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For all its prudishness about nipples, Instagram sure does seem to like boobs. Or rather, its advertising algorithm does, particularly if you’re a female user between the ages of, say, 18 and 45.
The preponderance of bra ads on the platform — long joked about on Twitter and griped about in group chats — was the subject of an open letter that made the rounds online earlier this month. “Hey Instagram,” wrote Lauren Hallden, a 33-year-old product designer from Philadelphia, “I was just wondering, does your company collect any user feedback from women? I ask because I am one, and I’ve noticed that my sponsored content is…well, it’s a little repetitive.”
Each line of text is punctuated with screencaps of targeted advertisements featuring women in sports bras, bandeaus, bikinis, lacy bralettes, T-shirt bras, and underwear, mostly from buzzy startups: Outdoor Voices, ThirdLove, True & Co., Lively, MeUndies, Thinx. “I’ve started feeling like maybe you don’t realize what being exposed to an endless string of half-naked, extremely thin women is doing to people like me?” writes Hallden. “You know, I mostly just came here to see pictures of my friends’ dogs and kids and shit, but every time I fire up the old ‘gram these days, I gotta waste a ton of mental energy comparing myself unfavorably to Kayla, here.”
Kayla, here, is Kayla Itsines, the Australian fitness and Instagram star, who in 2017 ran a campaign on the platform to promote her personal training app, Sweat. In its end-of-year roundup, Instagram’s business blog touted the advertisements’ success in reaching 6.4 million users in its target audience of women aged 18 to 42 in the US.
This fitness bent can be intimidating in its own right, but it’s one of many ways the bra ads of Instagram represent a recognizable departure from the Victoria’s Secret-style advertisements that reigned a decade ago. Even among the models who don’t work out for a living, many look like they just rolled out of their third barre class of the week (or, in the case of the Barre3 ad, like they’re in the middle of it). Gone are the spray tans and add-two-cup-sizes push-up bras; in their place, unretouched (if still largely taut and unblemished) skin and comfy-looking bralettes are the norm.
In less than a decade, the lingerie industry has undergone a seismic shift, as brands like Aerie chipped away at VS’s massive market share by ditching underwires and leaning in to body-positive messaging, and a wave of new startups has entered the market, backed by VC funding and social media prowess. There have been major strides in diversity — finally, women of color don’t have to settle for Band-Aid beige when they want to buy a “nude” bra, and there are more options than ever for anyone in between sizes or larger than a DD. Brands have also started hiring models who don’t fit the traditional 5-foot-10-inch, size 2, usually white mold, and many have promised not to retouch their imagery.
Visit an Aerie store today, and you might find an Instagram-perfect wall with a neon sign reading “Let the real you shine” next to an image of Iskra Lawrence, the model and body-positivity advocate. When Lively launched in 2016, says founder Michelle Cordeiro Grant, “we wanted our conversation to start about really inspiring women to feel confident, to feel their inner uniqueness, and appreciate themselves as individuals, versus the idea of conforming toward a mega-brand image of a supermodel that’s airbrushed.”
In this brave new world of millennial-geared marketing, the old criticisms of hypersexualized, impossibly idealized advertising don’t apply quite as neatly as they once did. And yet still, clearly there’s something wrong when women can’t open an app without being hit with a firehose of half-naked women.
Instagram, of course, underwent a massive transformation of its own in the past five years. In 2013, newly acquired by Facebook, the app had just over 150 million users; today, it has over 800 million. Advertising rolled out globally on the platform only in 2015; today there are 2 million monthly advertisers, and some analysts predict revenues could top $10 billion by 2019. The engine driving this tremendous growth is the algorithm that allows Instagram, like Facebook, to target users based on broad characteristics like age, gender, and location, as well more specific ones like lifestyle, preferences, and interests. The company gleans these from countless data points — your browsing habits, credit card transactions, interactions with friends and family — and then uses them to siphon you into marketable groups for advertisers.
Sometimes, these mysterious, complex mechanisms spit out results that are almost eerily on the nose — like when you make a mental note to buy new razor blades and 10 minutes later an ad for a trendy new shave club pops up in your feed. The algorithm has done its job, but something feels unsettling.
“If I have to look at an ad, I want to see an ad for women’s jeans and not men’s jeans,” says Lisa Farman, a communications professor at Ithaca College who researches targeted advertising. “Of course you’re more likely to interact with an ad that’s for you. But there’s something about the type of data and the amount of data that these advertisers are using about us, that there is a point where ads can seem almost too relevant, where people start thinking, ‘Wow, that’s really creepy that this advertiser is targeting me so specifically.’”
It can also feel like you’re being stereotyped — because, well, you are. Former Facebook employees have admitted as much, and logically, it makes sense: if you belong to a group that is statistically more likely to buy a product or be interested in a brand, the algorithm will serve you those ads because there’s a greater chance they’ll be relevant to you. Which is how, as a 20- to 30-something woman, you end up seeing an interminable array of yoga pants, Paleo subscription boxes, and influencer-endorsed vitamins, peppered with the occasional ad from a fertility clinic offering to freeze your eggs.
Bras, on the other hand, are not a niche item — in theory, more than half of Instagram’s users are potential consumers, before considering factors like price and sizing. Plus, they’re notoriously difficult to shop for, so lofty promises like comfort and support are often pretty enticing. Throw in an infomercial-style video, like Sneaky Vaunt did with its cleavage-cinching adhesive bra, and you have a recipe for Insta-fame.
Through the platform’s tools, companies can also narrow down their audience to the slice they most want to reach. ThirdLove CEO and co-founder Heidi Zak says that in addition to selecting broad categories like “online shopping,” homing in on adjacent interests like “wine,” “cooking,” and “travel” has been successful for the brand. “Lingerie,” meanwhile, doesn’t even rank. “I always say we’re a bra and underwear company, not necessarily a lingerie company,” she says, “because I think ‘lingerie’ has a certain connotation.” The modern idea of a brand — less a set of products you can buy than an identity you can buy into — thrives in Instagram’s hyper-personalized, data-driven ecosystem.
Whereas in “old-school marketing,” says Lively’s Cordeiro Grant, companies might have gone after a certain age range, economic status, and geographic location, “we’re kind of against that type of thinking. We’re saying, let’s actually just market toward mindset. So what does that mean? Women that are active, women that are into food and culture, women that demonstrate the Lively ethos.” To find these women, the company uses Instagram’s “Lookalike audience” tool, which tracks down users that are similar to the page’s existing followers or customers in terms of interests, demographics, or purchase behavior. A brand-ambassador program, rolled out even before Lively officially launched, ensured it had a sizable base to work off of from the start.
The Lively ad included in Hallden’s essay featured a close-cropped shot of a thin, blonde woman in a lace bralette. Cordeiro Grant says the brand’s promoted posts are a fairly equal mix of on-model, flat-lay, and user-generated images, with each performing similarly well. Among its most successful launches of the year was the Busty Bralette, a style designed for sizes 34D to 38DDD, produced after receiving requests from hundreds of Instagram commenters.
As for what kind of images have been ThirdLove’s top performers, Zak says the “faceless model” — a shot that’s cropped in on a models body with her head out of frame — has been the clear winner: “We believe why that has been the most successful is it’s easier to visualize yourself wearing [the product] and not get distracted by somebody’s face, per se.” The brand also takes feedback from followers, customers, and focus groups into account, particularly when it comes to showing its bras, which go up to size 46H, on a wider variety of bodies. “That’s been something that we’ve heard loud and clear from customers, that diversity matters,” says Zak.
Instagram really wants to sell me some bras, but these twee companies should only be advertising to me when they start making sizes for god-given bigguns— Danielle Henderson (@knottyyarn) December 24, 2017
Not every brand has gotten the memo, however. As Hallden’s post illustrates, thin, white women still make up the bulk of the “aspirational” images we see every day, and even Instagram users who consciously avoid the fitness stars, models, and celebrities that can make the app a minefield of opportunities to feel bad about oneself aren’t shielded from advertisements that may have the same effect. While Instagram doesn’t release data showing the frequency with which they serve ads to users, anecdotal evidence (namely, me scrolling through my app) suggests they make up about a fifth of the posts we see. This scaled up in recent years as the company tweaked its algorithm, encouraging businesses to buy in to maintain visibility in users’ feeds.
Meanwhile, studies have linked Instagram use — and looking at “fitspo” images in particular — with negative body image, and found that people who are already prone to comparing themselves with others do so even more on social media than with traditional magazines or billboards.
Plus, while fashion magazines are relatively easy to stay away from, particularly in this day and age, Instagram is also a place to catch up with friends and family. One of Hallden’s primary complaints is that no matter how many times she’s reported ads starring half-naked women as “not relevant,” she gets served nearly identical images the next time she opens the app.
“It’s in this space where we feel like we have some kind of control over the messages that we’re seeing, but now there’s advertising in there that we don’t have control over,” says Farman. “To us, we’re like, ‘This doesn’t belong in my feed. I’m not here to look at Sports Illustrated. This is my sanctuary. This is my curated list of people who I follow to make me feel good.’” (Even if the latter doesn’t ring true for every user, the idea of having a choice in the matter remains.)
Currently, Instagram doesn’t allow users to specify why they’re hiding an ad, nor does it guarantee that doing so will have any effect on what you’re served in the future. And with users gaming the system by reporting every single ad as “inappropriate” or “not relevant,” the data is surely muddied. Users can, at least, remove interests on their Ad Preferences page on Facebook, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be targeted based on other data. The platform has made some progress toward giving users more control over what they see there, adding the option to block alcohol- and parenting-related ads, and providing users a space to suggest other “sensitive topics.” As for bra ads? It offers examples of images it deems “sexually suggestive” or “sexually explicit” (all of which, of course, depict women), but that doesn’t quite get at the problem that Hallden and other users have with the app; the issue isn’t with any one particular ad, but rather the sheer volume they contend with every time they look at their feeds.
All Instagram advertises to me are ads for weight loss and bras. Is it trying to tell me something?— Natalie Lander (@Natalie_Lander) October 28, 2017
Despite its uncanny ability to dig into the nooks and crannies of your online life, Instagram’s algorithm can be a rather blunt tool. It sees you as a series of data points, not as someone who maybe isn’t in the mood to see another jeggings-clad butt or headless girl in a bikini, or who may be at risk of an eating disorder, or who doesn’t fit into a brand’s puny size range. As a society, we’re still figuring out all the potential risks of targeted advertising — from election interference and racial discrimination to the proliferation of scam sites. Maybe, with enough user feedback, Facebook and Instagram will eventually let users (particularly young women) limit their exposure to ads featuring unattainably thin bodies — and while we’re at it, ones shilling detox diets, skinny teas, and weight-loss supplements.
In the meantime, the best we can suggest is to try out a trick recommended by a user on Hacker News: Do a little mattress shopping online and watch your feed get flooded with dozens of ads for beds-in-a-box. No less irritating, perhaps, but at least there’s no spandex involved.