How marketers use Instagram influencers to attract your attention.

Sitting at my desk on a cold day in February I find myself aimlessly scrolling through my Instagram feed looking at hundreds of flawless photos. A Kardashian sister looking airbrushed holding a detox tea appears. A “normal” girl posing for what could pass as a Playboy shoot in order to tell her followers how obsessed she is with a teeth whitening strip pops up. A “fitness guru” showing off her hourglass curves and promoting a juice cleanse as the secret to her fit body. This phenomenon of modeling on Instagram and promoting “organic endorsements” is taking of faster than I drink my coffee on a Monday morning.

Known in pop culture as “Insta-models” we almost don’t even realize they’re advertising to us. According to Urban Dictionary, Instagram models are, “Girls on Instagram who photoshop ALL of their pictures, wear pounds of makeup and have 250k+ followers. They claim they’re models.” Urban Dictionary’s definition doesn’t include that these girls have also become the fashion and beauty industry’s most powerful influencers. Insta-models share photos that are made to look like a personal post, when they’re actually selected by brands such as Sugar Bear Hair and Flat Tummy Tea to promote their products as a model’s insider secret. Because of how popular this form of influencer marketing has become, its increasingly harder for consumers to differentiate between genuine endorsements and paid product placement on social media.

Naturally, today’s consumer brands want to find the most effective strategies to reach millennials – the largest generation in history. It’s no wonder they’re flocking to one of this generation’s favorite platforms. According to Adweek, 29% of millennials use Instagram every day. That’s a lot of eyes on an “organic post” – and unlike TV and magazine advertisements of the past, the tool is measurable.

But, how effective are they? Millennials aren’t dumb. The increase or near over-saturation in Insta-models consumer trust in their promotion has decreased. Millennials don’t like to be tricked. They praise transparency and authenticity. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has stepped in to help regulate these posts as they did with bloggers last decade.

The FTC restated their endorsement guide in May 2015 for social media advertising. The regulations require a celebrity figure or model who wishes to endorse a product and they’ve been paid to do so. Many influencers will include hashtags such as #ad, #sp, #spon, or #sponsor in the beginning of their posts to indicate they’ve received something in return. According to Captiv8, “More than 300,000 sponsored posts on Instagram in July [2016] used hashtags like #ad, #sponsored and #sp, up from about 120,000 a year earlier.” By regulating this, the FTC is hoping to combat deceptive advertising on social media channels.

Societal pressures surrounding young women to look flawless is only increasing to suffocating amounts thanks to Insta-models and their ads. Many of these Instagram models have come forward saying they’re cracking under the pressure to look perfect and that isn’t their reality. Former Instagram model Essena O’Neill came out publicly stating how the pressure to be perfect was really her living a lie. She later started a GoFundMe to ask for help paying for her lifestyle since she quit Instagram and lost all of her endorsements and income.

So what does this mean for you as a consumer? Try and be aware of misleading posts. Some of the things to look for are:

  • If the hashtag #ad, #sp, #spon or #sponsor appears in the beginning of a post. This is the easiest way to see it’s a paid advertisement;
  • If the company is directly tagged in the caption, this could be a paid endorsement;
  • If a caption or post looks inauthentic. Some of the most common plugs for resorts, restaurants or clothing are meant to look authentic but beware, this could be an advertisement;
  • If you’re offered a special code for following a celebrity or model for a certain product they’re displaying, more often than not this influencer has been paid to do this; or
  • If the product is clearly displayed in the photo and the company is tagged in the picture it could indicate the influencer is being given something in order to post this.

Next time you’re scrolling through flawless product placement photos on Instagram remember odds are these models and celebrities are being paid to post them. The more you’re aware the less you’ll be fooled by a paid endorsement.

And, what does this mean for you as a marketer? Go ahead and use Instagram to reach your target audiences, but require that your influencers are as open and transparent about your endorsement as possible. Connect openly to them from your own social accounts. Doing so will prevent loss of trust in your brand and will earn you more loyalty than competitors who don’t hold themselves to the same standards.