Millie Giles ponders the ethics of influencer consumer culture and asks the crucial question: How can you separate an authentic self from the auspicious profit that fuels these online personas?
After much idolisation, and a week of tumultuous bidding, the trousers that I’d coveted throughout all my lockdown-spawned manic Instagram sessions, had finally arrived.
I’d seen them on all of my influencer imaginary friends: the incomparably edgy one from Denmark, the inconceivably pretty one from Sweden, the ineffably wealthy one from Germany. They all have tiny Prada bags, hulking black blazers draped over bronzed shoulders, chunky chain jewelry which just escapes ‘tacky’ by being made of pure, 24-carat, shit-your-pants gold. They also, bizarrely, all have in common this one pair of trousers, and somewhere deep in my irrationality (and somewhere more surface level in my habit of online shopping) I had convinced myself that this wasn’t because some brand had extended a DM and a neat cheque to anyone under the umbrella of ‘beautiful, cool,1M followers’. These totally unrelated women who all produce nearly identical stylistic images for monetized public photo albums had decided over some €7 matcha latte that this pair of trousers, these inimitable, incandescent trousers, were the pinnacle of all that is fashion and all that ever would be.
Did I like the trousers in question? To a degree, yes. My purchasing of them was more so a result of finding a pair on eBay for a price somewhere slightly below the extortionate retail value, rather than a see-it-like-it-want-it-got-it type transaction (not that my hesitation to buy a something is a feat of restraint – rather a constraint put cruelly upon me by not being born into the Kardashian dynasty). The marriage of my instant recognition of clothes and what I could wear them with to my longstanding vice of competitive eBaying is one that will ultimately ruin me. The ragged wallet I use and have not thought to replace in seven years, during throngs of impulse new tops and impulse new bags, is no doubt pleading for retirement so that it may never be starved again for an ever-so-slightly different pair of earrings.
And such is the nature of targeted advertising. Sure, you can put out some carefully crafted photoshoots of twiggy models jutting limbs at obtuse angles in a print magazine the price of a meal deal, and maybe somewhere it will stick subliminally into my reader’s digest. But why bother when you can send a neat package to someone whose livelihood depends on swathes of bodyless opinions all wanting, in some capacity, to look like and live like them, and get instant results? The question that is now posed by the phenomenon of influencers is not about their force on culture or their capacity to sell: that much is clear. It is instead now a conundrum so insidious that I am both acutely aware of it happening and powerless to stop myself being subject to it: How can you separate an authentic self from the auspicious profit that fuels these online personas?
The issue of advertising transparency is much reported – where there should be a ‘#ad’ in captions, or a ‘sponsored by’ label at the top – and even more debated is whether influencers are considering the implications of what they are endorsing to a statistically younger and more impressionable audience than that of Vogue. But beyond FlatTummyTea, waist trainers, appetite-suppressing lollipops, and all other hyper-misogynistic forms of ‘wellness’ spawning from the infliction of female insecurity and perpetuated by the expensively sculpted vehicles of the Instagram machine, the supposed ‘everyday’ of these figures is the commonplace that all of us subscribe to. One can easily distinguish a money-grabbing sponsorship if there are whistles and bells and tags attached, but the influence of these figures is not in the posts that are clearly transactional, not in modelling, not in fashion shows, not in celebrity acquaintances. Their power on the public lies in their projected ‘ordinary’: artistic cappuccinos laid next to fine leather goods on marble countertops; walks in autumnal parks in (unmissably) designer boots; first-class flights; gym bunny boyfriends; weekly blow dries; pedigree balls of fluff dwarfed by exquisite upholstery and cashmere blankets within Farrow and Ball-ed walls.
This is by no means ordinary. But we log on and carry on because the fantasy of this pristinely decorated ‘mundanity’ is an aura that keeps us hooked. It is both the most easily mocked aspect of social media – ‘Who gives a shit what someone has had for dinner?’ – and its most influential. Any successful Instagram model can send out codes for 10% off at Boohoo.com, and I’d be surprised if I latched on. But every successful Instagram model can show themselves doing picture-perfect nothing, and I’ll see a pair of trousers, or a bag, or a sandwich, and think ‘those are nice’. And then I’ll see them again, and again and again, and soon they’ll not be something I like, but something I can convince myself that I need. The art of the sell is not in the selling, but in the showcase. We can see past these people outwardly telling us to whiten our teeth with a £50 set of coconut strips, but what becomes vaguer is where style and uniqueness end and the gifts and alliances begin – where possessions are not chosen by but chosen for.
I believe that we are all complex amalgamations of everyone we’ve ever admired, or think are cool: our parents, our friends, teachers, artists, actors, directors, miscellaneous icons. There is no true innate individuality, but beautiful, interwoven collages: pieced together mutations of things we like, and our taste in the selection of these pieces is what provides the glorious distinction between any of us. And for this reason, aesthetic marketplaces like Instagram are incredibly valuable in discovering our tastes and appreciating the finessed palates of alternate tastes. Influencers are relevant for this exact same idea, and their popularity and marketability depend on our appreciation of their efforts to convey a sense of style. The issue now is that this style doesn’t rely on eccentricities, but rather the opposite: a perpetual state of perfection.
In my view, this can be whittled down to the integration of products within the lifestyles of the cyber-rich and cyber-famous, and the fact that the broadcasting of these lifestyles is what people stay in the loop for. Influencers are not breaking boundaries but frolicking within a boundary that is out of reach for most of us. It is lovely to momentarily escape from the confines of our lives to a world that is velvet-roped and cash-lined. But we put our phones down, face reality, and see the cracks in our walls, the blemishes on our faces, the inadequacies that separate us from the prestige ‘normal’ we tunnel through voyeuristically for hours. I can’t wake up tomorrow on a beach with a Rolex and a piña colada, but I can buy the trousers that someone who does that seemingly on-the-daily chooses to wear. Advertisers, fashion houses, and whoever the fuck made FlatTummyTea know this, and so shower these figures in products that sneak into the morning coffee run or a trip to Ikea. Which means more people buying trousers, which means more revenue for these models, which means more trips to Harley Street and Bond Street and subsequently Dubai, just around the corner. And so on and so forth until every follower has scraped together whatever they have for a pair of trousers and a first class Emirates ticket.
Whilst musing on the rise of ‘Instagram face’ and fast fashion imitations of designer clothing, we should note that the uniformity of these online entities is not because they have been cloned from an archetype, but instead standardized from the ubiquitous worship of money and glamour, something that they are usually exposed to all at once upon achieving social media fame. This is not coincidence, this is effective marketing: associating a brand with a high-class lifestyle is something that billboards beseech you to think, and something that influencers effortlessly lead you to assume. And if all the alluring content put out by influencers is the same: even better! Conformity means normalisation, and staying within the lines means widely palatable, which translates to as many sales as humanly possible.
This system will not be broken by pointing out its mechanism, nor will it be fading anytime soon as we hunch further into LED screens and chasms of scrolling over the next few weeks. What is crucial is that we recognise what we are consuming and why we are buying into it: are we following their life because it is shiny and expensive, or because they present something that is to our individual taste? Is this a statement of this person’s style, or is this a parade of curated style tailored to keep us feeling like we need to attain these items to achieve the happiness purveyed in fairy-tale Instagram stories? For all that social media corrodes our individuality, it symbiotically relies on the individual to uphold this version of techno-capitalism, and as a screaming and shouting online democracy we have the total power to disconnect from revering these false, Chanel-clad idols.
To put it in a nice, rounded cliché: in the inner workings of the social media marketing giant, we really do wear the trousers. Figuratively, and for whoever is as gullible as me, literally as well.