Brands are buying your friends

I have come to love Instagram. And really, that is quite surprising, since its supposed magic is obvious, almost obnoxiously so: A remarkably simple layout for a remarkably simple experience. Square photos, a set of filters, a feed of pictures. (Let’s not talk about filters; I think our children will be puzzled by our love for the vintage look) and focus on something else about it: ads.

In theory, Instagram doesn’t have them. The sharing experience is untarnished by obstructive banners or interrupting messages. It is all so seamless that it’s no wonder the network is successful. Having a superior user experience motivated Instagram’s founders to leave out ads. They followed a classic Silicon Valley credo: Grow the audience first and worry about the revenue later. It’s a strategy that has served them well.

The old “Marlboro Man” spiel

These days, Instagram is owned by Facebook, which paid a large sum for it. For that investment to pay off, Instagram has now started embracing ads and is experimenting with branded content that shows up in users’ feeds. But ironically, they might be too late: Over the past months, ads have already crept into their product, little by little.

Since Instagram hasn’t been offering ads, companies have seemingly circumvented the platform’s makers and have directly approach popular users. Many large accounts now regularly post images for a certain theme that they were quite clearly paid for. Again: In theory, these images are a far cry from traditional banners or messages; they aren’t even denoted as ads. They are native.

Native ads are the next frontier of advertisements. They are the antithesis of traditional ads, eschewing flashy images for genuine, sponsored content. The images on Instagram are genuinely taken by the users who post them. But they are also “supported by” or “powered by” a sponsor. I don’t have to tell you that this changes genuine content into something different: Accepting sponsors means sacrificing a degree of objectivity. That is particularly dangerous in journalism – but it even affects photos, messages or the ever-so-clever hashtags – without the sponsor, they would not exist in that form.

What makes native ads so clever is not that they masquerade as unsponsored content, but that they hardly show actual products. Instead, they transport a vague feeling associated with a product. In essence, they take that old “Marlboro Man” spiel online: Hotels don’t advertise their rooms but, rather, traveling. Car brands advertise being in transit. Both evoke a feeling that designed to makes you want to buy the associated product. If you are lucky, the products’ manufacturers are conveniently mentioned in the post. If not, that is because the feeling itself suffices: It works on a subliminal level to create a desire that might not have been there without it. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it manipulation, but it is treading that line. And that brings us to advertisers’ cleverest, most questionable trick: They use your friends.

Now don’t get me wrong. The notion of “friendship” on social networks has long been a hollow one: Each and every contact you have is labeled a friend. But while social networks have caused friendship inflation, they have also removed traditional barriers between people: If you follow someone you may not know or only barely know for a longer time, you are destined to feel some kind of kinship to them. It is the same mechanism that makes people support football teams they have never met: It feels like you know them – even if you don’t.

Popular accounts on social networks have thousands of followers or friends. They post pictures all these people see, often in very casual situations – many users report they open Instagram on their phones first thing in the morning, while in bed (I have certainly done the same thing). This creates a feeling of intimacy that advertisers can tap into – and that is precisely what they are doing. Native ads posted by the people you consider “friends” not only appear genuine, they also feel that way because they are coming from someone you trust. They make it hard to distinguish whether that photographer you like is posting such nice vacation shots because they like their destination – or because they were paid by the local tourism board.

Trust, undermined by commercial interests

Facebook itself is doing the same thing: promoting pages and products to their users by displaying endorsements by friends. Chances are that some of your friends are being shown pages you have “liked” to engage them with whatever brand or product pays for the ad. Your name adds credibility to the offering. And that offering doesn’t even have to be a 55-gallon barrel of lube to leave a bad taste.

Last month, I complained that ads were becoming ever more obtrusive. But perhaps that wasn’t the full picture: Some ads take the opposite route and try to fly under the radar. They might not be visible and might even seem like a lesser evil. But they are a slippery slope towards a world in which interpersonal connections are undermined by commercial interests – and trust itself by extension.

The word friend really doesn’t need further erosion.