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Scrolling through my Instagram, past elegantly posed travel photos and indulgent feasts, I was stopped in my tracks by an ad: a hoodie that incorporated a reverse mini hoodie for a baby being worn in a carrier. Entranced, I watched the demonstration, thinking about my daily 12-block-each-way walk with my infant to pick up my toddler. I needed it. Without even pausing to think about it, I purchased it.
For a generation that grew up mocking infomercials and fast-forwarding through television ads, Instagram ads strike a strange balance: effective enough to drive purchasing, but just a little bit embarrassing to fall victim to so easily. They are the “As Seen on TV” (ASOTV) products of a new generation: hyper-targeted, fitting a need you didn’t even realize you had but now need to fill immediately. In this new generation of big data, there’s no sitting through Shamwow to get to your Snuggie: ads feed straight into your photo stream for leggings with pockets, new-fangled travel pillows, and socks with your dog’s face on them.
“Every Instagram ad is something I make fun of until I eventually buy it,” tweeted Amanda Hess, a New York Times writer focused on online culture, in a statement equally descriptive of the strange psychology of ASOTV ads. Infomercials were born out of the cheap ad time available in the late-night hours when television stations weren’t broadcasting. The low barrier to entry meant that any idea, no matter how wacky, had a chance to succeed. The affordable pricing meant that the ads had plenty of time to use every psychological tool in the book to capture sales, rather than squeezing a message into a costly 15-second prime-time spot. They introduced unknown products, then demonstrated the need for them, and closed the deal by urging the customer to take the next step immediately (usually by calling).
Priceonomics broke down the anatomy of an ASOTV ad, starting with the first step: “The first few minutes of an infomercial are all about creating a ‘frame’ for the viewer: showing the product, showing it in use, and establishing a relatable context for that use.” For Jackie De Jesu, the founder and CEO of Shhhowercap and a former creative director, introducing her product via impeccable branding came naturally, and the photos used by the brand’s Instagram combine artistic, vintage styling with moody models and modern settings. It silently communicates that the brand knows shower caps have been around forever, while showing that this is not your grandmother’s plastic cap from the pharmacy.
Just by appearing on Instagram, brands have the beginnings of a frame, though. “Millennials grew up cynical, suspicious of the world,” says Julie Smith, retail principal at Point B. “The people who came of age during Columbine, 9/11, and Enron, and who entered the work force during the Great Recession, don’t want to be messaged at.” They are wary of people telling them who they are or what they want. So whom do they trust? A photo app — after all, 83 percent of millennials sleep with their phones. And De Jesu knows it: “Trust is built into the platform.”
Lisa Pastor, Shhhowercap’s vice president of operations and “ad guru,” says their company got that innately, as they are part of their own target audience. “The Instagram customer is really comfortable seeing product on Instagram and purchasing immediately,” she says. “They’re used to it; it feels organic.” Compared to other web advertising (including Facebook), Instagram has had better success converting customers immediately, according to Pastor.
“Having established a baseline familiarity with his product, the pitchman works quickly to establish a need,” continues Priceonomics. Nobody thought they needed socks with their dog’s face on them, but the minute I passed the ad around a dinner table, people commented about buying them for friends and family. “No one needs a luxury shower cap,” says Caryn Hill on a blogpost for Threadless, “but they created that need by maximizing the item’s visual appeal. … Their photos sell a story that says, ‘If you buy a Shhhowercap, then you will live the luxury life, look as amazing as these models, and feel like you’re at a high-end spa every day.’” The sweatshirt I bought had done the same thing: It showed me the life I could have if I owned that product, one where I could wear both a hoodie and my baby at once.
The final step to the infomercial is to show urgency, traditionally done with immediate discounts (“Call now for free shipping”) or implied scarcity (“Supplies are limited”). A Kissmetrics blog on the psychology of selling explains why: “Urgent situations cause us to suspend deliberate thought and to act quickly.” Whether it’s a discount for clicking straight through or simply the threat that you won’t see that exact product again, in millennials’ world, urgency translates to “Avoid FOMO, buy now.” I bought the sweatshirt because I had never seen it before and wasn’t sure if I’d see it again.
But while the psychology of Instagram ads might have been the same as ASOTV, the platform holds distinct advantages. After buying a shirt she first saw there, Man Repeller founder Leandra Cohen wrote of the algorithm, “It is really good at showing you shit it thinks you will like.” Later in the same piece, she demonstrates another reason why the platform appeals so well to millennials: “There are so many great things to be discovered in so many different places that the value in committing to the centralized space that is a singular specialty retailer or department store doesn’t quite hold as much weight as it used to.”
Millennials are far less likely than their parents to shop at a department store, explains Smith. “During the recession, people discovered that they could buy the same thing at other places.” The generation that had bucked institutions like political parties, organized religion, and marriage wasn’t going to be tied to the traditional shopping experience. And for people who spend around three hours a day on their phones, it fits that they swing toward a shopping experience that is native to the device.
But they do expect immediate gratification: The kids who spent their childhood glued to SpongeBob Squarepants, which switches frames every 11 seconds, became the adults who wants things fast. And two weeks after I ordered, still with no sweatshirt, I began to regret my purchase. I checked the shipping tracker: It had just left China. Where had I just bought this from? That, points out De Jesu, is the downside to a low barrier to entry. While it allowed her self-funded company to compete with venture-capital-backed startups, “It’s like a land of infomercials,” which brings the good along with the lower-quality, poorly run bad. Those lesser experiences erode the trust inherent in the platform.
I wasn’t alone in this mysterious feeling of having been taken in: travel writer Jackie Bryant admits to having purchased what she thought was “cool, loose-fitting clothing” before realizing it was actually modest wear for Hasidic women. “I thought I was impervious to marketing,” said Bryant, summing up a millennial feeling.
Because the print display ads and late-night TV infomercials of a previous generation don’t appeal, millennials consider themselves too savvy for marketing. But the advertising world is one step ahead, using the same marketing psychology and principles to sell new products, be they toothbrushes, mattresses, or shower caps. And while my baby-wearing hoodie was shoddily made and fit a little poorly, I still wore it. It proved to be a huge hit at the preschool holiday party, but every time someone asked where I got it, I had to admit I knew nothing more than “from Instagram.”