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”.
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.
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.
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.