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You’re scrolling through TikTok or Instagram when some microinfluencer has the cutest workout set you’ve ever seen. They casually mention the brand, and you quickly exit the app to see where you can buy this new necessity for your wardrobe. Did you just inadvertently watch a commercial? No, of course not! Their platform is too small for that, and you know when a company is trying to market to you. But do you? 

With the rise of streaming services, commercials have become outdated and are no longer the iconic, catchphrase-filled cultural phenomena they used to be. Celebrities flashing an unnaturally white smile to the audience on TV as they hold some cleaning product or snack option is overtly fake to modern consumers. Influencers took their place, repping brands on social media or content platforms–YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok. People are beyond the disillusionment from an A-lister divulging their “one” skincare hack–some drugstore conglomerate brand. We know by now that an $11.99 face wash is not why they have flawless skin. But influencers, especially more relatable ones like Emma Chamberlain, seem much closer to the average person than a Kardashian. They actually might use that face wash! But definitely not if they’re telling me via an ad put out by that company. But if it’s on their own page, in a casual post…well then it must be legitimate. 


Much like product placement in television or movies, advertisers seek out ways to casually influence consumers while making them believe they wanted it themselves. No one wants to feel manipulated, especially not with their choice of products. You want to believe that you chose your water bottle or your earrings or your favorite sports drink because it represents you and is a beneficial product in your life, not because someone deceived you into those choices. 


The thing to keep in mind though is that we live in a time of overflowing content; choosing a dish soap forty years ago when there were only a handful on the market is a much different choice than walking into a grocery store that has a whole aisle of them, pulling up your store app and seeing they have more options that are online only, and then seeing on your social media feed that there’s a brand a continent away that apparently is the best of any of them. It’s just dish soap. But there’s infinite choices, burdening you into either an endless pursuit for your perfect one, or settling down with one loyal choice, always wondering if getting the purple one or the “50% better cleaning power!” one is actually a better option. How does one narrow the pool down? 


So when a stranger on the internet that you like does a shopping haul and a new dish soap brand happens to be a part of it, well hey, why not try it? It’s basically peer-reviewed. 


Now, that’s not the reason that every person brings up a product or has it visible in their content. People, even influencers, are actually allowed to buy things without it being profitable on their end. Obviously. But also, I ask you to consider something–how many times have you seen a person who has a relatively average following on social media have a promo code in their bio as a brand ambassador, or post with a product that is so obviously something they got paid to do? Companies are trying to market through relatable means; people we encounter everyday–people we trust. So why would they not reach out to people with a sizable TikTok following? People who make normal, low production TikToks would obviously never sell out. 

That’s not the only issue though. In an age of hyperreality, hyper-connectivity, and the hypertrophy of advertisements’ presence in daily life, companies must make themselves likable. They create a personification of themselves to blur the line between corporate conglomerate and funny friend. A non-sentient company takes on the role of admired mutual, charismatic without actual personhood. What am I talking about? I’m talking about companies’ social media accounts. 


While you would know that if a company had a spokesperson for their product, publishing ads on the company’s page, no one would trust them. But if the company is casually inserting itself into daily life, like commenting jokes on TikTok videos that have nothing to do with their product, then it’s not a point of trusting the spokesperson’s opinion–it’s trusting the company’s opinion. This is even more insidious with the running joke that some “unpaid Gen Z intern” is coming up with clever Tweets or captions or comments. We thus sympathize with this figurative person, someone just like us trying to succeed in their job. This works especially well for companies that really can’t place their products without it seeming staged. The problem with my dish soap hypothetical is that most people would be off put if someone was gunning for you to buy an average household product, especially a well-known one. 


But if we know the brand as a superpower, yet they humble themselves by quoting a well known audio, well hell! aren’t they just so funny! And we know it, we do: they’re a company. But people replying to Tweets or comments made by brands suggests that a person, whether aware that they are in on the routine of stealth advertising or not, have lost the ability to conceptualize the company as a company and not as a fellow human. We see it as some poor teenage or 20-something intern having fun, disavowing the seriousness of the brand for our enjoyment. But it’s probably a board room of people analyzing popular responses and regurgitating them. And we laugh. Just like when the iconic commercials of days gone by made our parents and grandparents laugh at their running gags or plotlines.


Is advertising inherently wrong? Not at all. It’s not even really wrong for someone to get some money from a company they feel comfortable representing. If anything, it’s a really smart tactic. We’re seeing the music industry succumb to this too, having to create catchy 15 second parts that become trends to make labels happy. The future of advertising is subtly incorporating a product into our lives. Subliminal advertising has always been the goal, and there are just better avenues for it now. It also gives smaller brands better ways to market their products cheaply and effectively. Not everyone can afford to produce a primetime commercial. Everyone can afford to download a free social media app. 


I’ll leave you with this: In 2012, there was a small brand trying to compete with the arguable champion of the razor market–Gillette. This fledgling company, which you might know as Dollar Shave Club, needed to advertise their unbeatable price, but how? Then-CEO Michael Dubin, a former improv actor, decided to take an unconventional approach. He made a YouTube video that showcased the company as well as his humor. The video blew up because people thought it was funny and shared it with their friends, but also because at the end of the day, people wanted to have cheaper razors. The virality of the video generated thousands of customers overnight. 


So is it completely insidious to use stealth ads? That’s up to you I suppose. On one hand, every company needs to advertise. On the other hand, having small labels that alert a viewer they’re watching sponsored content is beneficial both to the integrity of the content creator and the viewer, which many platforms are implementing. However, that’s a choice the content creator makes, and they can happily ignore putting the label on. If you’re trying to grow your company, be smart about it and use the resources you can. But if you’re a consumer, be smart about it and know the resources that are being used.

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