The Atlantic loves to report on current trends of Instagrammers, which is frankly quite eye-opening and often baffling. In one such news, an article titled “Rising Instagram Stars Are Posting Fake Sponsored Content” explores the recent evolution in social behaviour, mainly from three perspectives: the wannabe influencers who “fake it til they make it” at great time and personal expense; the brands who both benefit from free promotion and are harmed by the lack of control they have over the content; and the professional influencers who have experienced a marked decline in their revenues as Instagram is overrun by these aspiring competitors.
Before Instagram, before social media, before the Internet was conceived, Theodore Adorno spoke of Kulturindustrie – or Culture Industry – in which popular culture disseminated by the media, corporations and ruling elites becomes a tool to pacify the masses, ultimately making them resort to easy pleasures and standardised consumption in order to forget the challenges of real life. Published in mid 20th century, Adorno was only talking TV. He hadn’t seen anything yet.
By fostering a virtual, global market by which a minority of users are sponsored to advertise relevant consumer products, the very identity and business model of these influencers relies completely on the Kulturindustrie to operate. The formula to regurgitate influencer content is a simple one: mix one part lifestyle, two parts graphic aesthetics, sprinkle in a positive caption and finish with a question to prompt comments to artificially propagate awareness via Instagram’s increasingly fickle distribution algorithm. Following this method is not only easy, it also feels “right”. The more this formula is repeated, the more accepted it gets amongst consumers (which is a well-documented cognitive reaction called mere exposure effect), until it evolves to the next big thing. Which brings us back to an important aspect of the Kulturindustrie, ie. rewarding conformity. In our capitalist system, the more conformist the masses, the less effort, time and resources it takes to sell an idea or product.
Lightly touched upon are the various influences that might motivate this behaviour. At face value, there is always the financial incentive. But realistically the chance a company will want to pay someone to wear their products is about as probable as the average video game addict being chosen to become a pro-gamer. What also may lurk in the psyche of the aspirant is the validation of the purchase itself. That expenditure could be wrote off as content that could be used for their Instagram. To others, being sponsored could be a kind of social “flex” on their peers – which the article has highlighted as becoming one’s way to win the popularity contest in school – justifying their purchases in a highly visible and quantifiable way. Not only does this enforce the idea that materialism would enrich one’s social life and increase likeability, it also validates the notion that it’s acceptable to resort to crafting fraud in order to make it to the top.
As a passive audience, we are visually bombarded with all manner of sponsored contents throughout the day online and offline, and we probably have a friend, acquaintance or relative who has postured their purchases on social media. Remember the fake wedding proposal to get brand sponsorships? For those of us participating and consuming this content day in and out, at what point does it become too much? We have reached a time where we can no longer have faith in journalistic integrity will we then arrive at an age where we doubt our peers and families?