there are no words to describe the feeling of holding you in our arms for this first time and looking into your beautiful eyes. We love you so much. #bestdayever #ilovemyfamily (Thank you, @avawomen for helping us start our family. ❤️) : @melissarieke @melissaandbethphotography
One of the brands that has seen extremely rapid growth is Ava, an ovulation and fertility tracking bracelet. The company has partnered with Bachelor alumni like Catherine Lowe, Instagram influencers like Itsy Bitsy Indulgence, and YouTubers like Alexsis Mae, and acquired a series of funding thanks to its influencer marketing strategy, according to Desisto.
For Ava, these partnerships make a lot of sense. “Many of these stars are also planning to start families of their own in the near future, and their fans and followers are often in a similar life stage,” wrote Sharee Loeffler, the director of marketing for Ava, in an email to Racked. “This makes them a natural fit.”
Of course, brands aren’t the only ones making money in the spawn con ecosystem. Katie Stauffer, whose twin daughters Emma and Mila are known for videos in which the toddlers engage in comically precocious conversations, was able to quit her job as an escrow officer thanks to partnerships with Amazon, Nest, Macy’s, and other major companies.
Though not every parent happens to have kids with promising YouTube comedy careers ahead of them, they do likely have kids that are, at the least, cute. And when you’re a person whose income stems from living an aesthetically pleasing life, that’s important, because in general, the more people double tap on your photos, the more people buy the product you’re selling.
But as the 25-year-old social media star Ross Smith rather inelegantly told the New York Times last fall, there is a limited window: “Kids grow up and become less relevant,” he said. “The sweet spot is between 2 and 4, [after which] they’re not that cute.”
This, however, is not the only uncomfortable reality raised by the rise of spawn con. One of the more obvious ones? How brands possibly know when a star is even pregnant or wants to become pregnant.
To take this photo, I literally handed her the empty ketchup bottle. Running out of Heinz ketchup in this house is sort of like running out of toilet paper...you don’t do it!!! Luckily @heinzketchup_us has a BOGO promo right now. Time to stock up! For details, visit BetterHaveABackup.com #ad #theresaminimilavideoinstories
That somewhat thorny business is why people like Paul exist. He says that often, brands will do research on influencers who they think might become pregnant and reach out to him. The first thing they’ll want to know is whether or not the influencer is actually excited about the product, and then they’ll negotiate rates, timing, copy, and creative direction, such as who will physically be in the image.
A Jade Roper or a Carly Waddell might make $10,000 to $20,000 per post (both have about 1 million Instagram followers), though for less famous influencers that number could be significantly lower.
Loeffler explains that sometimes it works the other way around. “We do have some influencers that we know are trying to conceive because they reach out to us and let us know.”
You could view the practitioners of spawn con as the 2010s iteration of the stage parent: monetizing their children, who don’t get a say in which advertisement their face ends up in, and performing parenthood for the capitalist machine. After all, whose first thought, upon finding out that they’re pregnant, would be to slide into the DMs of a baby brand asking for money?
But of course, that’s not the way most of these deals happen. And the social unacceptability of sponsored content — including posts that feature children — has lessened over the past few years, whether that’s because of its total omnipresence on Instagram or whether spon con in general has simply gotten more clever.
In an interview with Fashionista, the founder of Maisonette — the “Net-a-Porter of childrenswear” — Sylvanna Ward Durrett described the relationship between young parents and social media this way:
Millennials are having kids now. They care about design. They aren’t just satisfied with the Fisher Price plastic, multi-colored offering. They want to make sure that the things the kids are wearing and sitting in and sleeping in are good quality. On top of which, in the world of Instagram and social media, your kids are now part of your personal brand. The look of something is increasingly important. It’s not just about function; it’s about how it looks with the rest of your life.
She was referring to the concept behind her business, but it’s a useful way of understanding spawn con. These days, younger people just don’t seem to be all that offended by blatant hustling or “doing it for the ’gram.” It’s widely accepted that social media is real life, and if you can make money there, well, then, God bless.
Spawn con is also perfectly legal, at least for now. Though child models and actors are protected by state laws around working conditions, hours, and payment, in most cases, children who appear in sponsored Instagram posts are not subject to these same laws.
Jamie Lieberman, a partner at Hashtag Legal, is one of a small number of experts on the matter. Her firm offers legal services for social media professionals and drafts sponsored content contracts for brands and influencers. She can attest that the definitions can often be murky.
“We recommend that influencers talk to an attorney to make sure they are complying with all laws when using children in their photos or videos because each situation is different,” she writes in an email to Racked.
Proud to be part of an extended partnership this year with @CLIFKid. A brand our family has enjoyed for years who embrace adventure play, exploration and everyday fun. We love that they are dedicated to providing nutritious snacks for the kinds of adventures we seek as a family constantly on the go. #CLIFKid #Ad #CLIFKidPartner
Influencers need to make sure they’re complying with truth in advertising laws and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, as well as figure out whether or not the child can be considered a model or performer. They also have to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act and their state’s child employment laws. Lieberman recommends that the children should be paid, that parents withhold proper taxes, and to ensure that all the activities the child does when appearing in spon con “relates solely to their business.”
But the Federal Trade Commission, which monitors sponsored content, is a lot less concerned about influencers using their children in sponsored posts than it is about advertisements directed toward children. Though it’s cracked down in the past on celebrities who have improperly disclosed relationships with brands, it has no authority over child labor laws, and therefore likely couldn’t enforce any such guidelines.
Yet despite the fact that spawn con is a) legal, b) increasingly common, and c) highly lucrative, finding parents who regularly engage in it and who were also willing to talk to me was unusually difficult.
They made fair points: They didn’t want their family to be portrayed in a manner outside of their control; they didn’t have time because they were busy being moms; they were worried they might be accused of exploiting their children. These are women who make livings off of being good at the internet and who’ve seen its dark side firsthand, and it’s understandable that they’d want to take extra caution.
Jessica Reed Kraus of the blog House Inhabit, however, was open about the positive experiences she’s had creating sponsored content with her four boys. “I’ve been incredibly fortunate in that my audience seems to be very supportive and polite,” she writes to Racked. “I can’t think of an instance where they’re been rude or critical at all.”
Her blog readers and 78,000 Instagram followers have enabled her to work with companies like Disney, Airbnb, and Madewell while posting photos and writing captions about her particular brand of dreamy Southern California lifestyle. When it comes to the spon con, she says she’s open with her kids about what they’re promoting and tries to keep it fun, never forced.
“I have definitely questioned the long-term effects of it but ultimately decided that as long as I explained what it is they are part of and made it fun for them, they wouldn’t begrudge me later in life. I do my best to make sure sponsored posts are as real and tasteful as possible.” she adds. “It’s been very good to us, so I have nothing but praise to offer in support of it.”