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It’s said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s subjective. But where do the biases and preferences that tell us what is and isn’t beautiful come from?
American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen suggested that consumer decisions are based on social class; people opt to follow the trends of the class directly above their own. There’s an element of reaching, and of elevating status by matching lifestyle choices to a higher class. Veblen was writing in the late 19th century, and class differentiation has shifted significantly since then. However, the same principles can be applied to a different way of reaching — today’s beauty consumers seek to align themselves with the influencers, public figures and celebrities they admire.
A paper published in the journal Communication, Culture and Critique in February 2019 demonstrates the ways in which Veblen’s theory can explain the interactions and transactions that take place within the new influencer economy. The unwritten rules that regulate the way brands, influencers and consumers network on Instagram clearly reflect the culture of reaching for aspirations.
The researchers, Emily Hund and Lee McGuigan, describe the dynamics of social media as ‘a shoppable life’, referring to the way that influencers brand and market their personal lifestyles and allow their audience to buy elements of that lifestyle for themselves. In the beauty industry this is a central aspect of modern marketing strategy; followers can buy the beauty products that influencers use.
For example, Shannon Harris — named by Forbes as one of the 10 most powerful beauty influencers — has over 3 million YouTube subscribers on her channel Shaaanxo. She regularly collaborates with beauty brands. They send her products and then Harris unpacks them on camera for her viewers to watch. These ‘haul’ videos are so popular that if you go to her channel, you can watch more than 11 hours of Harris opening packages containing new cosmetics. She describes the contents of the packaging and sometimes ‘tries out’ the product live by applying it to the back of her hand.
The popularity of unboxing videos is advantageous for influencers, bloggers and beauty brands. The brand gets detailed exposure and ‘air time’ and the influencer can receive payment for this promotion without having to share their opinion of the product.
In his book, Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen wrote that in terms of consumption, most people see their ideal as something that is currently unattainable to them — or would take significant effort or sacrifice to acquire. He suggested that the motive for consumption is emulation; simulating the lifestyle of someone they compare themselves to. This “prompts us to outdo those with whom we are in the habit of classing ourselves,” Veblen writes.
Hund and McGuigan echo this in their exploration of social media influencers’ perspective on their own situations. Receiving products for free gives influencers “access to a lifestyle that is aspirational for them,” while simultaneously transmitting those aspirations to their own followers. They quote Digital Witness, a song released by American singer-songwriter St. Vincent in 2014: “If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me…what’s the point of doing anything?” And this links directly back to Veblen’s notion of ‘conspicuousness’ in consumption. That is, that the purpose of buying a product is to communicate a lifestyle or status seen as desirable by the consumer.
The concept of conspicuous consumption is evidently in play on Instagram. Accounts like Rich Kids of Instagram overtly promote the social climbing potential of product acquisition, for example; and posts and Stories by wealthy influencers and self-made celebrities such as the Kardashians unashamedly focus on luxury and frivolous leisure.
Instagram’s structure and features make it easier for people to see — and buy — that lifestyle that’s just “out of reach” by enabling immediate access to beauty products that create a sense of achieving aspiration. Of being that person you’ve always wanted to be.
Now, new brands use technology specifically to allow ‘ordinary’ people to become aspirational influencers. RewardStyle, for example, has launched the LikeToKnowIt app, which invites users to become ‘RewardStyle Influencers’. They claim that this engineered community of influencers is “distinct and diverse,” inspiring the brand’s existing audience (constantly growing that audience) to purchase via shoppable content.
Other influencers go it alone or use existing connections to build their social media brand and, by extension, their marketing power. Nikkie De Jager, a Dutch makeup artist with over 9 million followers on Instagram, has leveraged her personal brand by filming makeup tutorial videos with celebrities including Nicole Ritchie and Kardashian West. In doing so De Jager proves that years of training and experience are no longer necessary in order to become a successful beauty professional. Instead, it’s about aspiration, connection, and creative marketing.
According to Hund and McGuigan, the shoppable life aims to “separate people form their money with less and less friction.” It makes people want to buy the product before they’ve even realized that it’s available for them to buy; it motivates consumers to seek out the link that will take them to the ecommerce site, with no direct marketing effort needed from that brand. The influencer has already done it — because the consumer wants the lifestyle or look that the influencer has.
Unlike Veblen’s original theory, it’s not all about class today. But it’s still about aspiration; about comparison to others; and about conspicuous consumption. Brands that capitalize on these aspects of consumer desire do well in the present climate by collaborating with influencers and making their products the focus of consumer aspirations.