Using fantasy to capture imagination is the key to success

Gavin Wren
Aug 15 · 5 min read
Single cupcake by Siora Photography, background by Brooke Lark, composition by Gavin Wren

Jose has attracted a following of millions with fantastical food on his Instagram feed. The secret of his success can be found in the emotional triggers which hold user’s interest and by understanding the difference between porn and erotica. Going one step further, French philosophy can also show which direction the future of digital content is heading.


When David Bowie first wore his famous lightning bolt makeup as the character Aladdin Sane, he created an otherworldly character and the country became transfixed by this rock and roll alien. Fantasy has been a mainstay of characters and stories throughout history, taking viewers outside of their reality and everyone loves it.

Lil Miquela is the latest digital example. With 1.6 million followers on Instagram she is a major league influencer working with brands such as Samsung and Calvin Klein. She appears racially and sexually ambiguous, has been filmed kissing the supermodel Bella Hadid, but also posts images hanging out with her friends on her Instagram feed. She is also a robot, a simulation, she is not real. Lil Miquela is a digital avatar created by an LA startup called Brud using $6m venture capital funding.

What do David Bowie’s characters from outer space and a completely fake influencer have in common with food? More than you might think, especially if we throw some sexy French philosophy into the mix.

Lil Miquela and Bella Hadid

Jose is a vegan teenager with 1.6 million followers on Instagram, a vast figure equal to Lil Miquela. His feed is full of pastel coloured, frosted and sculptured cakes, ice creams and drinks. Jose often gets nearly 100k likes for each image that he posts. His content is ridiculously popular.

Many of Jose’s images blur the boundary between real and fake. They seem beyond reality, or made of plastic, with frosted berries and startling, geometric precision. Can you eat or drink these creations, are they real food? Why do these images hook so many likes, in the same way that David Bowie’s alternate reality was so alluring?

The answer can be found in French philosophy, which is a good thing to know, because it makes you sound sophisticated, educated and indifferently sexy, all at once.

Creations of Jose, otherwise known as Naturally Jo

Roland Barthes was a 20th century French philosopher who studied meanings found in words and images, a practice known as semiotics. Semiotics can help find the meaning of a red car in a film, or decipher the impact of a character’s anguish in a television advert. Barthes’ work is a perfect fit for explaining today’s social media content.

His 1980 book ‘Camera Lucida’, studies why certain photographs create lasting emotional effects. A key finding was that human beings prefer images which are not literal, which do not show everything. Barthes found that we prefer images which leave us guessing, which leave something unsaid. He summed this up with his statement ‘Society, it seems, mistrusts pure meaning.’

Barthes illustrated this point neatly using pornography. Porn shows everything with it’s naked, brightly-lit exhibitionism, leaving nothing behind for the viewer to work out. Erotica, on the other hand, is the practice of showing glimpses of sexuality, but always holding something back. Erotica always keeps you guessing, which its power, because it creates a fantasy in the mind of the viewer, it leaves something unsaid. This creates a deeper emotional connection.

Jose wins our likes in the same way, by showing something which isn’t real, which leaves us guessing.

“Society, it seems, mistrusts pure meaning.” — Roland Barthes


The French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard summed up the blurring of fantasy and reality in his 1981 work ‘Simulacra and Simulation’. He used the term ‘Hyperreality’ to describe anything which is a powerful simlation of reality. Jose’s Instagram feed is a good example of Hyperreality.

Instagram success is dependant on creating a powerful identity. Baudrillard believed we are creating ever more powerful simulations of self-identity, which blur the boundary between fantasy and reality. These simulations, or Hyperreality, are incredibly popular, because humans find them more attractive than truth. Jose’s images are a good example of Hyperreality, which explains their popularity.


Instagram has often been criticised as ‘not real’. Twitter user Nathan heckled influencers in 2018 calling Instagram a ‘ridiculous lie factory’, gaining over 100k likes in the process.

It’s would be easy to say that Lil Miquela or Jose’s cakes are also ‘not real’, but they do exist in the daily reality of millions of people. Instagram is as real as Disneyland and prisons. The environment might be manufactured, but the experience is real, you can visit them and experience them.

Nathan hating on influencers

Instagram, just like Disneyland, draws us into the microcosm of fantasy that exists within its gates, we are attracted and comforted by it. It is a home for hyperreality. It sucks us in with fantasies, be they people, places or food. Simulations become ever more popular as the boundaries between real and imaginary, or true and false, are blurred.

These experiences allow us to step accross the boundary of reality and leave us guessing. That is why Instagram images, robot influecers or cakes which are not quite real, are incredibly popular. We all knew that David Bowie was a normal human being, then he stepped across the boundary of reality and created an alien.

The phenomenon of hyperreality, of things appearing not real, is not new. It is a constant development of fantasies which can capture our imagination. Each generation needs to be more powerful simulations than the last to gain our attention.

That explains why, however much people protest about AI, robots and digital media being ‘not real’, the next big thing is going to the blur boundaries between fantasy and reality even more.

Brain Food Magazine

Independent, thought provoking writing which looks behind the stories we get told about food. Join the community http://eepurl.com/guW5jP

Gavin Wren

Written by

Always about food. Going places. https://www.brainfoodstudio.com

Brain Food Magazine

Independent, thought provoking writing which looks behind the stories we get told about food. Join the community http://eepurl.com/guW5jP

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