flat tummy tea-ns

A couple of weeks ago I watched “Eighth Grade” (trailer below), which captured the utter anxiety and insecurity that middle school is ripe with. What really gave me anxiety though was just how much social media plays a huge part in amplifying these, so much so that after the film ended I thanked the fates for not letting me endure middle and high school in the age of Snapchat.

The movie opens with the lead, Kayla, prepping for the day by watching a makeup tutorial on YouTube meticulously following each step to apply foundation. She then lays back in bed to take a selfie to post on social with the caption “just woke up like this, ughhhh”. This scene captures the essence of our relationship with social media, we try to emulate personalities we admire by painstakingly replicating their look and style while attempting to make it seem effortless. It’s why social influencers are so appealing, not just to their fan bases but to teens who are eager to consume their products.

It is well known that participants of the latest season of the Bachelor or Big Brother are working to build up their Instagram base. The exposure these contestants get on national television has been leveraged by this community of reality contestants to capture a portion of the $1.6 billion that has been spent on influencers on Instagram in 2018. Now I know we’ve spent plenty of time covering influencers and their impact on digital marketing, but I especially want to call out two companies for how they leverage influencers to sell their product.

Reality show contestants typically have their Instagram ad starter kit, a combination of FitFabFun, Sugar Bear Hair, Leesa, or HiSmile products. Another popular product that comes up frequently on the timelines of these reality show alumni are “detox” teas. These products are comprised of a mix of herbal leaves to drink in the morning and a “cleanse” tea to have at night. Teami is one such product that frequently pays a number of Bachelor/Big Brother contestants for a post to their followers. For example, Ashley Rosenbaum a Pediatric Dentist and Bachelorette Season 7 contestant (pictured below) describes on a post from March 26, “Whenever I feel like I’m not eating well, or I feel sluggish, I start another 30 day detox! I immediately see a difference in the way my body feels, hello bikini season”.

Well if it comes from a dentist then it must be true!

You might be thinking, “well sure but look at the comments, seems to trend an older audience and season 7 of the bachelorette was 8 years ago”. But look at Big Brother contestant Nicole Franzel who was on the show in 2014 and 2016 and you start to see a younger group of users engaging with this content. She has pushed ads for teami for years and even though she has been called out in her timeline in the past for these kinds of ads, she as recently as yesterday pushed one out. Start clicking through to some user profiles and you can quickly spot the high school images or bios with “class of 2021” tagged with their high school acronym.

Big Brother 16 contestant Nicole Franzel scrubbed a caption promoting “Tummy Tea” after being criticized on social media.
Won’t hold Nicole back though! The latest post on her feed, posted 9 hours ago.

Back to these teas for a second, these often includes senna, an FDA approved laxative available without a prescription. If consumed in large quantities, side effects are “possibly unsafe” causing bowels to act abnormally. But is promoting this on Instagram really that big of a deal? Don’t most people know these products tend to be simply paid promotion and ignored or laughed at by most? Well maybe not. If we take a closer look at the age of viewers of some of these shows we start to see that a younger demographic is being preyed upon to promote a product that has damaging side effects and perpetuates a culture of unhealthy diets. A 2015 comparison of age/gender demographics across all shows on ABC shows that the Bachelor franchise has a high proportion of viewership of females in age ranges 12-24, a group that can be argued would be most susceptible to social influencers.

Source.

Although many of these tea products include warnings about side effects on their websites (teami’s mention of the product’s “gentle laxative effect” is buried in the middle of a long FAQ page) there is no mention of any side effects on a sponsored post despite existing regulation from the FDA of “mandatory reporting of serious adverse events by dietary supplement firms” in marketing materials, most likely due to lack of FDA resources to enforce this across a fragmented and dense social media influencer landscape. These posts continue to promote an unhealthy view of beauty and diet among young women. Posts under the #teamiblends tag feature young, fit, conventionally attractive influencers and reality stars promoting a 30 day detox to lose weight quickly and burn fat. Teami and Flat Tummy Co. provide incentives via their website to “ambassadors” who spread the word about their positive experiences with the brand (by paying them). With 40 percent of tenth graders seeing themselves as “too fat” despite being in a normal BMI range, this type of marketing to young audiences on seems predatory and misleading.

So who’s to blame? Is it the government for not yet being able to enforce or control these ads? Is it the company that’s pushing these out? Is it the influencer that continues to take money for ads despite knowing that these promotions can be scammy or unhealthy (because they get called out or ridiculed plenty for it)?

The short answer I think is yes to all of the above. But when everyone is responsible, no one is really held accountable. By the time we figure out who to punish, if anyone, it might be too late for what could be lasting effects on gen z teens that buy into these products.

12 comments

  1. As much as I thought middle school and high school were hard, I’m glad that I didn’t have to endure them with the world of social media looming overhead. Sure, we had Facebook, but it was brand new and we weren’t quite sure of all the ins and outs of it yet. Today, there’s no escaping social media and this isn’t always a good thing, especially for impressionable teens and more specifically teenage girls. Body image is a tough thing to deal with at any age, but especially through those teenage years when things are constantly changing. Adding these influencers with their flawless skin, perfect hair and bikini ready body to the mix, all the while promoting these “skinny teas” just adds to the pressure of it and presents an unrealistic ideal of what appearance is and should be. We’re all impressionable and can be guilty of comparing ourselves to others, yet we learn to grow and develop our own identities over time, but this can be difficult when you’re 15-16 years old. At that age you’re worried about fitting in and keeping up with your peers and when social media ads seem to be geared directly at that age group, it’s hard for them not to pay attention. As much as I think that the companies creating these products are to blame, I think a lot of it also lies on the influencers sharing the ad. I feel that if the product isn’t something that they genuinely use, then they shouldn’t be promoting it, especially when there’s plenty of evidence showing that it probably isn’t the best product out there. But unfortunately it seems as though dollar signs and more exposure cloud their sense of morality.

  2. Really great points made and I don’t know if I would be enticed to buy these products if they were around when I was in middle school. At this age I know the importance of diving deeper into products, but if I were younger I might be more inclined to follow the advice of beautiful women who I see on tv. I mean why wouldn’t I want to look like someone who a bunch of guys want to marry? I think companies have the responsibility to clearly state any side effects, but consumers should also take it upon themselves to look more into what they are spending their money on. We also need to realize that these influencers have the money to afford a personal trainer, nutritionist, chef, etc to look the way they look, therefore I am confident that tea is not the only thing contributing to their weight. I think influencers have the responsibility to clearly state what is an ad, but we also have the responsibility to do research outside of an instagram post. Really great insight!

  3. Great post! Similar to the conversation that the class had around the Fyre Festival, these detox teas raise the question of what responsibility, if any, influencers have to do due diligence about the products they are promoting. In case anyone in class needed proof that my reality TV knowledge knows no bounds, the Kardashians have been prolific posters of Flat Tummy Tea and its ilk. In the spring of 2018, Kim Kardashian faced some serious backlash for promoting “weight loss” lollipops, and ended up deleting the post because of the reactions.

    In contrast, Jameela Jamil, who plays Tahani on The Good Place, has spoken out against these detox teas and in support of body positivity, including calling out celebrities like Cardi B (https://www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/a25332741/jameela-jamil-cardi-b-feud-instagram-clapback-health-detox-tea/).

    It’s definitely a controversial subject, but it’s important for influencers to be aware of how much their audience looks up to them, and be knowledge about the products that they are posting.

  4. Great timing with this blog post! I actually just unfollowed Nicole from BB a couple days ago because I was sick of all her promotions, especially those bogus detox teas. I don’t care what cleanse or detox she’s doing, I just want to see pictures of her and Vic, if I’m being honest! It got to a point where the annoyance it created in my Insta feed outweighed the benefit I was getting from following her, so I unfollowed. In fact, I’ve unfollowed pretty much anyone who promotes products via Instagram. Not only is it annoying, but it’s often harmful as well, as it is in this case. At this point, I only really follow people I know personally, with a handful of celebs who definitely do not–and would not ever–promote a product to their followers because they’re getting paid to do it.

  5. So I read @emmasandersisys post about YouTubers right before this one, and you both make very valid points about the age of Instagram and YouTube celebrities. As a result, I have started to compare and contrast in my head the advantages of using Instagram as a platform to promote consumer products versus that of YouTube.

    On Instagram, I agree that it is more often than not perceived as annoying rather than helpful. One has absolutely no idea how the product actually works, or if it even works at all. Some of my favorites include Flat Tummy Tea, SugarBearHair vitamins, and HiSmile teeth whitening. How do we know whether or not these influencers have ever even tried these products? The evidence is minimal. On YouTube, however, vloggers are often paid to post full reviews of products, telling (and more importantly, showing) viewers exactly what they liked and didn’t like.

    As a consumer, I am definitely more inclined to try the products promoted by YouTube celebrities rather than Instagram influencers. As a marketer, however, I do see the advantages of Instagram. I’d be interested to see if anyone else has a take on this…

  6. I have been meaning to watch Eighth Grade! I really like Bo Burnham’s stand-up, and was excited to hear he was making a movie! Also this post is very well done. I think Instagram promotion is a tricky thing. Many people understand what the teas truly are and the potential side effects of using them. However, it is ignorant/dangerous to assume that all your fans know, especially younger, more susceptible fans. You would think that if your name is attached to something you would only promote products you actually use and trust fully. But clearly that is not the case. I have heard of other scams relating to make-up palettes, that were cheap or never arrived in the mail. At one point do you stop caring about you fans and it is simply about the money? Who can you blame and how do you fix the problem? That is the hardest part.

  7. Great post about really prevalent product placement on Instagram with some really real consequences on young girls today. You’re right, these “teas” are known to have some pretty harsh side effects, none of which are mentioned on the curated posts they are featured in. Influencers need to be aware that they aren’t just promoting the products that companies send them, but the lifestyle that these products are encouraging too – many of which are dangerous both mentally and physically for young girls.
    Also, it’s eventually just going to be bad business to continue to promote products that make followers feel less-than – plus they’re garnering more and more negative attention (like the backlash Kim Kardashian faced for advertising appetite suppressant lollipops last year, or the critiques all of the Kar-Jenners receive for their regular promotions of the flat-tummy-tea products)
    With so much progress and conversation recently in the fashion industry about inclusivity and body diversity on and off the runways, it would be a shame for influencers be the new source of this toxicity. Not unsurprisingly, all of the commenters on this post so far are women, making it clear that these are posts that we are all too familiar with and feel strongly about. We may have the age and wisdom to look past these dangerous products, but many young girls at really formative ages don’t. This is a really serious ethical dilemma that advertisers and social media platforms need to deal with – and you’re right, I think the responsibility falls on a combination of regulators and the consciences of influencers.

  8. Call me naive (and also a dude), but I was pretty floored by this post. The most troublesome aspect is that you can’t really *prove* predatory behavior is occurring. (Please tell me if you think I’m wrong.) Take what is still the wild, wild west of internet advertising and combine it with implicit marketing to teens and you have a scenario that is incredibly hard to regulate. I’m sadly pessimistic on what can be done here from a legislative standpoint. Unfortunately, I think responsibility will fall on parents, as if they needed more to keep them up at night.

    1. As a pretty skeptical person, I would never assume that these influencers actually believe in the products they are promoting. They don’t seem any more genuine than the people you see in infomercials. I completely agree that this type of behavior is incredibly difficult to legislate and that the responsibility does fall on parents to educate their kids on how social media can be incredibly manipulative. However, I’m pretty optimistic in this regard. I think that once you pull the curtain back (or once parents pull it back for their kids) the manipulation and marketing becomes obvious… and even a little gross.

  9. Loved this post, and I definitely want to see Eighth Grade as I can for sure relate to what a weird and awkward time middle school was. Reading this, I completely agree with feeling grateful that snapchat and instagram weren’t around yet in my middle school days. Body image for that age group has been an issue for a long time, and it only seems to be getting worse as we have more and more seemingly perfect influencers and celebrities to constantly compare ourselves to. The statistic that 40% of tenth graders see themselves as “too fat” when they’re perfectly healthy breaks my heart. This issue is so tough because while I agree that everyone involved is partially responsible and would love to see some regulation here, I agree with Jim and unfortunately don’t see how it could realistically work in practice.

  10. I love that you called FitFabFun, Sugar Bear Hair, and HiSmile the “influencer starter kit” because honestly, I think that is true. As the oldest of three, my younger sisters being 18 and 13, I have seen the negative side effects of this first hand. Both of them have previously talked about going on several of these juice/tea cleanses together even though neither of them should be worrying about their weight.

    I would hope that consumers would read up on the side effects of these fad diets prior to purchasing, but I doubt that will ever occur. I follow my fair share of influencers on insta, and I will admit they can be very persuasive when sponsoring a product. Maybe the first step is making them add a sentence to their captions that discusses side effects.

  11. Great article! I can honestly say I am so glad that all we had in high school was Facebook. Especially since in it’s infancy silly pictures and goofing off were what we posted and makeup or lighting were rarely considered. I have also tried the teami tea and can say definitively that it is unsafe… after about a week I realized it was doing more harm than good and quickly stopped.
    I too think everyone should be held accountable and more importantly that our government needs to be more strict on the types of products allowed to sell in the US, but also those targeting kids who have not fully finished growing up as it could do more harm than good!

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