Alvarado: Dollars for Likes: Instagram Celebrities Are Paid to Advertise Controversial Products


Image by Jason Howie

By Andrea Alvarado


Instagram is the preferred social media platform for people under 30, and with more than 100 million users, it is slowly catching up to Facebook in terms of popularity. Instagram is used by a diverse assortment of users, ranging from humorous meme accounts to celebrities to do-it-yourself projects. The most infamous genre is one that has sprung up on the platform itself — Instagram influencers. Influencers are a specific type of online celebrity, who tailor their content specifically to Instagram’s layout and sharing structure to succeed. Influencers often have a very high level of production value and model beauty, fashion and life at its most perfect. Managing an account like this is more than a hobby. It can be a serious, lucrative career, with some influencers cultivating thousands to millions of followers.

Instagram allows users to document their everyday lives with each new post. This allows influencers to create an artificial sense of intimacy with their followers. They share doctored photos of their colorful food, new outfits and personal struggles. Their aesthetically pleasing lives make them elevated examples of what success and happiness must look like, especially as their success is drawn from their social media use and not a modeling agency. Within that logic, anyone has the potential to be a self-created influencer.

Influencers have become an incredibly profitable asset to social media companies and brands who have not hesitated to exploit this new branding opportunity. Likes, comments and follower counts are more than a boost to a user’s ego. Instead, they have become the definition of success and provide a quantifiable means to track content engagement. Instagram fame is now a well-paid career — as long as you have the exposure.

Rather than paying millions in traditional advertising campaigns, brands can now choose one of the thousands of Instagram celebrities to market their products with a more “realistic” face. Social media has created ways for brands to sponsor a user and expand their reach. The trust of the consumer is not dependent on the product or service, but rather on the fitness model or celebrity who they already follow. Instead of appearing to be an ad, a sponsored post may resemble something more akin to a recommendation from a friend who has a more glamorous life. The platforms facilitate constant interactions and engagement between celebrities and their followers to create the illusion of an intimate bond. This is easier to achieve on Instagram than on any other social media platform.

When it comes to Instagram influencers, a bulk of the focus is on beauty. Instagram’s content is curated by the user, and most of it is intended to be appealing to the masses. Influencers tend to share pictures that emphasize their ideal physical appearance. Contorted angles and forgiving filters are used to create unrealistic and unattainable photos that are in high demand. For teenage girls struggling with acceptance and self-esteem, these models may seem to embody their own desires and aspirations. Young girls imitate the lives and bodies that target them on Instagram, perhaps unaware or in denial of how artificial the posts truly are.

Many influencers who market their brand as “authentic” apply extensive makeup, utilize editing, hire private trainers, restrict themselves with intense diets and occasionally go under the knife. This is deeply unhealthy for young girls. Rather than being encouraged to accept their bodies, they look at images of perfection and associate them with success. They begin to see their own bodies as lacking and will go to any length to fix it.

Body dysmorphia — the heightened sensitivity to self-perceived bodily imperfections — is exacerbated by the trend of “weight-loss” products that are regularly advertised on Instagram. Influencers, who are often made celebrities by social media, promote products with little evidence of their effectiveness. They peddle hunger-suppressing lollipops and laxative tea that promises to help one attain a flat stomach. This is a dangerous use of the relationship between an account and its followers. These body-changing products are recommended by a media figure that users trust, but that influence relies on the profit from their followers. They use their brand to create insecurity in their users and then sell them products as the solution. Influencers falsely credit that a specific, sponsored product is the secret to their fit body and nothing else. Laxatives sold as “detox teas” can wreak havoc on the intestines and have long-term negative health effects. These brands do not disclose the side effects of their products, and Instagram celebrities are willing to overlook the safety of their followers in order to cash a check.

This relationship and the aesthetics of Instagram itself have opened the door for controversial products to become mainstream, on your feed every day. Some people may mock followers as being gullible enough to buy whatever their favorite account is selling, but perhaps it is more a matter of desperation and vulnerability. Instagram celebrities have the responsibility of ensuring that whatever they decide to promote does not have the potential to harm their thousands of followers. In the end, they owe their success to the people that like and share their content, not to brands that scam users.

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