Has The Era Of Brand Trips Run Its Course?

“If you ain’t got no money, take yo’ broke ass home!”

If the lyrics of Fergie’s chart-topping hit “Glamorous” as a fitting soundtrack don’t clue you into the aesthetics of makeup brand Tarte’s recent influencer trip, the countless videos flooding TikTok for-you-pages certainly will. Last week, Tarte sent a group of makeup, lifestyle, and fashion influencers on an all-expenses paid trip to a Four Seasons hotel on the Polynesian island of Bora Bora, where they drank, partied, and at one point, danced next to a life-sized mascot of the brand’s best-selling concealer. Some of the most popular creators on TikTok — Like Vidya Gopalan and Mackenzie Ziegler— posted dozens of videos opening massive boxes of free merchandise, flying on private planes, and partying poolside. But from the pageantry of the tropical getaway, accusations of the trip being tone-deaf coupled with the memory of Tarte’s past faux pas have created a massive discussion online. Brand trips have long been treated as a necessary part of influencer marketing — but are they past their prime?

Tarte Cosmetics, which has been around since 1999, has in recent years become known for selling its products to consumers primarily through influencer outreach, and in doing so is no stranger to online controversy. In 2018, YouTube beauty guru Jackie Aina criticized Tarte for lacking foundation and concealer shade diversity at a time when most lines had expanded the options for all skin tones — a massive moment where hundreds of beauty reviewers and creators refused to promote Tarte until they apologized and announced they’d be releasing more shades. (They did.)

But it wasn’t just their product that received scrutiny. The brand, which has been sending influencers on paid trips since 2013, got backlash in January 2023, after a trip to Dubai was criticized for being attended by primarily white, rich influencers. Content from the trip that flooded TikTok and Instagram was dominated by a group of white, blonde women, which didn’t sit well with Tarte fans. And the brand had barely won back goodwill before being embroiled in more drama that May, after a Black creator accused the company of prioritizing white creators with larger followings and disregarding her feelings while on a brand trip to Miami. CEO Maureen Kelly denied that white creators were being treated better, but after her apology (given in the form of a makeup tutorial) was panned, the company announced an intensive DEI operation and promised to do better. 

Enter Tarte’s most recent trip to Bora Bora. Unlike most viral stories on TikTok at the moment, very little actually happened on the trip itself. Not a single creator posted about controversy — instead, the content all revolved around how much fun everyone was having. (A few even cheekily poked fun at the past mishaps, with Asian content creator Michelle Lee captioning her video on one of the private planes “DIVERSITY CREW BABYYYY!”) But that didn’t stop those at home from stirring up a little drama online. In addition to an overwhelming wave of general complaining, some people have called the trip in poor taste for rewarding creators who are already successful and could have probably used their own money for a vacation. Others have consumed the content like a crossover episode of their favorite show, specifically celebrating smaller creators who were chosen to attend. 

Ed East, co-founder and group CEO of Billion Dollar Boy, an influencer marketing agency, tells Rolling Stone that current discussions surrounding Tarte highlight some of the hidden pitfalls of gifting-heavy campaigns. “I think the reason [Tarte’s] receiving this backlash is because it feels quite tone-deaf with the sort of economic climate that most of us are. Treating people to luxurious trips while we’re all here at our desks working away doesn’t seem like the best way to entertain people,” East says. “However, the flip side argument is if you think about it like reality television. Some people engage with that in a very positive manner. They like that escape from reality. “

East also notes that for many brands, all-expenses-paid trips aren’t just about selling products, they’re about building a community of creators who want to work with them — which can produce a return on investment much larger than the cost of a few private planes and some waterfront bungalows. “We’ve always believed in the power of genuine connections over traditional advertising. Some brands find it beneficial to invest in 10 million dollar TV commercials, celebrity campaigns, or print ads, we focus on relationships through our brand trips that are a much smaller investment,” Kelly, Tarte’s CEO, said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “These more authentic relationships have proven to drive not only product sales in the short & long term but to expand our reach & community exponentially. ”

For Tarte, much of their recent gifting and social media strategy in the past year has been focused on redeeming the brand among Black creators. But while it’s seemingly worked to restore the good graces of influencers of color — a large number of whom made up the Bora Bora trip — there’s still a disconnect online between where to place blame. During the May 2023 debacle, it was Black creators who took the majority of the heat when Tarte was accused of being racist. Commenters accused Fannita Legget, a Black creator who was invited on the trip at the last minute, of condoning the company’s alleged treatment of creators of color, filling her comments with insults until Legget turned them off.


Sofi, a 26-year-old lifestyle and beauty content creator, was aware of Tarte’s reputation with brand trips well before she was invited to the Bora Bora vacation. “I remember like Dubai happening and being like, ‘How can they afford this?’ And also like, ‘Damn, I want to be on that trip,’” she tells Rolling Stone. But while she’s open to hearing people’s opinions about the trip, especially in light of the past mishaps, she pushes back against the idea that the impetus should fall on creators of color to champion change. “There’s such a heavy burden put on Black creators to be the moral compass for a lot of these companies rather than just taking up space,” she says. “When I posted [I was going] there was a camp that was like ‘Oh my god, you’re a sellout.’ And this is not to ignore other creators who have had a bad time. But are we looking for change from brands? I wonder what sort of the end goal is in situations like these and how, as a Black woman, I’m supposed to constantly respond to the same critiques.”

As long as influencers remain a major force in the market, there will always be fatigue over those same influencers selling lavish lifestyles. But what much of the sheer volume of noise around Tarte’s big swing has failed to capture is how even major debates can help both brands and influencers. The hashtag #tarteborabora has 37 million videos on TikTok alone — which doesn’t include the thousands of followers each trip attendee has gained since leaving their island retreat. If Tarte’s goal was eyes, they have them by the millions. “I don’t think anyone who runs an exciting big initiative like this is looking for negative responses,” West adds. “But they say any PR is good PR, right? I mean, look, how much coverage there’s been.”