Everything is Advertising: Girls, the ‘Gram, and Becoming a Brand

Fitness, travel, beauty, lifestyle: Instagram is a gallery of brands and beautiful people. Whether money changes hands or not, they’re all in the business of getting your attention. And it’s getting harder to tell them apart.

As the new internet has taken shape, visual platforms are rising to the top. We were all supposed to shed our bodies online, but now we’re defined by them more than ever. The female image, favorite object of painters, photographers and filmmakers, has taken on new dimensions and methods of distribution, while retaining the same painful, compelling power. There’s a lie in these images, one that we’re all conscious of; digital life is a construct, creating dangerous comparisons between lived reality and the narratives of our newsfeeds, bolstering a 21st century obsession with perpetual self-improvement. Insta, the new heavyweight, is especially good at conditioning us to view ourselves through a camera lens, and is predominantly used by young women. Women are trained our entire lives to present ourselves as desirable products, and social media gives us the tools and tech to put these skills to use. Heard those disturbing reports about what filters are doing to your self-image?

But there’s an upside to consider. The meteoric meritocracy of social media does give considerable reach to anybody who can master its volatile rhythms. Those who are young, those don’t have access to traditional conduits to power, have an opportunity to be heard. Influence is bestowed, not by an institution or gatekeeper, but by peers. It’s usually nothing radical; overwhelmingly, the most popular influencers share the primary qualification of being beautiful (in a white, affluent way). Instagram models serve their selfies with a side of #inspo, diluted philosophy or personal anecdotes. There are a lot of platitudes and tautologies to be found, along with the now common air-kisses to feminism. But it’s a medium for young women to speak under no authority but their own, not to just be talked about or to. We’ve been so often reduced to an image, but when have we ever been allowed to determine that image, or to attach our words to it? With greater control than in the physical world, users can curate a shifting composite of identity. Because the platforms we occupy are so new, our use of them helps to determine their very nature. The language of commerce and self-improvement are cannily repurposed by girls with a bloodhound sense of cool. Influencers trend their way into popular consciousness and wield genuine power. They work 24/7 to strike a tenuous balance of aspirational and relatable, a way paved by reality television stars.

But those who hurtle to Instardom often suffer from the suddenness and intensity of the scrutiny. Fitness influencer Ashy Bines has plummeted from grace in the last few years. Largely forgotten Ennessa O’Neill suffered a (possibly choreographed) breakdown as a result of her teenage fame. Social media success requires a sense of intimacy, the feeling that the viewer is invited in without reservation. But this emphasis on authenticity means that any perceived lack of honesty can turn followers vicious. And when that happens, there is no separation between person and brand. When Ashy Bines — the company — was accused of committing financial improprieties, offering poor customer service and bullying business partners, ‘“Trashy” Ashy became indivisible from her now-tainted empire. Exposed directly to the public through her multi-platform presence, Ashy endured waves of (deeply gendered) vitriol, mostly coming from former (often female) fans. Ashy’s confessional, diaristic behavior, part of her success, suddenly became a source of ammunition and made her a too-easy target.

Meanwhile, even as Instagram and other visual platforms explode, it’s getting tougher to monetize a following. Growing numbers of self-identified influencers are crowding the market, reaching out to hotels, restaurants and brands with impressive temerity to request freebies. The obvious example is Elle Darby, who was shamed publicly after contacting a hotel to ask for a free stay in exchange for exposure. A backlash is mounting in the marketing world to the formerly buzzy sponcon model, with murmurs growing about purchased followers, amateurish conduct, poor returns and low engagement. Brands are becoming ever-more rigorous in their requirements for brand ambassadors and endorsements, and the platforms themselves are restricting the way sponsored content is presented. Influence is turning from an organic phenomenon to a regulated industry.

Of course, influencers only mirror the behavior of millions of users. For this generation, the development of a personal online brand is part of self-expression and social participation. We’ve moved from a model of direct person-to-person contact to mass communications to an audience. Even for those with smaller networks, there are implications of turning personal relationships into an act of broadcast.

Contrary to a vague consensus, social media doesn’t necessarily make us “less social”. Some studies have indicated that extroverted people use their online presence to strengthen their existing networks, develop new connections and coordinate in-person socializing. On the other hand, introverted people tend to ‘lurk’, or use their assorted profiles to observe. Considering the now-ubiquitous location features in social apps, it’s obvious that online networks are being used to facilitate face to face interaction, rather than replacing it. But even if social media doesn’t deter us from socializing IRL, it has changed our model of communication. The ability to craft communications for large groups is no longer a privilege held by powerful institutions. “Sharing” is the force behind reality TV, shifting celebrity culture, influencers, and the “post” patterns of online interaction.

What effect does it have on my sense of self, when I communicate to a collective audience? The dyad, the cornerstone of our most meaningful interactions, hasn’t been replaced, but is increasingly supplemented by a one-to-many model. Maintenance of personal relationships, once requiring specific and direct connections, is supported through low-effort, categorized reactions, forming a consensus which simultaneously measures and displays social success. In building an online self, we seek to develop as a presence, not as a person. Instead of emotional labor, intimacy and confidences, we simply cast votes to validate each other. The feedback loop is short and tight enough to encourage adapting messages for maximum appeal. Mimicking those who are most successful online, our content often takes on the visual and verbal cues of advertising. Of all social networks, Instagram posts bear perhaps the closest resemblance to ads. Tight, pithy lines, crackling with pop culture, caption carefully composed images. Features like hashtagging are used partly to create a collective stream, but mostly for exposure. We seek to be funny, sexy or emotive. Metrics are a core feature, so we can instantly evaluate success and adjust accordingly. Social media’s rewards provide such a visible and shallow measure of social capital, they’re bound to make our attitudes more transactional and our assessment of each other’s value more ruthless. The equation of person and product is another word for objectification, something women are all too familiar with.

And as personal sharing shifts towards the signifiers of the market, the market strives to look more like personal relationships. Brands are striving to create immersive experiences that make great content, connect personally and cultivate “fans”. Meanwhile, “fans” select and promote products to further their personal brand. More explicitly than ever, we’re using brands to sell ourselves, while brands get more subtle about selling themselves. Followers are (sometimes) buying the items that influencers are promoting, seeking the value, mystique, personality associated with them. Of course, advertising has been doing this for decades; it’s the definition of the discipline. What’s new is the artificial sense of a personal relationship and trust, which leaves both influencers and followers more vulnerable. Ads are increasingly difficult to identify, meaning endorsements walk a fine line between omission and misrepresentation. Influencers are operating independently, without the benefit of oversight from legal or PR professionals. Consumers fall prey to relatability, feeling they’ve received an impartial recommendation from someone they know and have something in common with. And social posting looks and sounds a lot like sponcon.

So we have a network that is both honest and dishonest, driven by intimacy and elision. What we call ‘social’ is in fact a marketplace, where transactions are both commercial and personal, and the ultimate currency is popularity. Social media may be the only true free market; genuinely accessible, ruthlessly democratic, capricious and insatiable. It’s both liberating and terrifying when a 22-year-old with no formal education can become a self-made ‘expert’, with a vast and highly receptive audience. At some point, while we were revolutionizing the human capacity to share and connect, we accepted that it will be governed by the implacable laws of economics. Posting online is delivering a speech, not starting a conversation. Everyone is promoting, from celebrity endorsements to your cousin’s pets to your own ironically captioned selfie; everything is advertising.