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Social media 'influencers' paid thousands of Florida taxpayers' money to promote virtual vacations

Some state leaders have questions about a recent Visit Florida campaign after 10 Investigates started digging.

TAMPA, Fla. — Many of us have scrolled through social media, liking and following our favorite influencers.

They show us fashion, recipes, destinations. But a lot of those posts, come with a price tag.

What If we told you that your tax dollars paid for some of them?

10 Investigates' Jennifer Titus uncovered tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars being spent on social media "influencers" to promote Florida without those influencers ever stepping foot in our state.

"Camp Florida" is a virtual ad campaign that allows families to virtually vacation around Florida.

It's a contract signed off on by Visit Florida, the state's tourism agency.

The campaign cost was $500,000.

As 10 Investigates uncovered, some of that money went to social media influencers around the country.

One influencer was paid $10,000 for three separate posts in her Instagram story promoting a vacation in Florida without ever stepping foot in the state. 

She then posted a photo of her family participating in the virtual experience. Again, in her story, that is deleted after 24 hours.

Other influencers were paid anywhere from $3,000 to $8,000 for similar posts on their Instagram accounts.

Titus: "Was it a good use of tax dollars?"

Carol Osborne, Marketing Professor USF: "Well, in $10,000, and all around that figure that's a lot for a post for having maybe 200,000 followers. That's high."

Carol Osborne has more than 30 years of experience in professional marketing.

Titus: "When you saw those prices, that 10,000 that $8,000 that $5,000, what do you think about that? Were there red flags raised for you there?"

Osborne: "It doesn't raise red flags to me. I just thought it was very expensive for, you know, influencers that may be really, I don't want to say don't have a lot of credibility, but maybe they're unproven. And so, I think I'd want a little bit more information on what I'm actually getting for that."

"I want to see the return on investment," Senator Annette Taddeo told Titus. "I think this is something that I would question to make sure that we are getting the return on investment."

So, 10 Investigates requested that information. 

Visit Florida sent us an email statement saying, "In partnership with CAMP we were able to promote Florida tourism to families through custom articles and games, and a live custom virtual series in which over 2,000 families participated."

But when we asked about the specific metrics that showed how many people were actually reached by the posts the influencers pushed out, they emailed us back saying, "Pursuant to Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes, we have provided you with all campaign information that is currently available."

Senator Jason Pizzo who sits on the Commerce and Tourism committee had questions too.

"If this is indicative, like I said, or this is a pattern of spending that goes with very little metric to be able to gauge it, no follow up, and really just not being transparent to folks like you. Yeah, I have questions."

This isn't the first-time questions have been raised over Visit Florida spending. A few years ago, 10 Investigates uncovered a contract worth $1 million paid for by your taxpayer dollars to rapper Pitbull. 

"And one of the things we want is to make sure that all of those contracts, all of those types of relationships are done in the light of day," Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls told Titus.

Sprowls says there has to be oversight of how taxpayer's money is being spent. Visit Florida was given $50 million last year out of the state budget.

To put the $10,000 one of those "influencers" was paid into perspective, we spoke with Kelly Donner who says she is still waiting on $10,000 from the state.

"That $10,000 right now would mean that I could pay off the enormous amount of credit card debt that has been keeping us afloat," Kelly told Titus.

She's been unemployed since the start of the pandemic.

Titus: "How much money are you waiting on?"

Kelly: "If we're including the federal, it's definitely over 10,000."

Hearing about the latest spending from a Florida agency, makes her frustrated. She says the amount of scrutiny Florida gives to some spending versus others isn't fair.

"It's disgusting," Kelly said.

The CEO of Visit Florida, Dana Young, was appointed the position after the former CEO stepped down after the contract with Pitbull was made public.

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