Your Brands and Lovers

Product placement would be nothing without our friends

At the peak of the hunt, there were seven dark-gray sofas under consideration. To the average person, they are likely indistinguishable. But who wants to be average? As I toggled between tabs, returning again and again to the web pages where I found these sofas, a few key variables became discernible. Are iron legs more attractive than wooden ones? How many people can fit comfortably on 82 inches of length? Is 90 inches excessive? Does a straight back look more or less authentically “midcentury” than a modestly curved edge? Why don’t “charcoal” gray or “gravel” gray resemble their namesakes? Why would I want them to?

Where I was once either ambivalent about or annoyed at the tedium of furniture selection, I have recently found the turmoil of this process thrilling, thanks to the source of my impulse to buy a gray sofa in the first place: Instagram advertisements.

While I engage with Twitter ads primarily to mock them and get entertainment from Facebook ads mainly through learning who among my friends has actually bothered to like which brands, I have clicked Instagram ads and been carried onto e-commerce platforms not just willingly but eagerly. The ads don’t just appeal to my existing consumer interests; they anticipate latent ones. I find myself suddenly adorned in Russian designer fashion and interested in rings when I’ve almost always been a necklace-only stalwart. And I am suddenly interested in furniture.

Instagram’s emphasis on visual immediacy lets advertisers replicate print, while appearance beside friends’ similarly aspirational images legitimates the ads as socially relevant

The first furniture ad I recall seeing was from the brand Article (called Bryght when I first encountered it). Then came Joybird. Then AllModern. Then Lulu and Georgia. I probably saw many more before I started consciously noticing, but my grooming to enjoy these ads in my feed specifically began even further back, in the white walls and reclaimed wood dining tables and bookshelves held together by industrial piping made familiar from friend accounts. Brand images of tasteful furniture and plant-based meals delicately garnished in clay bowls blend seamlessly with my friend Alanna’s photos from a charming Airbnb in Montreal and the calculated eclecticism of hotel interiors that my friend Britt is always finding herself in. When these motifs were combined with the only slightly better framing and texture of commercial photography, what was a passive appreciation for a slightly glammed up version of the minimalist aesthetic popularized by Kinfolk soon transformed into an active disdain for my own home furnishings. The brown sectional sofa from IKEA that I rarely considered with anything but neutral observation became loathsome. It was no use vacuuming it and removing the stray threads and fibers. I had seen how green (or in this case, gray) it could be on the other side of the fence.

On Instagram, the advertising is starting to replicate the look of our friends’ feeds, and it works. “It’s as if an algorithm digested everyone I follow and spat out a robotic approximation of the overall aesthetic,” Kyle Chayka observes in the Atlantic. “The convergence shows that users are gaining influence over brands rather than vice versa. On social media, we’re dictating what aspiration looks like.” We have essentially been sitting on Instagram conducting years-long focus groups on what we like to see, in what filters we like to see it in, at what times of day we like to have a look. Now brands are ready to deploy our own tastes onto our feeds with more intentions to please us than our friends have. To Instagram’s advertisers, our accounts have become little more than mood boards from which to gather their next ad materials.

I am perhaps more shameless in my gleeful aspirations to better living through clothes and furniture than others. But I am not alone in enjoying the seamless integration of ads on Instagram. As Michael Griffin, a digital marketing director, points out, “the internet is awash in shitty banner ads and weird spammy garbage ads. On Instagram, there is nothing low-quality and everything is well targeted.” Nir Eyal, who studies consumer psychology and behavioral design, argues that “nobody likes television commercials because they’re interruptive.”

On Instagram, the line between editorial and advertising blurs most beautifully, and it makes for an ideal advertising platform. Instagram’s emphasis on visual immediacy lets advertisers replicate print advertising’s existing formula of a striking, quickly consumable visual focal points, while their appearance beside friends’ similarly aspirational images legitimates them as socially relevant.

As to the potency of this combination, two cases in point from my childhood stand out. The first is this 1995 Calvin Klein campaign shot by Steven Meisel in what looks like a 1970s trailer, in which Kate Moss and a horde of barely-legal-looking models appear on the brink of their first amateur porn shoot. The jeans are the only things for sale, but what’s doing the selling is the spaces between a model’s parted lips and the moment Meisel stopped shooting, their pouts pointing toward an imminent and salacious initiation into their sex gang. The overall effect made them the young authors of their own exploitation. They were friends who would get you killed but who would make you feel so beautiful first. The second was an ad for Clinique’s Happy perfume that I kept taped inside my locker for years. It features a football player and a cheerleader, both mugging with their teeth, flanking a lithe, gently smiling brunette in a delicate party dress holding a giant, ornate cake. Scrawled across this tableau are the words “Make someone happy.” Perfume is invisible, but the fantasy of being a thin girl bearing cake is not exactly veiled in its signifieds (though the layers that my friends and I on the pro-ana forums of our day gave to this ad were a step beyond).

We do not see the Joneses of Instagram and lament that we cannot become them, but that with the right waist trainer and contouring makeup tutorial, we absolutely could

Unbeknownst to us, even before the platform had ads, Instagram users were grooming one another for a flood of commercial activity. Some might comment on a friend’s post, “Oh my God, where did you get that?” if they were sufficiently thirsty. Others would acknowledge desire but remand it to cutesy internet speak, noting simply: “want.” Some posters were generous and used the @-handle of the brand they showed. Others replied with charming anecdotes of finding the item in a vintage shop, in another galaxy, in a dream they had, making any attempt at replication seem futile. The worst sort of Instagram user would withhold reply, hoarding what was likely an entirely pedestrian vintage find like a deluded digital Rumpelstiltskin.

Even as I rolled my eyes at those who thought they were the second coming of Chloë Sevigny circa 1994, I found myself more readily wanting to experiment with design and cuisine. I spent a lot of time online wondering if that time would be better spent learning to crochet scarves, make crème brûlée with my own mini-torch, or organizing my bookshelf by the color of the book spines. A lot of it looked beautiful and some of it even looked kind of fun, despite my longstanding hatred for textile crafts and baking.

In his 1928 treatise Propaganda, Edward Bernays explained how he sold pianos effectively on behalf of a client not by promoting the superior qualities of these particular pianos to prospective piano buyers but by suggesting to all readers that of course every American household contained a music room. And you couldn’t very well have a music room without a piano in it. It was a variation on what we now call “FOMO” — fear of missing out. The response to FOMO that involves buying the newer and flashier version of what we fear missing out on is still called keeping up with the Joneses, despite the phrase conjuring an image of a more Clark Griswold-ian suburban figure than a Kardashian disciple. (Few of us seem to care or notice that someone we don’t know actually invented the Joneses.)

But FOMO is not strictly a matter of exclusion and competition; it is also a fear of failing to live up to our own ideals of selves as social creatures. Many experience FOMO not about parties they weren’t invited to but ones they opted not to attend. We do not necessarily see one of the Joneses (or the Kardashians, or Hadids, or what-have-yous) on Instagram and lament that we cannot ever become them; we regret that we’ve squandered time when there is a very real possibility that with the right waist trainer, dieter’s tea, and contouring makeup tutorial, we absolutely could become them. That’s the fantasy, anyway: not that the Kardashians were ever ordinary like us but that the right combination of consumer elixirs and photobombs of actually famous people elevated them to their present status.

Since no group is more hyper-attuned to the pitfalls of social media than its threatened media ancestors, it was no surprise that the New York Times was quick to prophesize doom via Instagram envy.” This pox promised to undermine the otherwise hardy, bulletproof self-esteem of young women with data plans and basic cognition skills the world over and to no doubt kill countless teens in its wake. As evidence, the piece provided quotes from several Instagram users suffering from envy of the vacations and recipes and outfits on their feeds. One 26-year-old woman who went by the handle “likewantneed” talked about the intensity of her desire to be in Paris after seeing an Instagram photo of an especially compelling table setting there: “You’re searching through your feed and a picture will hit you, like that Paris shot. It’s just so perfect. You just think, ‘I want that, I want that life.’ ”

But calling something a source of envy is just a negative way to describe a source of desire and, sometimes, ambition. It ignores how exhilarating it can feel to covet a life framed in compelling images. The ache is aspirational. I looked up likewantneed’s Instagram account now: Her bio lists her as a “part-time Parisienne.”

The prevailing myth about the envy conjured by Instagram is that what we see there is beyond our reach, cordoned off by prohibitive costs or ceremonial but still functional exclusivity. But with 500 million users as of June 2016, it would be a losing prospect indeed to flood Instagram with goods that were overwhelmingly out of reach to most users. And so trickling onto our feeds come the kinds of goods that point not to a tax bracket but to a level of taste, one our friends already aim for but don’t sell to us directly.

Yes, I am interested in looking at and affirming my friends’ lifestyle aesthetics. But I am more selfishly interested in enhancing my own. I seek actionable content. That is what Instagram ads provide. A photo of a friend’s tastefully appointed apartment or their vacation to Majorca prompt jealousy that has no clearly apparent remedy — all the approving heart-eyes emojis in the world aren’t going to win you your friend’s antique armoire. In fact, liking things too much can give one or both parties a sense that the other is obsessing over them, whether their behavior constitutes “obsession” or not.

Trickling onto our feeds come the kinds of goods our friends already aim for but don’t sell to us directly. Instagram ads now say: “Your friend, but better because it’s yours

Well-crafted ads that accurately mirror the aesthetics of our friends induce a similar desire for furniture and bargain airline tickets but do not observe the “Look, but don’t touch” rule that governs personal accounts. Instead, the “Shop Now” button functions as a valve that makes the coveted into the consumable within seconds. As of this November, users can tap a button and the name and price of items in the photo will appear on top of them, looking very much like the way friends’ account handles appear when they are tagged in photos. Friends would not surrender the objects, apartments, or experiences they post to Instagram so casually. You don’t have to be that Rumpelstiltskin type not to want to part with a precious embroidered jacket or proper Danish armchair. Our friends’ photos say, “Behold this thing and revel in the fact that it is mine.” Advertising images from brands say, “Look at this thing, how glorious that it can soon be yours.” As Instagram ads have begun to blend more and more seamlessly into a feed once dominated by friends, the substance of their pitch has shifted similarly: Before the ads said, “You, but better.” Now it’s “Your friend, but better because it’s yours.”

Brands function more optimally than our friends. We continue to engage our friends on Instagram, of course, if we aren’t monsters, and because we do like the way the quilt is coming along, but brands would never do the feed-cluttering photo dumps from vacations that our friends might. Brands wouldn’t post virtually indistinguishable selfies every day without at least doing us the courtesy of saying which makeup products they’re wearing.

Eyal says that Instagram will likely go beyond replicating the aesthetics of the things already on our feeds. It can adjust the ads it serves to the way we behave in our own feeds, determining how many ads we will tolerate, how long we’ll look at them, and adjust the ratio accordingly. In an effort to uplift spirits and reconnect mine, I have made a concerted effort to like Instagram photos of strangers, of every selfie I see, and of every landscape to see if my advertising load adjusts accordingly. I briefly attempted to use the “Hide This” feature, but it is even more effort than “Shop Now,” and I don’t think that’s by accident. Besides, I would rather see if I can game the maze of furniture and fashion rather than X my way out

The dark gray sofa I eventually bought came from Overstock.com — an e-commerce platform I hadn’t used in years but was reintroduced to by an Instagram ad. I placed the sofa in the living room that I painted white like so many effortlessly elegant interiors I’d seen on Instagram. I bought the sofa almost immediately after moving from Brooklyn to a farmhouse in the Catskills, a hundred miles from all my friends.

My own Instagram feed has never been more alight with activity. I post images of myself in a new folk-inspired frock, or a recently decorated room. I have never had more friends interested in coming to my home. I summon more objects, furniture, and other decorative flourishes. I am not so naive as to think I found them as much as they found me.

Alana Massey is a writer covering culture, identity, vice, and virtue whose work regularly appears in outlets like Elle, Hazlitt, the Guardian, the New Inquiry, and more. Massey is the author of All the Lives I Want, a collection of essays about our relationships to women in pop culture. Her interests include books, champagne, cats, and money.