‘But what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.’
Which wise old sage deserves the credit for this one? Plato? Socrates? Karl Marx? Mary Wollstonecraft?
The answer, of course, TV’s favourite rampant capitalist anti-hero: Mad Men’s Don Draper.
Why does anyone ever buy anything? There are two reasons: because you need or want it. Advertising has always only ever existed for one reason: to sell us stuff we don’t know that we want. And, as Draper put it, the implication is that buying something – whether it’s a new kettle, a dress, a hairdryer or a lipstick will improve our lives, making us infinitely happier than we were before we made the purchase.
Advertisers and marketers have always traded in insecurities, that is nothing new. Fomo might me a relatively newly coined term but the concept is as old as they come. We do things because we fear being left behind by the herd.
Advertisers have always ‘picked something that we feel we lack’ and told us that ‘they have something to cure that problem’ says Leslie Hallam, director of the psychology of advertising masters at Lancaster University. ‘It’s all about identifying our insecurities and selling us something that will fix them’ he adds.
Diet supplements and weight loss aids are nothing new. ‘Selling them goes right to the heart of psychology’ Leslie says, ‘we’ve evolved to behave in certain ways and one of the big reinforcements we respond to is social status which underpins our drive and desire to succeed in life’. The very flawed and controversial premise is that the younger, thinner and more attractive we are, the more likely we are to succeed.
What is new, however, is how we consume their advertising. Where once we might have sat on jammed motorways and delayed trains looking out of the window or gazing at a newspaper, we’re now almost certainly glued to our phones, looking at social media. While there, we are served ads, but they aren’t always obvious. In 2017, £21.4bn was spent on online advertising alone.
On Instagram in particular, influencers enter into promotional partnerships with brands and corporations. And, while they are now required by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK to make it clear when a post is sponsored, the truth is that it’s not always that simple.
Earlier this year, Kim Kardashian was widely criticised after she put a post out to her 100 million plus followers. In it, she appeared as the all grown up Lolita of reality TV, sucking seductively on an alluring red lollipop. ‘Suck it’, she implied, ‘and you can look just like me’.
Her caption, written as ever as though she is the BFF of every single one of the millions of people who follow her, read: ‘you guys…@flattummyco just dropped a new product. They’re Appetite Suppressant Lollipops and they’re literally unreal’. The rest of the spiel contained a discount code and, despite using #ad there was nothing clearly demarcating the post as a paid for partnership.
Kim Kardashian is now, to all intents and purposes, a self-publishing lifestyle brand in her own right. She directs traffic, from her social platforms, to her own website where she puts out articles about exercise, diet and skincare. But, unlike a traditional women’s magazine, she has no editorial guidelines to work to or standards to uphold.
The ASA’s jurisdiction does cover Kim’s posts because she’s not based in the UK. However, young women all over the UK will regularly be exposed to her sponsored Flat Tummy Tea Co posts. In January, for instance, she was promoting their meal replacement shakes which, any qualified nutritionist will tell you, are totally bogus.
Kardashian is arguably one of the most influential influencers on the planet and, following in her wake, anyone who wants to be somebody now aspires to top up their income (if not make a living) with paid for posts. As sure as we are to see Love Island return to our screens every year, it’s only a matter of time until those who appear on the show start selling us things on Instagram.
Zara Holland regularly works with gonutrition which, although nowhere near as toxic as Flat Tummy Tea Co, is a company that promotes high protein snacks intended to aid weight loss. Meanwhile, Montana Brown hawks Sugarbear Hair gummy sweets which claim they are also vitamins that will aid hair growth.
Those with smaller profiles but significant numbers of followers, like Lauryn Ellis, can be found hawking waist trainers which – let’s be real – are just modern-day corsets.
What all of the things being sold here have in common is this: they rely on women’s insecurities. Whether it’s wanting to lose weight, build more muscle or somehow magically conjure up longer hair out of thin air, it all plays into the idea that women must always be striving to improve their appearances.
Sarah* (who has asked not be identified with her real name) is in her late 20s and works for a major advertising agency. She has worked on huge lifestyle campaigns as well as with everyday brands that sell products you probably put in your shopping basket every time you go to the supermarket. She says that, sadly, tapping into people’s insecurities is a tried and tested strategy. ‘Brands – all brands – want to be aspirational’ Sarah explains ‘from an outsiders' point of view obviously it doesn’t make sense that anyone in a razor or foundation advert would ever be a model but, I think, there was a general acceptance in the industry – probably back in the 1950s – that consumers didn’t just want to buy things, but they wanted to aspire to a lifestyle. For instance, it’s easier to sell a toaster if it’s positioned in a beautiful home because you’re selling a dream not just a product.’
By going direct to an influencer, brands are already accessing the ‘dream home’ that would otherwise have to be created by a production team because, on social media, everyone is able to present an ideal version of their life – whether it’s heavily filtered or botoxed is beside the point.
However, you slice it, the majority of Instagram accounts out there seem to be self-based and body conscious (unless you’re only following Patti Smith). ‘The dream’ Sarah says ‘of being attractive and therefore beautiful, is simultaneously and paradoxically being sold as very extreme but also very achievable on Instagram. If you think back…even to a decade ago, most average people had maybe a hand maybe a handful of beauty products, but now it’s quite normal to have an entire cupboard full of acids and contouring gadgets. Love Island and the Kardashians reinforce this…they literally sell the idea that being beautiful is the only way to find love and sex’.
‘The big worry today’ Sarah adds ‘is that brands go directly to influencers and cut out the agency’. This concerns her, not only because her industry is losing out on clients but, because, the same checks and balances aren’t in place. ‘Influencers don't have an agency...they are dealing direct with the brand so there's no mediator, I really think that’s why so much product placement shamelessly does tend to trade in insecurity’ Sarah says.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of incentives for advertisers to prove their woke credentials these days. First and foremost, there’s the fact that if a brand gets it wrong people will call them out on it instantaneously and, then, there is an entire award at the prestigious Cannes Lions, which is dedicated to driving positive change: The Glass Lion. Most recently, it was won by Nike Women for their work with the Netherlands national women’s football team. ‘What we’re seeing on Instagram’ Sarah points out ‘seriously jars with the progress being made in TV adverts created by agencies…supermarket ads now include gay couples for instance’.
That said, both advertisers and brands, Sarah says, know that we all have conflicting impulses: ‘we all want to project body positivity but how many of us don’t secretly want to know how we can get abs?’. This, perhaps, explains why a razor advert featuring a hairy leg was lauded as revolutionary - why have we never questioned the fact that female razor adverts had never featured a single hair before?
The difference between a traditional advertising firm and influencer marketing is that the former has a reputation to uphold in order to ensure its survival while the other knows they may only have a small window of opportunity to cash in. ‘I genuinely believe that if a company came to an advertising agency now with an appetite suppressant lollipop or a waist trainer, they would be turned down’ Sarah explains ‘it’s on a par with selling tobacco, that’s why they’re going straight to influencers’. What influencers can offer, is the trust of a captive audience. They already have a relationship with their followers, and so when they promote something in an authentic tone the idea is that people are already half sold. As Leslie puts it, ‘social media has some of the flavour of a word of mouth recommendation…it’s akin to when people used to stand around in their community. People might rationally know that it’s not real but it looks as though it’s coming from your friends and that’s really powerful in terms of what we call “norming”.’
Like it or not, influencer marketing continues to grow. While its effectiveness is debated, there’s no sign of brands moving away from it and, as we’ve learned this year, even Kim Kardashian isn’t above turning down dodgy partnership deals.
Things are slowly improving but, when it comes to encouraging people to part with their cash, it’s clear that poking at our insecurities is still an effective tactic. In fact, it’s become more effective than ever because we are all being psychologically and demographically profiled by Facebook. ‘It’s evident in the scandal of Facebook and Instagram targeting adverts at people who they think are depressed or anxious’ Leslie says ‘I think we’ll see legislation introduced to control that in the future. It’s in danger of going too far, we just cannot have corporations becoming more and more powerful to the extent that they control and influence all of our behaviours’.
What is happiness? It’s a moment where you stop and think ‘hey…I’m doing fine, and I look great’ before you see an image that reminds you there’s always more you could or should do to improve your appearance, so you can make yourself more attractive in accordance to the hegemonic beauty standards of our time.
Like modern day Sisyphuses, we are still encouraged to lug our emotional baggage up the giant hill of self-improvement, buying products that are supposed to make us better and, therefore, happier along the way. Once we reach the top, we find ourselves exactly as we were when we set off, and so, we roll back down and start again.