How Instagram Meme Pages Market Drugs, Scams and More to Kids

The dangers of meme-marketing

Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

Meme account/page: an account on a social media network that posts internet memes. They post many times a day to audiences ranging from a few hundred followers to tens of millions.

In April of 2017, the Federal Trade Commission sent out a series of letters to Instagram influencers reminding them that they must make any “material connection” (money, free product, etc.) with an advertiser abundantly clear.¹ Within the past few years, meme pages have skyrocketed in popularity, and with that, their influence and advertising potential. Within the past year or so, I have noticed an increasing trend of these popular meme accounts posting sponsored content, without any indication that a material connection exists.

Beyond being deceptive advertising, and violating FTC guidelines, these posts bring up a greater moral and ethical issue. Every one of my friends and peers, and countless other youth follow dozens of these accounts, and for many, the accounts make up a large portion of their media consumption. Companies, through Instagram meme pages, are attempting to manipulate a young and impressionable audience.

The products advertised span a wide range, from the innocuous to the harmful or addictive. I have collected the following examples over the past few months from a variety of Instagram accounts with follower counts ranging from 100,000 to 4 million, many of which have messages in their bios soliciting advertisers.

“Freemium” Apps

Both of these images are sponsorships of an app called “Aura.” The closest thing to a disclosure of a material relationship between the meme accounts and Aura Health Inc is the hashtag “#auraapp.” The app, although it appears free on the App Store, costs $60/year to use and uses misleading tactics to get you to pay. One App Store reviewer said:

This app starts all nice and tells you what this is for, what your interests are and how it can help, then tells you to sign up with which ever method you prefer. It makes you set a schedule for when you would like your sessions, too, with notifications on, claiming it helps “360%” better with people who leave it on. After that, it asks how you are feeling. The “Okay” option is the only real free one available, showing all the other emotions with a shaded lock symbol on them. Upon tapping it, the app once again asks you for your card info to charge $60 a year after your 7 day trial. The first thing you do when you first download and launch the app is just that, and when you choose to ignore it, it still tries to get you settled in, in hopes you will give in this time around to its grabbing tricks. I wasted 10 minutes I’ll never get back invested in something that was a sham to begin with. Even if the service is good, I won’t purchase it now because of that generally shady tactic. I don’t ever pay for app subscriptions, but for the people that do, don’t give these snakes a cent for their devious efforts. The ratings are also obviously rigged with a perfect 5 star rating, yet the top rated review right now also has a 1 star with similar complaints. Just another scam company.²

Luckily this reviewer can see that Aura Health Inc. is using the format of a “relatable” meme. The relatable feeling of staying up too late on a school night is used to get young, persuadable and naive students to download their app, then trick them into paying for it. Tricking someone into buying an in-app purchase is 100% a type of scam, and the accounts that promoted the app are supporting this behavior.

Weight Loss Supplements

These posts tag a “nutritional scientist” and “Stanford masters student[‘s]” account whose link in their bio goes to a website selling a weight loss supplement. The link will forward you to one of a set of “articles” about weight loss supplements, all the same, but with the name of the product changed. They even claim that they were involved in a Stanford financed study.⁴ These products are potentially dangerous and are being marketed to insecure, developing brains by guilting them about their bodies and feeding into that insecurity (“it really shows 🔥 🥵”). This is a grotesque example of companies abusing a susceptible audience, and meme pages being happy to help to make a buck or two.

Note: there is a disclaimer at the very bottom of the page that mentions that this is not an article, but an advertisement, and that the story is fake; however, it is in small text past a very long fake comment section and I would bet that almost everyone who makes it through part of the article thinking that it’s real would not notice this. More importantly, the Instagram account does not mention that it is sponsored anywhere.

Juul Accessories

This was posted by a meme account, but because it’s a video I decided to just post the source — note “meme” in the title

To reach a young and credulous audience, e-cigarette companies are working with meme pages. Most of the products advertised through these accounts are meant for Juuls, the most popular e-cigarette.⁵ Juul has been featured in the news recently for (successfully) marketing to minors on social media,⁶ and it appears that other companies are following suit. Meme pages are marketing an incredibly addictive and potentially dangerous product to an audience filled with minors (the Eon pods have even more nicotine than Juul pods). Nowhere on the posts of these ads does it mention that nicotine is an addictive chemical, nor that it is an ad.

Investment Opportunities

These posts proclaim an account of a person who will teach you how to make lots of money. This seems a lot like a get rich quick scheme and falls into many of the warning signs of an investment scam. It “makes [similar] claims [to] ‘risk-free investment’, ‘be a millionaire in three years’, or ‘get-rich quick’,” which the Australian government’s Scam Watch considers being a dangerous investment scheme.⁷ Further, the Instagram page of “Molly Ramm” pictures a luxurious lifestyle with luxury hotels, Lamborghinis, and designer clothes.⁸ FINRA advises that “fraudsters hope that if they look successful, you won’t bother checking their credentials.”⁹ Using FINRA’s search tool, I found that as I predicted, Molly Ramm is not a real financial advisor by any means.¹⁰ Here, meme pages are marketing financial scams to youth.

Update: This specific scam has now been shut down — see update one at the bottom of this page.

More Examples

Those are still only a small portion of the ads I see on these accounts. Like the other examples, they use manipulative techniques to sell their product, including playing into teenage insecurity.

Soliciting to Advertisers

These accounts are ravenous for more and more ads that they can profit from. The following images showcase a few examples of them publically soliciting their services to advertisers. In addition to these images, almost all of the accounts featured have something along the lines of “dm for business” in their bio.

The example with the account’s analytics is particularly disturbing to me. This account has around 300,000 followers and reaches 5.4 million unique users who have viewed their posts 21.3 million times in a single week. That account was one of the smaller of those featured in this article; many have millions of followers.

It’s easy to see why advertisers like meme accounts so much. For less than $50 they can reach tens of millions of impressionable viewers. If they were to buy traditional Instagram ads, the cost of the same 21.3 million impressions could cost over $106,000.¹¹ Even on the higher side for accounts with tens of millions of followers, these posts often cost no more than a thousand dollars.¹²

I wanted to make sure that these were real prices, so I contacted a few accounts myself, inquiring how much it would cost to promote an app. The first account pictured below has 230,000 followers, a similar number to the account with 21.3 million impressions. The second has 400,000 followers. Again it can be seen that for almost nothing, hundreds of thousands can be reached.

Next Steps

These accounts have been operating with no oversight or moderation for years. That needs to end. Instagram must set explicit guidelines for sponsored posts, letting users know that they may not post advertisements without making it clear as day that they are being paid. All of these accounts are large enough to have access to Instagram’s “Branded Content Tool” and need to make use of it. More importantly, the guidelines need to be enforced by Instagram with strong consequences for those who do not follow them. In the same blog post where they announced the Branded Content tool, they said that “[they] will also begin enforcing branded content that is not properly tagged.”¹³ Clearly, this has not happened.

I am not suggesting that sponsored content on Instagram needs to end. I recognize that these accounts have become jobs for some people and are important sources of income for them. Not all meme pages post sponsored content and not all of those that do promote dangerous things. However, I sincerely believe that many people my age have been sold addictions and suckered into scams from these posts, and many parties are at fault. Minors are being harmed emotionally, financially, medically every day. Unethical companies are paying meme pages that aren’t doing their due diligence, all while Instagram stands complicit. Posts need to be marked as sponsored, and those that promote unethical products or services should not even exist. To protect a young, vulnerable, and impressionable audience, Instagram and its meme accounts must make real changes.


Updates

  1. Recently, the U.K. Financial Conduct Authority issued a warning relating to Instagram-based financial scams, and Bloomberg published an article focusing on Molly Ramm, the scam artist featured in my story. My story was also featured by The Financial Telegram, a cryptocurrency news website. Their article can be found here.