Marketers know that influencer marketing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. For many influencers, it’s their inextricable links to pop culture – and the ability to tap into it. They don’t just set trends, though – they curate and reflect the values and beliefs of their audience. Those values often manifest themselves in their content, attitudes, and philosophies.
In 2011, the hit TV show Parks and Recreation aired an episode entitled, “Pawnee Rangers” that unknowingly spawned one of the most iconic moments in television history: Treat Yo’ Self Day. The premise was simple: a few of the main characters decided to blow their money treating themselves – buying new clothes, fragrances, and fine leather goods.
Clips, gifs, and references to “treat yo’ self” were rapidly absorbed into pop culture. For a while, you could hardly pick through a thread on Twitter or Reddit without seeing a callback to it. Little did the writers know, several years later treat yo’ self would come to define a large swath of social media posts, and tap into a greater discontent present in global culture.
Influencers tap into global social media phenomena
Across the pond, young South Koreans are known to have their own phrase reminiscent of “treat yo’ self.” Sibal Biyong, or “F-it expense,” is a Korean expression that captures the zeitgeist of many of today’s young adults. Though young Koreans face a unique set of pressures – the omnipresent threat of a rogue state mere miles north and extreme wealth inequality to name just two – the feelings are largely universal.
In the face of political turmoil, irreversible climate change, and crippling public debts, millennials assuage their ennui with a quick fix: a new pair of shoes, an Apple watch, or even a slice of avocado toast.
As Jeongmin Kim, writing for Foreign Policy, describes it, “a small pleasure now is better than a promised future contentment that will never come.” In other words, if you don’t expect good things around the corner, you might as well enjoy what you can now. Here’s the kicker, though: the vast majority of teens and young adults who spend their time on social media don’t have the discretionary income to treat themselves.
Instead, they live vicariously through their favorite social media stars, who have the means to buy that new Gucci handbag, or order sushi and sashimi for two on a Tuesday. These disenfranchised young adults follow their favorite social media stars on Instagram accounts, counting down their days to an expected Armageddon on a video timeline. As we discussed in our previous piece about parasocial relationships, followers can feel an intense personal connection with influencers, thanks due in part to the authentic nature of their content.
Living your best broke life
“Treat yo’ self” culture permeates through a multitude of popular social media trends, hashtags, and content styles. Mukbang, a South Korean portmanteau of “eating” and “broadcast,” is one such trend that encapsulates the feeling. Influencers will eat food – usually in gratuitous amounts – live on camera for the enjoyment of their followers. Some ASMR influencers take it a step further, rigging up high-quality directional microphones to record soothing audio of their chomps, chews, and swallows.
Two other popular types of content that can be tied to this feeling are unboxing and haul videos. In these videos, an influencer displays a new item they purchased or received, and quite literally remove it from its packaging on camera. For viewers, it simulates the dopamine rush of tearing into a box with something new without actually buying it yourself. Whether it’s a subscription box of makeup, a new set of clothes, or a new graphics card for a gaming computer, the feeling and experience are the same.
A more abstract example is the pervasive popularity of “luxury” influencers. Though it’s difficult to precisely quantify how many of the trend’s followers can actually afford luxury items, it’s a fair assumption many can’t. Case in point, influencer Amanda Steele – who we’ve tagged with luxury beauty, fashion, and travel on the Julius platform – has an audience that is primarily female, between the ages of 16 and 21, with an income under $10,000. Many of the influencers who fall into the same category as her have similar audiences.
Amanda Steele’s followers by income
One conclusion we can draw is that the majority of people who follow Amanda (and influencers like her) aspire to live her lifestyle. Though many can’t presently afford her expensive tastes, they look to her content as a guide for what’s cool, what’s fashionable, and perhaps most importantly, what would satisfy them if they could buy such luxuries.
Inspiration vs. aspiration
Influencers have often been described as digital celebrities, but there are still some fundamental differences between them and their Hollywood counterparts. The biggest among them is that influencers have an established sense of intimacy and credibility with their audience, which is enhanced by their engagements and interactions with their audience.
As millennials and Gen-Z consumers look to treat themselves as a temporary balm to the sometimes inexplicable and maddening cruelty of 21st-century living, influencers are there to soothe their existential pain. They offer a peak into a different life – the good life – with expensive steak and fine wines on demand, fast cars and supermodel significant others. As such, influencers are more than just spokespeople for brands, they’re cultural archivists, often embodying the spirit of their generation.