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The IRS Might Be Next to Ask for Chewbacca Mom’s Autograph

Candace Payne’s viral Facebook video (156 million and counting) was a genuine moment of levity in a hypercritical world, and because she mentioned Kohl’s and Star Wars, she unintentionally set off an organic marketing campaign of unprecedented scale, and unprecedented tax implications.

The money keeps on rolling in for Candace Payne, the Texas stay-at-home-mom who won hearts with a Facebook video of her infectious belly laugh, induced by donning a Chewbacca mask she purchased from Kohl’s.
Estimates have her pulling in nearly $500,000 in gifts, appearance fees, and even free college tuition at Southeastern University for herself, her husband, and her two kids. This is influencer marketing at its finest and costliest. But is Payne prepared to meet Uncle Sam? Whether she likes it or not, the IRS is coming to collect its fair share.
Generally speaking, she has received:

  • Gifts from Kohl’s ($3,000)
  • Free travel, including the talk show circuit and a vacation to Disney World ($15,000)
  • Star Wars Fan Expo Dallas VIP Treatment ($2,000)
  • College scholarships ($400,000)

Word on the street is she’s also charging $20 for photos.
Every dollar earned (remember, she’s an unofficial marketer now) is potentially taxable. The IRS does have provisions for non-taxable gifts, but they are for someone (usually family) who gives a gift and expects nothing in return. As Payne romps along for her media and public appearances, she’s helping feed the fire and line the pockets of the involved brands – or at least that’s how the IRS could very well see it.
As for all that college tuition money, it remains to be seen how the Payne family uses it, if at all. For example, the scholarship can remain untaxed as long as it is only used for tuition and course materials. If Payne starts using that money for room and board, travel, clerical help, or supplies that are not required for the course, she’s on the hook again.
But, taxes aside, Payne is a study in the efficacy of influencer marketing.
Payne unintentionally delivers what so many people, and brands, often cannot: a genuine moment of levity. It just so happened Kohl’s and Star Wars got to tag along for the hilarious ride. This may be another indicator of the very lucrative future of user-generated content. When brands don’t control the message, it’s a natural, unforced way to genuinely connect with customers.
Joseph Anthony, social anthropologist and CEO of Hero Group, added another perspective as told to the American Marketing Association:
“The reality is, especially with young people and millennials, if there’s no control of your message, if there’s no ability to contribute and feel ownership of your campaign and take that message and make it malleable so that it works within their social sphere, it’s less attractive,” says Anthony who is also a former marketing manager for The New York Times. Influencers and UGC help marketers increase the flexibility of their messages.
The Chewbacca mask meanwhile is now sold out at Kohl’s, Walmart, and Toys R Us. Kohl’s Corporation stock has shot up more than $2 since the video hit the Internet, though it’s unclear if there’s a direct correlation.

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