Life&Style Editor Frankie Rhodes argues that the concept of an Instagram Influencer is harmful for both professionals and consumers
We can all remember the days of having our heads turned by TV commercials, billboards advertising our favourite makeup products, and glossy magazines with pages of new outfits. Whilst these advertising platforms undoubtedly still exist, they’ve lost their prominence, and have become little more than background noise to the youth of today. Now, there’s just one place you need to locate all your fashion and beauty favourites: Instagram. Whilst this is certainly a fantastic money-making tactic for brands, it strikes me as a dystopian advertising nightmare that we simply don’t need, and didn’t ask for.
The concept of ‘Influencing’ on Instagram began a few years ago, with celebrities such as Kim Kardashian participating in brand deals, mostly focusing on beauty products such as makeup, or her more controversial backing of dieting products. However, it is now no longer just high-profile celebrities that can promote items- it has become a career in itself, such that the Cambridge Dictionary now includes an alternative definition for ‘Influencer’ that reads: ‘a person who is paid by a company to show and describe its products and services on social media, encouraging other people to buy them.’
Let’s pick this definition apart for a second. An Influencer is somebody who is ‘paid by a company’ to create content based on their products, just as a model is paid to walk the catwalk. We’ve all seen the picture-perfect lives of Instagram Influencers, with stunning mirror selfies, arranged piles of beauty products on polka-dot bed-spreads, and filmed footage of exclusive events. But what we often forget is that they are selling a lifestyle: a lifestyle that they are paid to promote, and can only afford within this ethereal realm of social media haziness. Another aspect of the Cambridge definition that I feel is important to highlight is that Influencers are ‘encouraging people to buy’ what they advertise. When did scrolling through Instagram, browsing the posts of friends and family, perhaps admiring the odd celebrity, turn into being actively encouraged to buy things?
The fact is, the transition from aesthetic mood-board to all-consuming marketplace happened so gradually that we hardly realised it was taking place. I can remember following a few accounts some years ago- mostly young women who I have never met- for their aesthetic content, simply as something to enjoy and admire. Now, these same young women are trying to persuade me to buy things, and it isn’t just your typical fashion and lifestyle items, either. In just the last few weeks, I’ve seen adverts for washing powder, bottled water, even hand sanitiser. My Instagram feed is quickly turning into the everyday household items aisle at Sainsburys, and I feel perplexed- but most of all, I feel angry that this has been allowed to happen.
What’s more concerning, however, is that the majority of what Influencers advertise are fast fashion items from outlets such as BooHoo, Missguided and prettylittething. Their mostly online platforms translate perfectly to social media marketing, and influencers will often post ‘hauls,’ where they document several posts, or stories, of items that have been gifted to them by the brands. This not only encourages excessive shopping, but also creates a standard of outfit-hoarding that is impossible to live up to. Most of us cannot afford to have five to ten new outfits every week, yet Influencers teach us that this is normal. And as for the nature of the clothes themselves, we must remember that life-threatening working conditions, marginal pay and unsustainable materials are lurking behind every pastel-coloured two-piece.
It is of course true that some Influencers advertise sustainable brands, such as lucyandyak and wearehairypeople, yet on the whole these companies are simply used to make an account seem more worldly and ethical, as they continue to regularly accept brand deals from fast fashion retailers. It is no surprise that these retailers target Influencers, as the success of such advertising speaks for itself. For example, fashion outlet Oh Polly has chosen to advertise solely on social media, achieving a turnover of over £21 million in the financial year of 2018/2019 . Yet, whilst brands can certainly thrive through Instagram advertising, the reality remains that few Influencers can afford to sustain a career through social media alone.
This leads to the somewhat embarrassing habit of Influencers harassing their followers to buy products through their affiliate links, perhaps even encouraging direct donations, or making angry posts when their content receives an inadequate amount of likes and comments. I say embarrassing, because having somebody that you don’t know, and have never met, asking you for money over the internet, can seem a bit degrading. But the sad truth that lies behind this is that many of these users are struggling to make ends meet, and must resort to a form of social media begging. This is due to brands offering tiny amounts for their sponsored adverts, far less than would be offered to television companies, for example, and the fact that often the Influencers are only paid if their followers actually purchase the items via their links.
Undoubtedly, the rise in Influencing has been affected by neoliberalism, and its message that we, as individuals, have the power to control our own lives. This includes sustaining a career based on pitiful wages, all the while encouraging other individuals that they too can change their lives, if only they purchase this new product. Based on this, I would argue that Influencing is a ‘career-choice’ that hurts its professionals as well as its consumers. We can’t underestimate the impact that this is having on our mental health, constantly being sold a certain idea of how to live our lives. These adverts are not separated from the ordinary aesthetic discourse, they are so richly embedded within the Instagram status quo that it is almost impossible not to internalise them.
Sadly, our neoliberal society is only making it increasingly easier to advertise and consume, and the concept of Influencing is sure to thrive. I can only hope that people will begin to develop a resistance to this toxic form of shopping, even if it means logging out of social media apps completely, and returning to the good old-fashioned high street.
Check out our other articles on social media issues: