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Can Brands Make Instagram Less Toxic?

Leaked internal documents show parent company Facebook is concerned fashion and beauty content on its platforms can harm mental health. Brands share responsibility.
fashion show instagram
Instagram's celebrity fashion and beauty content has been shown to harm its most vulnerable users. Are fashion brands responsible, too? Getty Images.

When an internal review at Facebook found that Instagram contributes to higher rates of depression in teenage girls, researchers placed some of the blame on the fashion industry.

The study, first reported in The Wall Street Journal, found that celebrity content around fashion and beauty led to greater instances of “social comparison” — comparing one’s own lifestyle and looks to the high-gloss versions on social media — were particularly harmful to young users’ psyches. The report recommended Instagram de-emphasise such content.

That likely wouldn’t fly with the countless brands that rely on Instagram, who got a taste of what a world without the platform would be like when it, along with the rest of Facebook’s apps, experienced a global outage on Monday. Several fashion professionals told BoF there was little that surprised them in the report. But most advertisers, it seems, simply accept that the more toxic elements of Instagram come with the benefits of having their products put before millions of potential customers.

“[Facebook] and [Instagram] are the go-to ... irrespective of what’s happening in the news and that’s simply because they have the highest share of data and metrics available than most other platforms,” said Aaron Edwards, chief executive of digital marketing firm The Charles Agency.

But fashion can’t ignore Instagram’s potential harm, either. Facebook says it’s taking steps to protect younger users, including removing 600,000 Instagram accounts this summer that did not meet minimum age requirements. More changes may be coming, however. In US Congressional hearings last week, lawmakers questioned executives over the platform’s impact. If public dissatisfaction with Instagram spreads, brands may get swept up in the fallout.

Redefining Aspiration

The Facebook review, created in March 2020 and published by The Journal throughout September, recommends promoting confidence-building, inspirational content that is “rooted in the combination of reality, accessibility, and attainable aspiration.”

The fashion industry is facing similar calls to reconsider its definition of beauty, whether that means casting more diverse models in ads or offering trendy clothing in extended sizes. Such efforts date back almost to the beginning of Instagram; Aerie’s underwear sales soared after the brand said in 2014 it would stop retouching images.

“You can’t just have a one-dimensional view of aspiration, especially when that one dimension is focused on beauty [or] looks,” said Brian Vaughan, executive creative director and partner at creative marketing agency Shadow, whose team worked on a more recent campaign for Aerie, where social media users were encouraged to post images of themselves as they are, flaws and all.

Instead, brands should signal aspiration around non-physical attributes, like creativity or personal achievements, he said.

The same mentality applies to selecting brand ambassadors.

You can’t just have a one-dimensional view of aspiration, especially when that one dimension is focused on beauty [or] looks

Athleta’s team-ups with Olympians Simone Biles and Allyson Felix give credibility to the idea that the brand champions diversity and supports women’s issues. Estée Lauder’s signing of the poet Amanda Gorman came with the condition the beauty conglomerate create a $3 million grant programme to promote girls literacy.

“If you’re redefining aspiration, you’ve got to look at culture … and the consumer and … what is important to them,” said Yard NYC CEO Ruth Bernstein, whose firm counts Athleta as a client.

Positive Messaging

For Aerie’s latest campaign, the company asked users to “flood the feed,” said Vaughan, whose team worked on the campaign. Participants were encouraged to post images of themselves as they are — think in a messy bedroom just after waking up, rather than in a crisp white hotel bed holding a cup of coffee, once an Instagram gold standard. As part of the challenge, Aerie donated $25,000 to the National Eating Disorder Association, a longtime partner.

The challenge received more than 160 million total impressions across organic media and paid social media, according to the brand. Aerie said it also helped fuel the brand’s growth on TikTok, where its #AerieREAL hashtag has collected over nine billion views. The brand grew 34 percent year-over-year in the second quarter of 2021 and has its sights set on $2 billion in revenue, according to company filings.

Still, more conventional advertising remains the norm on Instagram, and Facebook’s March 2020 review shows that years of body-positive marketing has done little to improve users’ self-confidence.

As part of a new campaign, which coincidentally launched at the same time the Facebook revelations were published, skin care brand Tula announced it would hold its more than 1,500 influencer partners to new content guidelines, one of which says influencers may not retouch photos they post in partnership with Tula.

The brand committed to not retouching its own creative assets last year, but a consumer brand survey commissioned over the summer encouraged Tula to think beyond its own imagery. Among the findings, 76 percent of those surveyed said beauty ads make them feel less confident, while consumers surveyed said they speak negatively to themselves an average of 19 times per day, eroding their own self-confidence double time.

Tula is bringing the message beyond social media; it’s also set to run its first national television commercial and purchased a full-page ad in the Sunday edition of The New York Times, Sachs said, to lend “gravitas” to the effort. But the efforts only work with total industry buy-in, otherwise, brands are slapping band-aids on broken bones.

“Typically, we’ve been investing our advertising dollars in performance marketing and advertising products and driving revenue and conversion,” said Tula CEO Savannah Sachs. “This has nothing to do with that; it’s really about forcing an important conversation.”

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Related Articles:

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Meet the Next Generation of Fashion Week Influencers

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