Social media has supercharged our online shopping addiction. This is seen across all social media platforms, but it’s especially prevalent on Tiktok‘s platform.
Lately my “For You” page on Tiktok totally been taken over by Tiktok shop. It’s seems that every third video is telling me about some sort of tripod that I should buy so that I can film my Tiktok videos or jumpsuits. I’m getting A LOT of Tiktok shop jumpsuit ads. I don’t really understand why. But it is really wrecking my experience.
Social Media Fuels Comparison
Social media allows us to see into other people’s lives, especially the fabulously wealthy. We can see the things that they are buying, eating or wearing and we can go find those same exact things for ourselves– usually within the app that we’re on.
Social media also dictates trends, especially Tiktok, and trends are all about getting people to buy more. Especially younger people with disposable cash. The global e-commerce growth rate for 2023 is forecast at 8.9%. This brings global e-commerce sales worldwide to 5.9 trillion. This marks an 1.8 percentage point increase from 2022’s growth rate.
Social media is also where trends are happening
Social media, but especially Tiktok is where trends are happening. If you want to be cool and on trend, you are probably doing something that originated on Tiktok. But what’s really interesting and really dangerous is that trends on Tiktok start and die really quickly. Take fashion, for example. Fashion trends used to come seasonally. There would be a winter release of a collection, there would be a spring release of a collection. But now thanks to Tiktok trends, there’s a new cute outfit or cool outfit every two weeks. By definition, being on-trend means you’re cool and not being on trend means you are not cool. So if a trend starts and you’re not participating, you’re on the outside.
This can evoke in us feelings of panic, social anxiety, and can drive us to do whatever it takes to be part of the trend. Because these trends are so short lived, you have to buy the trendy item as soon as you see it. As soon as that first video comes across your For You page, you have to buy the trend because you know that trend won’t last very long. And if you wait, you’ll miss it.
How Social Media Trends are Manufactured
Of course, items from one trend are usually not reusable in another trend. The whole point of being trendy is that the looks are different enough to distinguish themselves from each other. And all of this this rush this pressure, this frequency, it leads me to wonder are Tiktok trends manufactured? Do I think that there are industry plants for Tiktok trends? Do I think that our corporate overlords are manufacturing these trends to get us to buy more stuff? I mean, no, but also yes?
I don’t feel like the answer is yes in a conspiracy theorist way. There isn’t a group of executives staring down at us saying “You will love blueberry milk nails or else!” I don’t think that’s what’s happening. But I do think what’s happening is that trends are trickling to social media out of these “deciding spaces.” Maybe it’s coming from an employee or somebody who is in an influencer’s network. Perhaps they make a Tiktok video about something that they like, or that they see happening in the world around them.
The cycle of trends
That video is then picked up by a trend forecaster and is highlighted as the next big thing. Then there’s usually a media article about that trend forecasters video saying “The hot new look for fall is such and such a look.” And then people in more traditional media outlets or smaller influencers jump on it and start acting out that trend. This trend can be anything from a makeup, to clothing, to an exercise trend, to an eating style.
Things like Paleo, Keto and other diet trends are just as much trends as blueberry nails or “florals for spring.” Once it reaches that level, that’s when normal people like you and I start to see it. That’s when sales really start to roll in because we want to be on trend. We want to emulate the people that we think are cool. So corporations might not plant the original video, but they are definitely poised and ready to take advantage when one of their products or when something that they think they can sell you is about to pop off. Remember that corporations have whole teams and departments around marketing, PR and social media. All of their jobs is fundamentally to sell things.
The Marketing Department’s job is to keep up with trends
So when a trend pops up that can benefit a specific company, that company’s marketing team is on it. They then can capitalize on the trend. For example, when the blueberry milk nails trend was trending really heavily on Instagram, that was a huge opportunity for any nail polish company to say, “Here are the colors that we offer that you can use to make your own blueberry milk nails.” But part of what makes these trends so insidious and exhausting is that Tiktok is essentially selling us back things that have already existed. All we’ve done is slap a new name on them that appeals to a new demographic, so that corporations can sell more stuff.
New trends are old trends rebranded
For example, let’s take “latte girl makeup.” This look has existed basically, as long as there has been makeup. Brown eyeshadow is not new. In some cultures, women have been putting brown eyeshadow on their eyes for 1,000s of years. Latte girl makeup is a name designed to be more palatable to a younger audience. It’s a common joke that women love coffee and lattes. By rebranding this old look with a new name that includes the word latte, it makes it much more appealing to a younger audience. In fact, the woman who is credited with coining the term, “latte girl makeup” said that “It’s milky and effortless.”
Where have we heard the term milk or milky used lately on Tiktok? Oh, right. It’s those blueberry milk nails! By describing the latte girl makeup look with the same language that we use to describe the blueberry milk nails, it reinforces this idea that these are the cool things to do. Now I want to be clear, I don’t think there’s actual subconscious programming going on here. I just think that this woman herself is consuming a lot of the same type of content. She is seeing a lot of the same words used over and over again. And repetition is very powerful.
Repetition is key and powerful to trends
But when we have individuals who repeat what they hear into their phone, and that message gets broadcasted out to millions of followers, terms, trends, and yes, harmful misinformation can all of a sudden become very powerful and very dangerous. TikTok has become the number one social media platform in the last three years.
Tiktok has over 1 billion users, the majority of which are between ages 16 and 24. Any marketer will tell you that that is prime demographic for getting people to spend money. They have disposable cash in a lot of cases, They don’t have major responsibilities like a mortgage or kids that would distract them from spending their money on things like makeup, nail polish, things for their car, or different types of clothes. That’s why videos that are selling us thing are prolific and sometimes the sales pitch is direct.
But sometimes that pitch is more indirect. You see it with things like “Tiktok made me buy it.” “I bought it, so you don’t have to” videos and haul videos. Seasonal haul videos, in particular, if you’re a fall girly are targeted big time on Tiktok. Even things like prepping halls or organizational halls. These videos are often utilizing something called neuro-marketing.
Neuro-Marketing and Social Media
Neuro-marketing is the application of neuroscience to marketing, so that companies can identify user preferences, motivations and needs without the use of less revealing traditional surveys. It allows businesses to truly understand how the user responds at the subconscious level.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been around for years on Instagram, Snapchat, Google, etc. However, it’s even more prominent on Tiktok since the app does such a good job at quickly curating a FYP specific to your interests with its algorithm. Neuro-marketing itself is not new. But as this article points out, it’s particularly powerful on Tiktok because of the speed at which Tiktok moves. And because of the clock app’s algorithm. The algorithm is top secret. I have no idea how that algorithm works. I just know it works really well. In the last few years, social media apps have really gone from being places where you can keep a micro-diary of your life to becoming predominantly shopping apps.
It’s now easier than ever to buy via social media
Like I mentioned before, Tiktok shop has basically taken over my For You page. I’m sure it has had a big impact on yours too. Let me know in the comments what products you keep seeing on your FYP page. But the point is, is that it is now easier than ever to buy. There is the Instagram shopping tab, where you click on the tab and everything you see is available to purchase. With Tiktok shop, the videos that you’re being served, there’s just one link that you need to click and then the page to purchase that item will pop up within the app. You can save your credit card or your Paypal info on pretty much any website now. It eliminates the hassle of even having to get up and go find your card.
Ease of shopping is degrading our understanding and sense of quality
So with two clicks, you can be spending money on any social media platform. Much of our identity has become wrapped up in what we’re buying. And it’s exhausting. It’s bad for us. It’s bad for the planet and it’s bad for the world that we are bringing future people into. I really believe that the ease of which we can buy things is degrading our sense of understanding around what it takes to create something. We are rapidly losing an understanding of how much energy and resources goes into creating something like a dress or a new toy for your child.
The average person doesn’t know how to sew, so how could they possibly understand the skills, the time and the resources that go into creating this season’s hottest dress? When we have the big machine of fast fashion, constantly turning out trendy new pieces that are being sold for literally $3 online, people are also losing a sense of how much they should pay for other people’s labor and creation. Honestly, all of this and I haven’t even touched on the shipping that is needed and the labor that is needed! To get something from a factory in Bangladesh to you living your best life in LA and planet-wise, environmentally-wise, we are ripping through our natural resources at a rate that is not only unsustainable, but truly horrifyingly fast.
We’re depleting our earth’s resources
Making a single pair of 501 jeans required almost 920 gallons of water, 400 mega joules of energy and expelled 32 kilograms of carbon dioxide. That’s one pair of jeans! Now imagine how many new pairs of jeans Levi’s makes every year. Then add on top of that how many new pairs Gap makes, how many new pairs Madewell makes, how many Abercrombie makes, how many American Eagle makes, and how many Good American makes. All of a sudden, you really begin to get a scope of how quickly we are depleting our resources, just so that we can have things that we can buy.
Shopping isn’t always bad
Now buying things can and does make people happy, but it is almost always a short term fix. Here’s Scott Rick, an Associate Professor of Marketing at the University of Michigan: “There are a few ways to think about the pleasures of spending, in the mental accounting literature we talk a lot about acquisition utility, which is experienced when a product is priced for less than it is worth to us. And transition utility, which is experienced when a product is priced less than we expected it to be. Both are routine sources of pleasure, even when the purchases are not obviously rational.”
“For example, I might happily buy something because it’s on sale, even if that sale price is still more than the product is worth to me. In other words, transaction utility matters more than it should.” Part of the pleasure of spending is driven by misinformation, ads, claims or packaging that make the product seem better than it actually is. But even with perfect information, there are effective forecasting errors. People think the product that seems novel and cool today will stay that way for a long time. We generally don’t realize how quickly the excitement of new products will fade.
So yes, if you’re someone who enjoys shopping, you’re not alone. A lot of us really enjoy that, especially when we’re hitting that transaction utility and that acquisition utility, but that kind of doing in our pleasure centers only lasts really short term. In some cases, just a few moments.
But shopping is a short term fix
Shopping is not a long term and sustainable path to emotional health and happiness. It’s a short term fix where you have to keep doing the action. You have to keep shopping, in order to keep getting the high. A 2013 study with the very unsexy name of “Generational Changes in Materialism and Work Centrality, 1976 to 2007: Associations with temporal changes in societal insecurity and materialistic role modeling” found that when young people become more materialistic, their emotional well being takes a dive. As overconsumption and a desire for material items rose in young people, those same young people experienced a decrease in willingness to work. Congrats capitalism, when forcing people to only find joy through spending, you decrease the value seen and the willingness to work.
I firmly believe that overconsumption is bad for us as individuals and bad for the planet. I’m curious to hear your thoughts and know what your FYP is looking like these days. Please let me know what you are being targeted with what you are being marketed to.
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