Instagram is a well-lit hellhole of people keeping up appearances. We also can’t keep our eyeballs off it. So it seems inevitable that a couple of flashy bait-and-switch operations promoted on the platform and crashed into physical life have recently captured public attention.
The first is Fyre Festival, which took place in 2017 but was recently eulogized in a pair of documentaries released on Hulu and Netflix. The “music festival” was played up by influencers as a Caribbean Woodstock for 1-percenters. In promos on social media, now long-deleted from personal accounts, models frolic on beaches, having the time of their lives. In reality—the details are so fun to revel in—rich kids paid thousands on thousands of dollars to be shuttled via school bus to a glorified parking lot where they were offered disaster relief tents, cheese sandwiches (according to one attendee), and the opportunity to hunt for their suitcases that had been hurtled off a truck in the dead of night.
The other case is smaller but still worth considering. Instagram star Caroline Calloway promised fans across the country a four-hour creativity workshop. For the $165 ticket price, they’d get not just her advice but a flower crown, personalized letter, and “super soul salad” for lunch. Calloway then canceled all but the D.C. and New York events (though she’s now doing more dates in New York). At the ones she did hold, she took shortcuts like eschewing crowns for a photo-op that included (reused) flowers, forwent letters for emails consisting of one emoji, and at one point suggested that everyone brown-bag their lunch. An interview Calloway did with BuzzFeed News after the event melted down and made the news helped me realize that this is more a case of good intentions matched with absolutely no idea what kind of operations work goes into planning a conference than the nefarious scam of Fyre (and some of her fans had fun!). But the net lesson here is the same: It is very easy to promise something magical on social media, and far more difficult to deliver that magic in person.
In each of these cases, the failure is apparent. Both became instant news stories as evidence circulated: for Fyre, a famous tweet depicting a cheese sandwich; for Calloway’s creativity workshop, screenshots of her making more and more asks of her customers. And once the evidence started circulating, the power of personal endorsements, which Instagram excels at, met reality. The outcome of a ticketed live event gone awry is apparent, unsolved by a cropped photo and a nice filter. In fact, I think this is part of why these stories blew up as much as they did: It was the perfect puncturing of a bubble we all sort of suspect is more air than substance, but can never quite prove.
This quality, of looking good but delivering little, applies to many of the goods being moved by the social media platform. But in almost all other cases beyond events, it’s harder to check—and then display—a shitty result so directly.
Compare this with one of the largest segments of products hawked on Instagram: questionable beauty and wellness goods. These goods are mostly a lie, but consumers never get that sad cheese sandwich to vindicate a small sinking feeling that they’ve been conned. When a new skin care or diet regimen isn’t working, it’s much easier for consumers to blame themselves—especially when an individual they look up to, who is letting them in on the intimate details of their life, is saying it will work. Moreover, there are no witnesses arriving at the same parking lot campsite having the same realization when faced with reality. The evidence that a self-improvement product isn’t working is you: your same ordinary self, failed to be made magical by some product.
Take hair care tools. Dozens if not millions of women with some combination of incredible hair and deft styling skills (or stylists) have credited the Bombay Hair Curling Wand for their waves. The promos are all very similar. The text explains that, since everyone has been asking them how they do their hair, they are going to let you in on the secret: It’s this one tool, and by the way here’s a tutorial and discount code. The Bombay Hair Curling Wand might be a fine tool, but, as I’ve learned from trying countless tools on my own hair, no tool is enough to give you perfect influencer hair on its own.
And then there are supplements. Despite major skepticism from the scientific community, dietary additives like SugarBearHair enjoy Instagram endorsements like they are single-handedly making everyone look sleek and energized. The bright blue bear candies are promoted with refrains like “my hair has never felt stronger or healthier,” next to a photo of a woman who has long, healthy-looking hair. At $30 for a month’s supply, they are about 20 times the price of a regular women’s vitamin on Amazon, though with a lot more biotin. Biotin has been found in a few studies to help people with thinning hair grow more hair, but the research is sparse. Even if the supplement did anything, hair growth is so slow that it would take months and months to notice a change—months and months of swiping your credit card, months and months of you wondering if maybe your hair does look a little bit better anyway? Again, there’s no cheese sandwich.
The same can be said for teeth whitening tools. The amount of whitening that you can get from a product that isn’t bleach at a dentist’s office is modest at best. What’s more, tools like Smile Sciences include small lights that don’t really do anything except maybe dehydrate your teeth a little, making them temporarily brighter, making it easier to think that the device has worked better in the short term than it actually has. And the same can be said for detox teas, which can help you drop some weight but, like any diet aid that reduces caloric intake for a bit, is hard-to-impossible to use effectively for more than a few days. And take waist trainers, which can make you look smaller while they’re on—long enough for a photo certainly! —but can crush your internal organs. Take jade rollers, which might reduce a little swelling and make you a little flush—temporarily.
And yet all of these ads still work, well enough to keep reality stars that hawk the goods raking in five- or even six-figure salaries, with brands keeping with them for years. These products sell because they are sold to us by people with culturally lauded hair and teeth and skin and bodies, things they presumably had before they discovered this little-known wand or pill or gadget or tea. These influencers were able to build audiences of tens of thousands of followers precisely because they already look hot and well-slept, whether because of genetics or money (as Amanda Mull writes in the Atlantic: “the most effective skin-care trick is being rich”). But the image they radiate while posing with whatever thing they are hawking is correlation. It’s not causation. This is the core of marketing, and it isn’t new to Instagram, of course. But on Instagram, it can be especially hard to parse, because we don’t feel like we are watching ads; we feel like we are dropping in on real people’s real lives.
The Fyre Festival failure and Calloway’s conference snafus should serve as warning flares for what’s happening on the rest of Instagram. Both of these events exposed the true nature of so much of the stuff that is sold on the platform: Sure, it looks great in a filtered photo, but it falls flat, sometimes dramatically so, in the material world. The next time you’re tempted, just try to remember those sad cheese sandwiches.