MINI PENNY: Cult Cosmetics: Image Theft and False Advertising

Monday, February 17, 2014

Cult Cosmetics: Image Theft and False Advertising


Edit 2/18 — After doing some additional research, I found this article written by Cult Nails (not the same as Cult Cosmetics). It seems as though images aren't the only thing they're fond of stealing — their entire brand concept seems to be lifted from Cult Nails. Digging deeper, I found this article as well. There seems to be other shady things happening with Cult Cosmetics — spamming bloggers who use Cult Nails, lifting tag lines, and even telling bloggers that they are the same company.

I have also checked Cult Cosmetic's website. They have changed their ToS to note that any image you "make available to them" through their Site (social media is not clarified. Before it claimed that it was only an image submitted to their site), they have full right to use it and provide no compensation to the User.

Other reviewers have claimed that Cult's polishes are not "cruelty free" as they have claimed. I am trying to find more info on this.

Edit 3/11 — Cult Cosmetics has stolen images again! I've added more info to the bottom of this blog post.

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I'm bummed that I even have to be writing this. When I first began purchasing the Cult Blackbox subscriptions, I was excited about the brand. I was into their packaging, their product, and their message.

I spent some time trying to decide whether or not to write this. I don't like attacking anyone. But it does get to the point where Cult keeps creating these same problems for themselves, and trying to shut down anyone who brings up the issue on their home turf. So while my personal issue with them was resolved (more on that in a bit), I'm furthermore insulted with their continued theft of images from the nail art world.


When I received my first Blackbox, I was really into it. The Cult colors were great. And by the time my second box came, I was rather smitten. The colors in the December box were fun and fit me very well.

Issue 1: Lack of Corporate Direction and Partnership
This is such a small issue in terms of anyone who doesn't blog or review products for a living. Really, if I didn't do this as a job, I would care less about this point. And chances are, a lot of people don't care about this — which is fine. But as someone who relies on transparency and honesty as a living, this should have been a red flag for me.

After sharing my articles on my blog and social media, Cult's CEO Ryan Eberhard emailed me directly at the beginning of December, asking me if I'd like to be part of their affiliate program. I was already buying their products, so getting a bonus every now and then doesn't hurt. I responded to him, asking more info — for those of you who aren't running affiliate programs, there are tons of different affiliate sites that brands run through (Commission Junction, AvantLink, the list goes on and on). Other subscription sites like Birchbox and Julep can provide you your own code which is tracked in-site, making it very streamlined and easy. Before committing to an affiliate partnership, I wanted to know more about how they track clicks and sales.

I was put off when Mr. Eberhard responded to me that they don't run through any affiliate site or system. They would simply provide me a link and let me know if anyone used my link to sign up. However, I was offered $25 per new user sign up, which seemed too good to be true since Blackbox is only $20 to begin with. He then asked me what site they should be using or what site other brands use, as he was trying to get a gauge for the direction Cult should go in. This felt weird to me. One, because how would I actually know what sort of traffic my links were getting, and two, why didn't this company have a marketing strategy down? After responding to him with a small amount of info, he never emailed me back.

Issue 2: The Sponsored Post
This is when sh*t hit the fan, so to speak. And it's what I was speaking of back on New Year's Eve when I said I was upset that a brand I liked had taken my image. At the end of December, I was at home one evening, watching Netflix and probably eating junk food. I had Facebook open.  On my timeline, I saw a sponsored post from Cult. For those of you unaware, brand pages pay for Sponsored Posts to show up in your timeline. For example, a brand can select 'nail art' as an interest, and even if you don't 'Like' that brand's page, their Sponsored Post will show up in your timeline. Facebook encourages brands to do this, as it helps brands reach new fans and customers who 'Like' pages in a related category.

So, this Sponsored Post. I had lots of beef with it:


This is my image. This is my image that Cult was using to solicit sign-ups from new customers. This link took you to a sign-up page. This was Cult making money off of my work — something that I had paid for, reviewed honestly, and shared with my readers. This was Cult stealing to make a buck.

I immediately tweeted at Cult and emailed Ryan. I felt extremely disrespected. They had asked me to be an affiliate, and when they realized that they didn't have the tools to offer me this type of partnership, they backed out (unbeknownst to me, Mr. Eberhard later told me an email that they had decided against having an 'Affiliate Program') and instead took my image from my blog to use in their paid advertising.

Again — Gallery? Fine. Crowd-sourcing is common for brands and there's nothing wrong with it. But what is wrong is when a brand takes an image for paid marketing with a goal of making money from a link without paying for the rights to use said photo.

So I was hitting this conversation from both ends — Twitter and email. Whomever manages Cult's social media was (I'm sorry, but) terrible. They had absolutely no idea what was even going on and seemed to not know anything about their Facebook advertising campaigns. Disconnected community management? Bad. In my email to Mr. Eberhard, I laid out that it was unethical for Cult to use my images in this manner, and requested that they either pay me for the sign ups that they gained by using my images (per the affiliate offer) or that they buy the image rights to use the image as they wish in whatever future promotion they desire. This is being nice — most of my photographer friends simply invoice the brand their highest rate once an image of theirs has been stolen, not giving them the option. I felt that my previous conversations with Mr. Everhard led me to at least want some sort of explanation as to why they thought this practice was okay, not just out of motivation for a paycheck.

I went on to include Cult's own Terms of Service in the email, making sure I had my butt covered legally. Considering that I had never submitted content to them, by their own Terms of Service, they had no ground to use any of my images from my blog in the manner that they had. I also requested to immediately cancel my subscription, which I'm surprised they did (I've read too many horror stories where they "cancel" but continue to charge bank accounts. I've been lucky on that one).

The response I got from Mr. Eberhard was very apologetic, which I appreciated. He assured me that we would work it out. His explanation was that Cult's Facebook advertising runs independent from their other social media through an advertising agency — and that the ad agency had no right to use my photo.

That evening, he was able to go in and remove the ad, which had been running for four days and accumulated over 600 Facebook interactions, and who knows how many impressions. We exchanged a few emails, in which he was very nice and seemed genuinely sorry, and agreed that he would figure out how many sign ups and give me a commission for those. I also requested that none of my images be used anywhere with Cult in the future, to which he agreed and was set to have my photos removed from the Cult gallery. I gave him a few days to get his analytics together, and we weren't able to link up for a phone call as hoped, but I felt confident that we would get it worked out.

Issue 3: The Marketing Email
I was starting to get a little antsy that over a week had passed and I hadn't heard from Cult or Mr. Eberhard. Again, I was at home doing my thing and received a Tweet from a friend of mine saying that she saw my image used again on Cult — this time in a marketing email. I checked my inbox, and sure enough, there was my photo. Again. It was the same image, and was the header image for a blog post on the metallic nail trend. Immediately, I emailed Mr. Eberhard again asking him to call me. He was quick to respond and call — blaming the image usage on a freelance blogger who wrote the article for them. This blogger 'wasn't informed not to use my image.' Ugh. My image was removed from the blog post, but the marketing email had already hit who knows how many thousands of inboxes already.

From here, we discussed the previous issue with the Facebook Ad. He was prepared to compensate me for sign ups, which was good. Cult, however, lacked any tracking tools. In fact, they use the same bit.ly link in every promotional post, so he was having difficulty determining which sales came from what. I was baffled that a company this big couldn't have that on lock down.

In the conversation, Mr. Eberhard requested that upon payment, I remove any tweets and content where I mentioned the stolen image. I told him that I didn't feel like that was a good narrative — essentially it would feel like Cult was paying me to 'shut up.' Instead, I felt like it was important for the situation to read as: 'Hey, Cult messed up, apologized, and corrected their mistake. Good for them.' We all make mistakes, and a lot of brands won't pay attention to detractors, let alone pay for stolen images (trust me, I've had it happen so many times).

So we worked out an agreement, and that's awesome I still chose to not continue purchasing Cult products nor promote them on my blog. I also have chosen to not have any of my images ever shared via Cult. But, they owned up to their mistake, apologized and learned their lesson.

...or so I thought.

Issue 4: The Mirror Nails
This is where we get into the conversation of brands and their responsibility to have appropriate assets. Any day of the week, I can go on Tumblr or Pinterest and find a boatload of nail art — some credited and some not. I try to do my best to not share content that doesn't credit the OG poster. I don't remove watermarks from peoples' work. If I can't find credit for something I want to use on my blog, I don't use it. Because there's a sea of amazing stuff on the internet that can be credited.


This image comes from a young lady named Holly. She posted a photo of these mirror nails (which happen to be the same press ons that I've used – and LOVE) on her Tumblr last year. It has gained over a half million notes and rightfully so. They're great and the image totally draws in anyone who is into nails.

When something explodes like this on the internet, it's inevitable that people are going to Pin it, reblog it, and WeHeartIt out the wazoo. And it's going to lost it's OG credit down the line somewhere.

Since I first 'Liked' the Cult Facebook page, I've seen them use this photo over and over again. And the comments always say the exact same thing — 'Omg I love this polish, where can I get it?' 'I can't find this polish on your site, help!', etc. Cult uses this image repeatedly to promote its brand even though they don't sell a silver polish (see Issue 5) nor these press ons. So people end up Sharing this image on their Facebook feeds, and people keep clicking through, driving traffic to Cult's site for a product that doesn't exist under their umbrella.

I noticed last month that Holly had posted a comment on Cult's usage of this image, saying it was hers and that they were using it without her consent. I messaged her with Mr. Eberhard's contact info, letting her know to email him directly if she was interested in having the image removed, since that's what I had to do and that he was rather quick to do so.

Weeks later, the image pops up again. Every time I see it on my dash, I tag Holly in it and ask her if she gave Cult permission. And every time, she responds back to me that she has emailed Cult and they refuse to respond to her. Now, they even go back and delete her comments that say the image belongs to her.

At the end of the day, it isn't really my business. But it is a slap in the face. I had hoped that my previous experience with Cult would help them learn that it's not okay to promote your business in this manner — and now I'm seeing that they truly only worked it out with me to 'shut me up.'

Cult actions of stealing images for their promotional use is disrespectful to everyone. It's disrespectful to their potential and existing customers. It's disrespectful to us who are making these assets that they feel so entitled to steal. It's lazy. Out of curiosity, I wanted to see how long it would take me to find Holly's OG post. First, I used Tineye — it led me to a WeHeartIt post, which linked directly to Holly's original Tumblr post in less than five minutes. Second, I tried a backwards Google image search. And it was at the top of the page:

There's no excuse for the usage of Holly's image — especially when it's been pointed out multiple times that they are stealing it from her.

Issue 5: The Chrome Polish
Full circle, Minis. Yesterday I received a marketing email from Cult announcing "Chrome polish is here!" Don't be fooled, it's not a chrome like the mirror nails — it's a normal chrome like you'd buy at a drugstore. No biggie. But why does this bother me?

Because after months of people commenting on Holly's image that Cult doesn't even have a silver on their website, they have now introduced this to their color line. This means that they will lure in web traffic with Holly's photo, and customers could be led to believe that their chrome polish looks like the mirrored press ons. Without Cult differentiating between the two, they are falsely advertising their product line and leading customers to buy a polish with the expectation that it will look like the mirror nails.

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Again, I debated whether or not to write this. But by not saying anything, Cult did pay me to 'shut up.' And that's not what I'm about. Cult needs to be held accountable and called out for their shady ways. What do I want? I want Cult to acknowledge and apologize to myself, Holly, and any other nail artist that they've stolen work from. I want them to commit to seeking permission before using others' work to promote their own. I want Cult to discontinue their practice of using assets that do not belong to them in their search for market share.

Tell Cult what you think by emailing their CEO Ryan Eberhard at ryan@cultcosmetics.com:

Dear Mr. Eberhard: 
I'm writing you to ask that Cult discontinue its practice of stealing images from bloggers and nail artists. I will not buy nor suggest Cult products to my peers until Cult acknowledges its errors and stops using false advertising for its products: http://minip.co/1m2gOAC

Signed,
Jessie Barber
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Update 3/11: Cult Cosmetics gets caught stealing again!

I noticed tonight on Facebook that Cult is pushing this image of peacock-inspired makeup. Well, if you look at any of Cult's other sub-par marketing material, you know that they don't have anyone on their staff that could complete a makeup look as clean and lovely as this. Backwards image search and wah-la. They stole this images from a makeup artist named Linda Hallberg.

I commented on the photo with the link to the original post [here] and the notion that Cult is still stealing images. What did I get? Deleted and blocked. So at this point, Cult knows it's stealing, it knows we know it's stealing, and doesn't care, and doesn't want to hear about it.  Gross.

After they deleted and block me (rule #1 of being a community manager for a brand — don't delete comments and block people, because then you look like a guilty asshole), they did add a shortened link to credit Hallberg, but keep in mind that they're still using someone else's work to promote their own products (which are not he products Hallberg used in her post).

Oh and they decided to play this game with Song of Style, too [her post vs. Cult's]. I guess they think that somehow sequin pants will translate into nail polish sales, or (!) they have no idea what they're doing, ever. I'm going to stick with the latter.

Why do I care/bother? Because bloggers and makeup artists and nail artists deserve to be credited and paid for our work — and when companies like Cult act in this manner, they're taking money from our pockets AND telling other amateur brands it's okay to do the same. Whether we are for-paycheck or for-hobby sharers, we are not here for Cult's profit.

Since writing this, Cult Cosmetics has attacked me on Twitter, labeling me a "bully" for bringing out the truth, as well as anyone who points out that they delete all negative comments on Facebook. They have proven time and time again that they have no interest in treating their partners, customers, nor critics in a professional manner.

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