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The Hypnotic Appeal of Instagram Advertisements

Ads for products like the Snuggie and the “Set it and forget it” rotisserie oven are set to be replaced by spots tailored for the social media generation, and the commercials are already as captivating

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The “as seen on TV” section (which includes As Seen on TV–branded products as well as other infomercial-level items) is inarguably the best aisle of any home goods store. It’s where you might reconsider regular old cotton swabs, a tried-and-true method for cleaning your ears. What about the Smart Swab, a plastic wand with replaceable curlicues that pull wax out of your ear? Similarly, compression socks work just fine, but what about compression socks with copper in ’em? And what about the many new and inventive ways to make pancakes? There’s something strangely compelling about all of these wares, products unfit for mainstream distribution and marketing, yet selling themselves as a superior alternative.

Even though these products have long required hilariously over-the-top demonstrations on late-night cable commercials to prove their value, I’ve never stopped hoping that a cheap piece of plastic was the secret to quick and easy dinner prep or an obsessively organized closet. I don’t have cable anymore, and I don’t frequent Walgreens as often as my teenage self (my favorite purveyor of As Seen on TV and infomercial merchandise), but luckily, there is a new distributor for this type of product pushing: Instagram.

When Instagram introduced promoted posts in 2013, the first few ads were, as promised, quite similar to a regular post. They looked slightly more professional with higher quality, but mostly like some B-level Instagram-famous lifestyle photog’s posts had slipped into your feed. This Levi’s ad, one of the first, for example, is attractive people wearing jeans, doing something outdoorsy — standard Instagram fare. This Michael Kors post, another from the inaugural class, could easily be organic Rich Kids of Instagram content. But at a certain point, the subtle, seamless advertising was switched out for brash, straightforward posts.

Users stopped wondering whether a post was from a friend’s vacation or a professional wedding photographer. No need to double-check and ask “Is this promoted?” These ads quickly became the social media generation’s “as seen on TV” ads. The posts are shameless, they are obvious, and they are possibly more alluring than their cable-TV predecessors.

While I cut the cord long ago, coming across these new ads during my daily scrolls through Instagram provides the same experience that stumbling across those late-night commercials while watching TV did. After doing some very basic recon — asking friends and logging into other accounts — these are a few of the most aggressive advertisers marketing products that define the genre in the medium (at least for me, since there is still plenty of ad targeting at work here). First, there is the stick-on bra that you cinch in the middle, sold by the Perfect Sculpt, Alexia Shapewear, and Hyperion (and probably others). They all look exactly the same and show women solving their backless shirt woes. Overtone conditioner is for people with highlighted hair and its Instagram ad shows a woman clearly exasperated with her hair, until she uses this genius product I’ve never seen elsewhere. There’s the weighted “Gravity” blanket that one reported user said is “like Advil PM for your whole body.” EverlyWell sells a food sensitivity testing kit, which is explained in a cute, quick video showing the contents of a package you can order. I’ve never seen any of these things on a store shelf, nor do I have any reason beyond their snippet-sized demos to trust them, and yet they end up in my Saved file for future potential (but unlikely) shopping.

Instagram has become a destination for a new-age version of mindless channel surfing. Most of the time, I skip past a promoted post, like I would a commercial for a Sears Memorial Day sale or Les Schwab tire discount. But a good “as seen on TV”–style advertisement sucks me right in. I watch the tiny product placement video loop, or swipe through its multiple photos, or let a Boomerang GIF repeat endlessly.

Instagram has always been a natural shopping platform, offering users dinner ideas via its vast collection of food photos, or vacation inspiration via pristine travel photos. The platform has evolved to accommodate more traditional e-commerce, allowing the brazen, demo-heavy ads to infiltrate. In a recent Adweek story, Ben & Jerry’s senior global marketing manager Jay Curley said that Instagram users are “much more used to and accepting of advertising.” And, well, we’d better be, because in March the platform announced it had hit 1 million monthly advertisers, and that growth shows no signs of slowing down.

These Instagram ads aren’t as gimmicky as their TV counterparts — no catchphrase like “Set it and forget it!” needed here. The progression in advertising parallels the change from cable to social media programming. Instagram capitalizes on the marketing needs of companies whose products couldn’t make it onto the shelves of a Target. The innovation is that these targeted ads let users feel like they found out about a secret to solving banal, nagging problems that plague you, from troublesome bra straps to brassy ends. I can’t wait until Walgreens gets its “as seen on Instagram” aisle.