Instagram Influencers Can Influence More Than You Think

Over the last seven days, my usage of Instagram totaled at almost six and a half hours, more than any other social media application according to my iPhone settings. It is safe to say Instagram plays a significant role in my life. What started as more of a democratic technology, meant to connect people by means of sharing photographs, quickly became a consumer product idea.

With the intrusion of advertisements and a strong new presence of Instagram influencers, the role of Instagram in the lives of many has evolved into one of the most influential forms of media.

This change in the way Instagram is used is a result of capitalism, since capitalism requires consumption. The theories discussed in “The Psychology of Radio Advertising” and “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” are still relevant and can be applied to Instagram and the role of advertising. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s theory about passive consumption applies directly to Instagram and the impact it has on the lives of many, including my own.

Before turning in for the night, my last activity is always scrolling through my Instagram feed and explore page, watching recipe videos, browsing different products, and viewing stories. This is also the case first thing in the morning; my days start and end with Instagram. When signing up for an Instagram account, the intention was to share photographs with friends.

Now, my daily life is influenced by this application. From deciding on a new recipe to cook or choosing a pair of shoes to purchase, to donating money to a certain cause or even changing my opinion on a topic, Instagram is the main media source which influences every aspect of life. Since arriving in London in January, the role Instagram plays in my life has become more apparent.

A significant amount of time is consumed by Instagram; not only on the application, but in real life. For example, so much time is spent trying to take the ‘perfect picture’ to post.

It is also a travel guide in a sense. It influences every decision like which restaurant to eat at, where to shop, different places to see, and even what to wear. As I began to follow accounts pertaining to London fashion and best places to eat in London, the advertisements that pop up on my feed were much different as compared to the advertisements while at home in the U.S.

When scrolling through the feed with no intention of purchasing anything, the outcome is almost always online shopping after seeing an advertisement specifically targeted at me as a result of previous searches and accounts followed.

Along with being influenced by advertisements based on previous searches and accounts followed, another source of advertisement is linked to Instagram influencers, usually celebrities.

Kylie Jenner is one of the most influential Instagram users of this generation. Her platform allowed her to promote many products including her lip kit. As well as advertising products, celebrities like the Kardashian/Jenner family are able to influence so many aspects of daily life.

The Instagram profile is like a reflection of the user’s life. In order to achieve the same body as some of these celebrities, the workout routines they use are promoted and sold. Many brands gain relevance due to famous influencers’ posts. For example until Kanye West joined with the brand Adidas, my closet consisted of anything but Adidas.

On the other end of the spectrum, my interest in certain causes is influenced by these Instagram influencers as well. A charity called One Love International, a non-profit helping families in Uganda, would have never been on my radar if it weren’t for the Instagram influencer Lauren Akins, the wife of Thomas Rhett. Not only do these influencers promote products to buy, they promote a certain lifestyle that many people seek.

Before Instagram became the main source of media for many, radio was the medium for the masses. During the age of radio, many critical theorists emerged as a result of advertisements and the newfound influence of the radio, two of which are Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

They argued the idea that audiences are passive and easily influenced by the message they are exposed to. Adorno suggests that these messages come from people with economic power and expresses the danger in communicating ideas through media. In the article “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Adorno and Horkheimer say,

“What is not mentioned is that the basis on which technology is gaining power over society is the power of those whose economic position in society is strongest,” (1944, p. 42).

The idea of passive consumption and communicating through media is thought to be dangerous because of the one-way flow of communication; the audience is powerless to resist the impact of the message. These messages or advertisements are all about selling an image of happiness. Adorno and Horkheimer use the example of Chrysler and General Motors.

The products are essentially the same in terms of quality, so there is a need to sell an image or lifestyle that the mass audience would seek. These messages from those with a strong economic position are received by the audience and it creates a false psychological need which can only be solved by consumption. Adorno and Horkheimer explain this false need stemming from capitalism:

“Anyone who does not conform is condemned to an economic impotence which is prolonged in the intellectual powerlessness of the eccentric loner. Disconnected from the mainstream, he is easily convicted of inadequacy.”

By not conforming to this false need that can only be solved by consumption, members of the audience risk being an outcast. “Adorno saw the radio broadcasting system as part of the capitalist system as a whole,” (Newman 2004, p. 25). Since capitalism requires consumption, he argued people have to constantly be reminded in order to get used to conditions; in other words, ‘buy this, it will make you happy.’ The real needs that humans have such as freedom, happiness, and creativity are being completely destroyed.

Adorno and Horkheimer’s theories have relevance in the realm of social media. Their critiques of radio advertisement can be directly applied to the influence Instagram has on the masses.

Instagram users can be thought of as passive consumers; they are easily influenced by messages with no mechanism of reply. Adorno’s idea that these messages come from those with economic power applies to Instagram influencers, such as the Kardashian/Jenner family, Kanye West, and Lauren Akins.

Instagram users, like myself, are influenced when exposed to the lifestyle of these people with high economic power. This creates the false psychological need for products in order to achieve happiness, just as Adorno and Horkheimer suggested when criticizing radio advertising.

Some may argue that Instagram users do in fact have a mechanism of reply or choice over the messages they see due to the fact that you can unfollow accounts, but there is no escaping when it comes to advertisements on Instagram.

Between the explore page that promotes popular images and the uncanny pop-ups on the home feed, these messages are still reaching their intended audiences. As mentioned before, products are so similar that a lifestyle many seek must be portrayed in order to sell products.

For example, there is essentially no difference in the quality of Adidas and Nike products, so they use influencers such as Kanye West and LeBron James to sell an image. It can be argued that Instagram, like radio, is part of the capitalist system as a whole. It allows every aspect of someone’s life to be portrayed in a way that can be manipulated into an image of happiness.

This image of happiness sought by the masses is thought to be achieved through buying the same products, going to the same places, and doing the same things as these Instagram influencers do. Instagram is the main source of media for many people, especially millennials and Generation Z.

Almost every aspect of life is influenced by what is seen on Instagram such as what to buy, where to travel, what music to listen to, what causes to support, what to eat, etc. As a capitalist society, consumption is essential which makes these decisions influenced by Instagram about where to spend money very significant.

Instagram influencers sell a lifestyle sought by many, creating a need for consumption rather than promote the real needs of humans: creativity, freedom, and happiness. Rather than enjoying an experience, Instagram users spend more time seeking this lifestyle through taking the ‘perfect picture.’ Some people even seek to become influencers themselves.

Adorno and Horkheimer’s theories in regard to passive consumption and radio advertisements have relevance in the world of social media. One issue facing us all is the privacy of users in terms of pop-up advertisements based on search history.

The concepts discussed are very meaningful; the idea of passive consumption with no mechanism of reply shapes every aspect of daily life for many as well as raises other issues in terms of privacy and the effects capitalism can have on the real needs of humans.

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