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.
How best to invade the platform? One marketing approach is to co-opt tastemakers that are already popular on Instagram, sending freebies to individual accounts with massive followings. But the other is giving the brand its own semblance of life through sponsored posts, as if the company were just another human posting chill vacation pics.
This is why I feel so creeped out by the beer ads: They make it look like an inanimate object is out having a great time with its #squad. In the images, the bottle or the can is always the central focal point. It’s usually being extended toward us, the trapped viewers, as we hold our phone screens. A closer look reveals that all of the human faces are cropped out or blurred into anonymity by the camera lens, the better to encourage consumer identification, making it easier to mistake the models for people you know. Without realizing it, you insert yourself into the world of the ad.
Through Instagram, brands have attained not just personhood, but a social presence in our most intimate digital circles. It’s all part of a strategy to reach consumers on a deeper level, according to David Coomer, the chief creative officer of Cornett, a Kentucky ad agency, who has used the ads as inspiration for his team. “For Budweiser, they understand that their followers aren't just consumers, they're people with real lives and real beliefs that led them to connect with the brand in the first place,” Coomer says. “Budweiser’s Instagram account reflects that life.”
Faux-candid moments like a Miller High Life beach scene or Bud Light Lime hiking trip “convey the emotion of the brand experience,” Coomer says, particularly when surrounded in the Instagram feed by authentic photos of actual people doing the same things. Brands can now access the frisson of excitement or FOMO that we feel when we see our friends doing something cool on social media.
The intimacy of Instagram ads is reflected in their higher costs. While a website banner ad might run $2-3 for every thousand views (CPM), an Instagram sponsored post is closer to $6. The platform provides “a premium, large-format ad,” according to Salesforce, more like the Internet’s equivalent of a full-page Vogue spread than a newspaper classified. At the beginning of 2016, Instagram already had 200,000 advertisers (more than Twitter) and a predicted $3.2 billion in revenue, so it’s clear the ads are in demand. They work better on viewers, too: Instagram’s click-through rate of 1.5 percent is double that of Facebook, its parent company.
A weird thing happened when I put all of these beverage ads together, however. Despite the fact that they come from different companies, they looked identical: the same compositions and figures and palette of deeply saturated blues and greens, like a J. Crew ad on acid. It’s as if an algorithm digested everyone I follow and spat out a robotic approximation of the overall aesthetic. The ads are compelling, but in a sickly way, like candy: you know they’re designed for you to like them a little too much.
The convergence shows that users are gaining influence over brands rather than vice versa. On social media, we’re dictating what aspiration looks like. Instagram’s native aesthetic rises not just out of the platform’s much-discussed filters, but the crowd-sourced decisions of every user on the platform, following and liking each other and gradually coming to a consensus about what’s stylish. Marketers must now chase the ideal glossy-but-informal vibe that we’ve collectively chosen rather than encouraging us to model ourselves after brands, the way highbrow fashion ads did in the past.
If this is a victory, it’s an ambivalent one. There remains one major difference between your friends and the brands that are trying to look just like them. You can unfollow your friends if you get tired of their party and vacation pics, but you’ll never escape the ads.