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Effectiveness of Instagram Influencers Essay

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Updated: Feb 16th, 2022


Social media has become an integral part of life in the developed nations, and it is only natural that it has an impact on how people perceive brands and make buying decisions. When people engage with each other online, they perceive others as real people and therefore trust them as they would their friends in real life. Hajli (2014) explains how trust has a statistically significant effect on someone’s decision to purchase a product, which was recommended by someone familiar. Influencers also harness that trust, because they present themselves as real people, and their core appeal is their relatability to the audience.

The trust that the influencers get from their audience makes them more effective at marketing than traditional celebrities. Another significant reason for their effectiveness is the niche appeal and the specialization of their celebrity. Influencers appear to be the middle ground between a famous celebrity and a trustworthy acquaintance. The audience identifies with the influencer and regards them as a real person, and thus the endorsements they make as part of a marketing campaign are seen as genuine recommendations (Schouten, Janssen, and Verspaget, 2019). However, that only works if the product fits the niche of the influencer: for example, a beauty vlogger advertising lipstick is seen as genuine, but a travel vlogger advertising a set of spanners is not. That product-endorser fit is not available to traditional celebrities, as they are primarily famous for completely unrelated artistic accomplishments.

At this point, influencer marketing is a developed industry, and employing social media personalities is a staple for advertising. All of the benefits of influencer marketing over traditional tactics are well-known to the advertising market. One report shows that using influencer marketing can generate up to 11 times more return on investment than the traditional channels (Kirkpatrick, 2016). While there are many different platforms and networks for influencer marketing, approximately 79% of the brands use Instagram, with Facebook, a distant second at 46% (Schomer, 2019). Instagram appears to be the most attractive social network for both media personalities and brands that wish to partner with them. A survey performed by an influencer advertising platform shows that nearly all of the brands plan to keep using Instagram (The State of Influencer Marketing 2020, no date). The survey also reports that influencer-generated content is 2.7 times more effective than typical branded content.

That survey reveals one additional insight that is important for digital marketing. 77% of marketers report that they prefer microinfluencers over other kinds of influencers. That hints at an incentive to utilize smaller personalities with less reach, which appears counterintuitive. However, it has been shown that influencers with a smaller audience enjoy more engagement, as their audience is more interactive and loyal (Instagram Marketing: Does Influencer Size Matter? no date). The microinfluencers, or the influencers with 10,000 or fewer followers, appear to be more genuine, more authentic, and thus more trustworthy (Bohan, 2016). The influencer marketing industry, in this regard, seems to follow the same logic as it does with traditional celebrities. As a particular example, Amazon seems to understand that, and it successfully utilizes microinfluencers to promote its Audible audiobook service (Amazon’s marketing strategy with social media influencers, no date). The advertisements are personal, relatable, and seemingly authentic, which generates a lot of engagement and helps the brand. Partnership with microinfluencers is also significantly less expensive than with larger-scale media personalities, which increases return on investment even further.

Consumerist culture

As the commodification of Instagram influencers grows, the platform increasingly becomes an infinite advertisement reel. Consumerism is nothing new to a person living in the XXI century, but Instagram, with its influencer-driven sponsored content, creates new ways for it to blossom. The industry that is possibly affected the most in this digital advertising evolution is fashion. The integration between the social network, the marketers, and fashion outlets has made shopping for clothes both a seamless and desirable activity (Kozlowska, 2019). One of the most harmful effects of this cultural shift is the rise of fast fashion. Also known as disposable fashion, it is aimed at pumping out cheaply made clothing that is supposed to be worn for a short while and then discarded in favour of a new trend.

Instagram is rapidly becoming one of the primary inspirations for fashion choices for the modern consumer. Instagram influencers are reported to be chief fashion inspiration for approximately 17% of the people, as a survey by Fashion Retail Academy reveals (Skeldon, 2019). Consumers are not unaware of the trend, especially the younger generation: about 73% of respondents say that Instagram personalities are to blame for the rise of fast fashion. That awareness, however, does not translate into abstaining from it, as fast fashion brands are successfully operating and advertising around the world (Wood, 2019). Despite the claims that Generation Z and the young people, in general, are more environmentally conscious and sustainability-driven than ever, the sales of such brands as Missguided continue to grow.

Perhaps the most telling testimonies about the drive of fast fashion come from the consumers themselves. Paton, Lorenz, and Kwai (2019) present interviews from several teenage and young adult girls, which shed some light on the thought process that drives this new brand of consumerism. As they use Instagram and other social media apps to share their looks to their followers, their chief concern is not to appear in the same outfit twice. They also use Instagram to find fashion inspiration, which is where they likely picked up that ethic of not wearing the same outfit twice from the influencers that promote the clothing. A positive trend is buying second-hand clothes due to price considerations, but it is unlikely to offset the almost daily purchases of new clothes from fast fashion outlets.

The environmental concern of many of the journalists that cover the worrying trend appears to be justified. According to Boström and Micheletti (2016), the textile and clothing industry is one of the biggest polluters of the planet. As an example of some of the best-known human rights violations of the modern world, many clothing producers rely on sweatshops that run on what is essentially slave labour. Driving the production expenses down to be competitive in the fast fashion environment can cost fashion brands actual human lives, for which they have rarely been held accountable. Another critical factor to consider is the harmful impact on the environment due to land use, chemical waste, and air and water pollution. The consumer culture that has grown around Instagram fame and influencer marketing only serves to accelerate and reinforce these practices as demand rises and costs drop. Considering that, according to Paton, Lorenz, and Kwai (2019), sustainable clothing is more expensive than the unsustainable, and that there is a social pressure to always buy new articles of it, it is unlikely that the problem can be solved without some significant upheaval of the current consumer culture.

Envy as a Driver of Consumerism

It has become a truism in recent years that advertisements do not sell products, but experiences or a lifestyle. When the general public became savvy and less receptive to traditional forms of advertising, Instagram influencers became the go-to for creating content that appears authentic. With that degree of authenticity that is necessary to stay competitive, influencers inevitably begin to project their own lives onto the content they make. Because for some of them, it is a primary source of income and business, the content is likely to have high production values. A single sponsored picture posted to Instagram can have entire teams of professional photographers, lighting engineers, makeup artists, tailors, and editors working on it. Naturally, that does not create a representative depiction of real life, while claiming to do so for the relatability, authenticity, and trustworthiness crucial to effective marketing. No actual human life can measure up to that polished snapshot of artificial reality, creating feelings of envy and inadequacy in Instagram users.

Influencers posting about their daily lives, even without sponsored content, can cause users to feel inadequate. According to Chae (2017), the projections of influencers’ daily lives can negatively impact the users’ emotional wellbeing when they are expressly interested in them. The effect is lessened for the followers that view informational content with an express purpose. Some types of content may trigger social comparison behaviour more than others, which can also influence the feelings of envy in the viewers. A significant mediator is the viewers themselves, as social comparison and subsequent envy was more pronounced in individuals with low self-esteem and high self-consciousness. As the author focused on the female perspective, a particular point was made in the paper that an image of a successful woman who ‘has it all’ can have additional repercussions on the users’ mental state. These images are as artificial as advertisements, and as reliant on perceived authenticity to drive engagement.

Like any other emotional state, envy can be harnessed to drive the purchasing decisions of the consumers being advertised to. According to Jin and Ryu (2020), there are different patterns of envy between men and women, which they recommend to take into account when making advertisements. According to the authors, men seem to feel greater intragender competitiveness, which drives them to purchase the products advertised using selfies and photos of a single person. Women, on the other hand, feel envy as a form of parasocial interaction, thus feeling more envious of groups of women, which influence their purchasing decisions more. These findings represent the commodification of envy and the ability of advertisers to consciously manipulate feelings of competitiveness and social comparison, as well as the subconscious mechanisms that allow people to relate to media personalities as if they were real acquaintances.

The negative consequences of viewing Instagram posts of strangers and influencers are a well-researched topic at this point. According to Lup, Trub, and Rosenthal (2015), viewing the content generated by friends and acquaintances may be associated with positive emotional affect, because the social media images of their daily lives are balanced with the knowledge of their actual lives. However, that knowledge is not present in case of strangers, and their social media images become associated with reality, which triggers unfavourable social comparison and subsequent adverse psychological effects. The same cannot be said about negative body image that results in women from seeing others on Instagram; the negative effects are present both for celebrities and peers (Brown and Tiggemann, 2016). Feelings of inadequacy and envy seem to be endemic to a social network that is based on sharing pictures of oneself, and they appear to increase when viewing successful influencers that can afford to project an unrealistically perfect image of daily life.

Unrealistic Body Image

As it was mentioned already, the pictures and videos that Instagram influencers tend to post are highly produced artificial depictions of a life that does not exist. The staged, well-lit, and heavily-edited bodies of influencers invite unfair comparisons and decrease body satisfaction of the users. The culture of disposable fashion and filtered selfies is perpetuated by regular users, spreading and integrating itself further into the people’s daily lives. The influence of Instagram and its edited and manipulated collective visage is so strong and pervasive that people have begun referencing it while getting cosmetic or plastic surgery (Kelly, 2020). The plastic surgery has seen record spending, and the most popular procedures are those that are performed by face-editing apps. People engage in social comparison and find themselves lacking, while their ideal is completely fabricated.

That ideal being the stranger, the influencer, or the model, can be more detrimental to the psychological wellbeing of an individual, as previously stated. Moreover, Vendemia and DeAndrea (2018) suggest that acquaintances and friends that engage in similar behaviour are viewed as more pathologic and less virtuous. The thin, attractive, sexualized professional models that posted pictures on Instagram were regarded as posting these images as motivation or inspiration. The people from real life that also posted sexualized pictures were regarded as doing it for the attention, and thus less virtuous, altruistic, and intelligent. It appears that this mismatch of judgement can elevate models and influencers, driving upward social comparison and making them even more salient when internalizing ideal body type.

The negative impacts of these body comparisons on the psychological wellbeing are well-researched at this point as well. Its adverse effects are especially pronounced for women, who tend to engage in parasocial relationships more often, and thus compare themselves to others (Jin and Ryu, 2020). Several articles describe how edited pictures are more harmful to the self-esteem of an Instagram user than non-edited ones. Tiggemann and Anderberg (2019) describe how seeing highly manipulated fake pictures triggers upward social comparison, which leads to feelings of envy and inadequacy. However, seeing the non-edited picture, or both the edited and non-edited pictures together creates a more relevant target for comparison, which features a less attractive and less thin model. Comparisons often become lateral or downward in that case, which leads to increased self-esteem, even if it is at the expense of someone else.

Earlier research on the topic supports these findings and adds several additional points. Kleemans, Daalmans, Carbaat, and Anschütz (2016) have found that there are personal differences in the perception of edited and non-edited pictures by adolescent girls. Girls with a lower tendency to engage in social comparison do not exhibit significant differences in personal body image after viewing edited and unedited pictures. However, the body image of girls who were prone to social comparison was especially lower after seeing edited pictures. The authors suggested that even if image manipulations are disclosed to the public, they still facilitate the negative body image.

There is evidence to suggest that no measures can hold the body image dissatisfaction in check effectively. An article by Tiggemann, Anderberg, and Brown (2020) suggests that including body-positive captions to pictures of female bodies does not have any effect on social comparison or body image. The picture itself is the only thing that has any effect on the body image of an Instagram user. It is reasonable to suggest that when body-positive captions about acceptance and celebration of all body types are included with pictures of conventionally attractive thin women, they are seen as disingenuous pandering, and, at best, have no effect. However, the same captions could help women internalize a more positive beauty ideal when they are accompanied by larger, plus-size models.

It appears that the marketing industry has come to similar conclusions regarding body types of models and influencers. Shoenberger, Kim, and Johnson (2019) describe how purchasing decisions are manipulated more effectively by influencers with a diverse set of body types. Pictures of plus-size models with no digital enhancements are reported to increase the perceived authenticity of the message to a female audience. The dissemination of these findings to marketers may increase the presence of plus-sized, or otherwise divergent models, and decrease the amount of digital editing of the pictures. While that may reduce the incidence of negative body image and subsequent psychological problems in girls and women, that perspective does not take other ethical considerations into account. For example, the influencer’s daily life, which is also a fabrication aimed at perceived authenticity, remains a driver of unfavourable social comparison. Moreover, the findings may force influencers or marketers to find other, better forms of picture editing, which are as harmful while being harder to distinguish.

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