When was the last time companies had direct access to a majority of minors and young adults? 1950s Coca-Cola ads in TIME magazine witnessed unprecedented exposure, the boom of colored televisions in average American households in the 1970s took another big leap. The 2000s witnessed Facebook’s reach. Today, Instagram has become King of the Hill, with 75% of Americans between 18-24 as active users. Audience capture throughout the years has roughly stayed the same, but what has changed? Instagram is not supervised, not by parents, nor by a regulator, which is very scary.
Instagram has become the leading social network for teenagers and young adults, and as such, it has become the leading platform for companies to market products to those demographics. Why? Firstly, Instagram is economically worthwhile; the return on investment for marketing campaigns via influencers in 2018 averaged over 700% in the United States. Secondly, Instagram’s 30% average engagement rate, combined with its average number of followers, surpasses all other social media platforms. This marketing strategy is exponentially gaining traction, with comprehensive “how-to” guides on influencer marketing, dozens of agents managing influencer campaigns, and an industry worth an estimated $1 billion.
In an age where smart TVs, computers and smartphones are the main avenues of consumption, paying for “standard” TV advertising during commercial breaks has become useless; it is now difficult to map audience rates and people watch their favorite show or the evening news at their own timely discretion. Therefore, it makes sense that Instagram has taken on a dual-identity like so many of its users, that of social media platform as well as a hub for aggressive marketing campaigns of all varieties.
Democratic governments have historically enforced regulations on nearly all means of advertising, whether television, radio, or magazines. Some limit targeting (tobacco), some enforce explanations (pharmaceutical) and certain content was banned entirely (gaming or pornography). These regulations are in place to protect consumers, allowing fair competition and preventing deceptive practices.
In contrast, Instagram is subject to little regulation, especially regarding targeted advertising toward minors and young adults. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission only clarified and applied its Advertisement Guidelines to Instagram in 2017 following the Fyre Festival scandal, requiring influencers to prove “material connection between an endorser and advertiser…clearly and conspicuously disclosed”; normally seen by adding “paid partnership with” or “#ad” to advertisement posts. However, the FTC’s enforcement mechanisms (whether sending warning letters or cancelling accounts) do not deter influencer marketing campaigns, with only roughly 25% adhering to FTC requirements. This is exacerbated by fact that legal responses to technological advancements experience great difficulty today, with their normative standing inherently lower than regular statute put into effect by legislative bodies. The only other comparison was England’s regulatory bodies publishing “An Influencer’s Guide to making clear that ads are ads” in late 2018.
This not only means that our children are exposed to undesired content (from a regulatory or parental standpoint) but the exposure itself can change their self-identity. Instagram influencers capitalize on the perceptions they create, trust-worthiness, expertise, similarity, attractiveness and reliability. Our children want to be the influencers “best virtual friend”, mimicking their lifestyle, which is often bolstered through a facade of advertising. This lifestyle can have positive influence, but it can be equally detrimental, whether smoking e-cigarettes, sharing bikini wax salons or consuming alcohol; acts and values that other advertisement platforms have significantly limited.
Consumer culture today is deeper than we have imagined. It does not stop at e-commerce disruption or standard materialism. Utilization of social media platforms for advertising, like Instagram, is shaping the values and standards of the newest generation. In the U.S. and England, regulators have already acted to prevent deceptive marketing tactics. However, in Israel, marketing via Instagram is the Wild West, without any legal framework dictating right and wrong advertisement. Either the Knesset, or the Israeli Competition Authority, need to act now, before it spirals out of control.