5 min read
By Emma Everett, MEDIAGIRLS editorial intern
If you scroll through a girl’s Instagram feed, you will likely come across the accounts of her favorite celebrities. Hey, one of the joys of social media is feeling connected to stars they admire. However, what many girls (and adults) don’t realize is that Instagram is filled with “influencers,” famous people and simply “the beautiful” with thousands of followers who are paid to hold up specific products. It seems they are sharing secrets with fans (“Pssst, this shampoo is what makes my hair so shiny!” or “I love this new diet drink!”), when they are actually just modeling for carefully designed ads.
In a recent BloombergBusinessweek article, feature-writer Max Chafkin decided to find out firsthand about Instagram influencers. Here’s what he learned: Influencers came about as more people shifted to using Instagram as one of their main social media platforms. Businesses watched carefully as certain respected “opinion leaders” built large followings, and thought, “Why not pay these individuals to speak highly of their product, and tap into their follower base?”
How these #ad posts work
By the time these photos show up on your girl’s Instagram feed, a lot has already happened to get it there. First, an aspiring influencer obviously needs content that people will like. Photos posted on Instagram, more than any other platform, tend to be of high visual quality. Whereas most celebrities on Snapchat use the funny filters and make fools out of themselves (like everyone else on the platform), Instagram tends to be regarded as the site to present your best, most polished self. For those who think their favorite celebrities take their own casual selfies, nothing could be further from the truth.
In order to gain followers, therefore, influencers need to meet and exceed the Instagram standards of quality and beauty. This often requires a whole lot of money for makeovers, new clothes, and professionals photographers. Next, influencers have to get people to actually see their photos. This means using a great deal of hashtags, following other influencers, and commenting on their posts. The object is to gain enough followers to get businesses to notice them, and then work with them to sell, sell, sell products. Can you imagine how many hours this would all take? It may seem superficial, but it is also a serious business.
Why it matters for girls
Companies are taking advantage of the trust girls have for celebrities who seem to be just being their authentic selves but are actually selling products. It is different than commercials, where it is clear a celebrity is getting paid to sell jeans, coffee, hair gel, etc. Additionally, girls are often measuring their own looks against influencers they mistakenly believe to be everyday teens like them. Just ten minutes of scrolling can make girls feel that young women with super-model looks are everywhere, and start to seriously doubt their own looks. Plus, the sneakiness of these ads makes it harder to teach our girls media literacy skills, and how to discern editorial content from advertising. The required “#ad” and “#sp” hashtags are designed to be short enough to be easily overlooked and almost impossible to spot in a sea of hashtags. Few have any idea what “#sp” stands for.
That said, there is a learning opportunity here. In teaching girls to understand how influencers work, we can help them distinguish advertising from other content, understand some of the harmful ways girls are affected when the lines get blurred, and understand they have a say in what companies they want to support.
Talk with her about how influencers work. You can even ask that she read this article. Do not launch into a diatribe about how awful Instagram is, which will quickly end this conversation before it gets lift-off. Ask her if she knows about the #ad and/or #sp hashtags, and whether she can show you examples of them. This way, you’re allowing her to be the expert, and/or get practice in distinguishing what type of content she’s seeing. Lastly, ask her how she feels about the idea of Instagram influencers. How do they impact the way girls and women feel about themselves?
If she agrees it’s a problem (she may not at this moment but will likely think about it later), tell her that, like with any ad, she has purchasing power. It is her choice when and how to spend her money, and she gets to decide which brands and products to support. If she agrees this kind of ad manipulation is problematic, she can boycott the company. She can even use her own social media to help others girls see that Instagram influencers are not acting as authentically as we’re led to believe.
Emma Everett is a junior at Boston University studying Advertising with a minor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She was a MEDIAGIRLS teacher, and ran the Boston Marathon.
Michelle Cove is the Executive Director of MEDIAGIRLS®, a nonprofit organization that teaches girls how to critique the way girls and women are portrayed in pop culture with an emphasis on creating empowering content.
She is also an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and author whose projects have been featured on numerous national platforms including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Katie Couric’s talk show “Katie,” “The Today Show,” The Washington Post, and The New York Times.
Visit www.mediagirls.org to learn more.