In her podcast “Under The Influence,” journalist Jo Piazza studies the ins and outs of the influencer world: the mechanics of content creation, the personal stories of content creators, and the mind-boggling amount of money that flows between brands and content creators on apps like Instagram and Tiktok. Piazza, who started the podcast in an attempt to see just how challenging it would be to become a “mom influencer,” came away from the experience with the realization that being a full-time influencer is a lot harder than it looks. It’s a lot more complicated than getting glammed up, taking a photo of your sparkling clean kitchen, and waiting for the likes and comments to roll in. It’s the total commodification of your life.
“Sometimes I wake up and everything on Instagram feels like a goddamn ad,” says Piazza on an episode titled “The Future. “It makes me feel like I woke up inside an infomercial.”
The reason that everything on Instagram “feels like a goddamn ad” to Piazza is because almost everything on Instagram is an ad. For a social media platform that was founded as a way for people to share beautiful photography, it has quickly become a type of digital bazaar, where everything you see is for sale. That jacket that your favorite beauty influencer is wearing? That’s for sale. The pillows on the couch of your favorite home decor influencer? That’s for sale, too. The laughing children posing for the camera of your favorite mom influencer? They’re not for sale, but their clothes, their shoes, and even videos of their daily antics can bring in enough cash to make parenting into a lucrative business.
Take an app like Like to Know (LTK), which allows influencers to turn almost any photo into an ad for the products in their life. For instance, an influencer might take a photo of themselves in their living room, then tag all of the products in their room that the app and its retail partners offer commission on. When users with the Like to Know app “like” that influencer’s picture on Instagram, the app sends them an email with links to those products, allowing the user to easily shop for the products in the photo, and giving both the influencer and the app a commission on those products.
On the one hand, the site offers an easy way for influencers who are providing free advertising for brands to get paid for their work, and an efficient way for viewers to get connected to products that they like in the photos. On the other hand, it’s an incredibly insidious way of turning daily life into a constant advertisement without the viewer themselves realizing that they’re looking at an ad. Usually, influencers who officially collaborate with brands need to alert viewers to the fact that they’re looking at an advertisement. This means adding a hashtag to the post like #ad, @ the brand itself, or writing something about the ad in the caption. But for apps like LTK, the influencer isn’t “officially” collaborating with a brand, so there’s no need to declare that a photo filled with products is an ad, even though in every sense of the term, it is one.
On her podcast, Piazza argues, convincingly in my opinion, that influencers who do this free advertising for brands deserve to get paid. At the higher levels, they’re creating content that sells products, and at the lowers levels, they’re drawing eyes towards products, and those views shouldn’t be given away for free. Apps such as Like to Know, affiliate links that give influencers commission on products sold through their photos, and official brand partnerships all help compensate influencers for this labor, which is a great thing. Brands don’t deserve free advertising. To me, however, the real question isn’t whether influencers should be getting paid for their free advertising, but whether they should be advertising on Instagram at all.
Let’s really talk about what being an influencer means. Being an influencer means being an advertiser. Behind the aesthetic images, dewy filters, and artful captions, what influencers make money for (if they make any money at all) is showcasing products to their followers. Some influencers make full-time incomes from these partnerships, and while I think that it’s important for influencers to be earning income in return for advertising, I’m not sure that this transformation of influencers’ personal lives into commodities is a beneficial thing for us. I have no issue with actual “content creators” inserting advertisements into their work. YouTubers who make videos without a commercial purpose, photographers who take pictures of things that aren’t for sale, writers who type out real thoughts, not banal captions, these people are creating free entertainment, and they deserve to make money from their work. The difference between content creators who create entertainment, and influencers, is that influencers, for the most part, aren’t creating any content purely for entertainment. Their main source of content is advertisements, whether sponsored or not. They’re advertising their lifestyle. It’s “content” in the same way that a fashion or home decor magazine is content: all three are stylistic vehicles to sell products.
That’s why this idea that influencing is a meaningful career path doesn’t sit right with me. If an influencer’s main form of income is selling products, then influencer is just a covert term for salesperson. Since when do we hold up selling products as the ultimate career goal?
More than ever, advertising has taken over our eyeballs. We can’t escape it. Once brands started to realize that consumers were skipping over ads by switching to ad free streaming platforms and installing ad-blocker on their web browsers, they realized that they could capture audience’s attentions by inserting advertisements into places that consumers would never know to avoid, because they didn’t notice them in the first place. Officially partnering with influencers is one thing, but hiding in plain sight in their vacation photos and recipe tutorials and family portraits is quite another. It’s the complete erosion of the private unmarketable life, and the total invention of a world in which everything is for sale, and every moment is an opportunity for purchase.
The worst part of this transformation is that the viewers themselves don’t care. They see it as a necessary part of the job; brand partnerships and other commission provide influencers with an income so that they have the freedom to produce creative content. According to a 2019 Vice article detailing this new way of thinking, both official sponsored content and unofficial advertising aren’t “seen as ‘selling out” because influencers “gotta get the bread somehow.” Gen Z not only accepts influencing as a viable career path, but sees influencing as an aspirational goal. This generation sees sponsored content and paid partnerships as not only admirable, but symbols of success, a sign that an influencer has “made it.” And it makes sense: who wouldn’t want to make a full-time income by simply taking pictures of their life and posting it to Insta?
Except, it’s not that simple. Most influencers and Instagram users who post products aren’t getting paid for their work, but the brands are raking in cash anyways. They’re getting what they always wanted: product placement that they don’t have to pay for, and a generation of consumers who not only accept being constantly sold to, but no longer even notice it. When advertisements took over television, viewers moved to cable. When ads took over cable, viewers moved to streaming. But where do viewers go when ads take over social media? When there is no longer any division between entertainment and advertisement?
I don’t have the answer, but I do know that we’re heading towards a grim future. In the future that podcaster Jo Piazza imagines, social media moves away from the constant bombardment of stealth advertising, and becomes a place where users can share things in the old-fashioned, word-of-mouth way that we used to. I see a different future: a social media landscape where creative content serves as a mere vehicle for advertising. A future where children aspire to be influencers not because they want to share their creativity with the world, but because they want to be paid to share commoditized versions of their lives. Ultimately, Instagram has become a corporate paradise; a media platform where advertising has become indistinguishable from entertainment, and a place where consumers, finally, can’t look away.