Summer is the best time for Instagram. Friends are always out on weekend trips, posting nature selfies or snapshots of their Airbnb cabins. Scrolling through my feed over the past few months, once in a while I would come across the expected shots of people cavorting in a field somewhere, dappled in sunlight. A thought flashes through my head: I’m glad my friends are having so much fun! Maybe I double-tap to like the photo. But I slowly realize that everyone in the photo is holding beers, and all the labels are turned outward, and they all say ‘Bud Light Lime.’ Then, in a moment of quiet horror, I notice the ‘Sponsored’ tag at the top right.
Instagram has hosted sponsored posts since 2013. But lately, brands have been catching on to just what kind of images work best on the platform. A city-dwelling male, I was targeted with beer—Miller High Life, Natural Light, and Budweiser in particular—but fashion, food, and even banking companies are creating ads that look just like the user-generated lifestyle porn that makes the social platform so popular. There’s an uncanny valley effect occurring: Your friends look more like brands, and brands look more like your friends, so it’s increasingly hard to tell which is which. And that’s exactly what businesses want.
Companies casting their products as accessories to an aspirational lifestyle is nothing new; check out the vintage booze ads that position Budweiser or Seagram’s as a necessity for any proper gentleman. But rather than buying space in a print magazine or on television, where the context is pre-determined by third-party editors and media companies, brands have now intruded into the spaces we use to broadcast our aspirations to each other and ourselves. We look to Instagram for a brief glimpse into someone else’s life, a sympathetic social connection. The depressing reality is, that moment of vulnerability makes it even better for advertising.