From an early age I learned about the social value of food.
My late mum (bless her), committed many horrific food crimes when I was growing up. The arrival of the enormous wood-grained National microwave in the 1970’s sparked her culinary nadir; destroying everything that went inside like some sort of nuclear kitchen holocaust. I still glow a bit under a certain light.
But she did also pull out the odd miracle.
Nothing scored better than a platter of her cheese and herb toasties presented to a ravenous band of teenage drinkers late in the evening. Or the day I stopped the school playground in its tracks with a greaseproof wrapper full of mum’s incredibly exotic cream cheese, lettuce, Marmite and walnut sandwiches.
Clearly, food has the ability to create social currency – both positively and negatively.
Which brings me to the modern phenomenon of Foodstagramming. The basic idea is that no decent meal can go unphotographed and shared.
Apparently, food is the most popular content item on Instagram, with 438,921,588 food hashtagged images. The most popular food hashtags are #food, #foodporn, #instafood and #yummy. According to a study of 100,000 Instagram images by Photoworld.com the top 10 Instagrammed foods internationally are:
So why all the fuss? It seems that ‘gramming our food satisfies us in several significant ways:
The new grace. A shared ritual before we eat that is designed to celebrate and indicate our gratitude for what we are about to eat.
It makes us happier. Studies have shown that taking food photos is a way of verifying our eating experience that increases our sense of pleasure. It can also make the food actually taste better due to the delayed gratification and repeated, episodic and fixed ritual of ‘gramming’.
Look at me. Instagrammed food conveys messages to our friends about ourselves. They can show how good I am, how lucky I am, how naughty I am, how brave I am, how rich I am, or confirm that I am really here experiencing this extraordinary feast.
Mixed food health. In terms of health, Instagram provides mixed messages. On the positive side, it helps the recovery of people with eating disorders by documenting their meals. However, it can also fuel an unhealthy fixation with eating and the wrong sort of foods.
The implications of this are profound for anyone in the food industry. The visual impact and ‘grammagenic value of meals is increasingly the way that consumers frame their satisfaction.
How ‘grammable is your food offering?
Some brands truly understand the power of the ‘user generated’ image. For example, Giapo has turned ice-creams into a visual extravaganza. Top restaurants like Sidart create their meals as works of art. Fashionable food trucks like The Lucky Taco understand the power of content potential for customers. And FMCG brands like Pure Delish understand that it is through the eyes of that people fall in love with food products.
In contrast, those that disregard the smartphone empowered customer do so at their peril. One category that is at significant risk in this respect is the large quick-service restaurants. Who hasn’t taken the bait of a delicious looking menu, only to be bitterly disappointed by the tragic and massively underwhelming food that bears no resemblance to the menu image?
Whatever would my mum say?
A box is opened, its content taken out, shown to the cameras from every angle and a voice takes you through their first impressions. A simple but surprisingly popular format that helps you understand what it might feel like to own a certain product. From smartphones to vacuum cleaners, computers to toys, beauty products to lawn mowers, if you can buy it, there’s probably an unboxing video for it.
Unboxing videos work on multiple layers where on one hand, this format has been seen as a functional way for consumers to cut through all the marketing clutter they are subjected to and find out exactly what the product might be like. Is it worth the hype? Does it look the same as the ad? What might it look like in my hand? Anything to get a sense of its worth and value through another person’s eyes without any of the gloss that comes along with an advertisement.
On the other hand, unboxing videos play up to a deeper emotional layer that allows watchers to revel in the joy of watching something being unwrapped. Psychologists have noted that shopping is the modern-day equivalent to hunting, and unwrapping is a way of reliving the ‘kill’ and take pleasure in what we have captured. There is an undeniable pleasure in ripping off the packaging of a new product, peeling off its plastic and holding something unused in your hands. Apparently, it works just as well watching someone else do it. This is a throwback to the strangely hypnotic shopping infomercials on TV that were so easy to zone out with, watching hundreds of products be examined in a detailed and relaxed setting.
According to a Google study in 2014, the appeal of unboxing videos lies in the sense of anticipation within them, regardless of what’s being unpackaged. Most viewers would not intend to make the purchase, or even want to own the product that’s being shown. Our willingness to watch someone else unwrap products seems to scratch a subconscious itch. Essentially aspirational, unboxing videos are a way to satiate consumers who want something they can’t buy yet but are able to share in a fantasy and soak in the raw pleasure of opening a new product. Note – ‘fueling aspiration’ is a key part of successful marketing strategies.
Kids especially seem to love unboxing videos the most, as they get to experience the joy of opening a toy themselves. This format of videos has all the elements that kids enjoy, the surprise of what’s inside paired with being able to see their favorite toys. So popular that it sparked a ‘moral panic’ in the US, with multiple parents lodging complaints and calling for greater regulation. Unboxing videos are seen to blur the line between online content and advertising, teaching children to be materialistic at a very young age and contributing to their growing tech addiction. The greatest hook is that children like to watch things that are made by children for children and the internet has given this common phenomenon a global platform with a seemingly unlimited supply.
It is telling that the most popular genre of unboxing videos are toys taking 9 out of the top 10 unboxing videos on YouTube, with the most watched video racking up 321 million views over the last 4 years. Other popular unboxings are of gadgets like the iPhone, the Xbox and PlayStation. This global demand for unboxing videos even has brands jumping in and competing for views with their own official Unboxing videos trying to craft their brand narrative.
Consumerism is addictive and unboxing videos have a way of fueling the latent desire for new products that lives within all of us, conveying that it’s ‘things’ that make us happy. On the other hand perhaps, unboxing videos give us that space to stop and consider our purchases in detail before clicking through to buy, allowing to have someone who is ‘just like us’ go through the process instead. As noted by Professor Marsh in the UK, “Unboxing videos speak to very human interests, our interest in goods, in surprises and of course in other human beings”
Here are some of the top unboxing channels on YouTube for your viewing pleasure:
Ryan ToysReview – 18 million subscribers
Unbox Therapy– 13 million subscribers
CKN Toys – 11 million subscribers
Eleventh Gorgeous – 1.7 million subscribers
Dope or Nope – 6.3 million followers
Avatar cultures have been around for years but it’s only in recent times that they have been gaining mainstream attention on social media. Virtual Influencers, cyber models, CGI models, AI accounts or even Brandfluentars (yes you read that right), no matter what you might call them, globally the industry has a potential to reach a value of up to $10 billion by 2020. The number of names that we have for them is a clear indicator of how confused the world is by their existence.
These models might not have a physical form but that is not easy to understand in the world of social media. Each with their own distinctive personalities and identifying with real racial, social or gender groups, the advances of CGI it is very tough to spot them online without a closer examination. While you might scoff at the idea of virtual influencers being popular, take a look at Lil Miquela, one of the first on the scene is an online star today with over 1.5 million followers on Instagram and Brud, the company that created her valued at $125 million.
Their popularity has not gone unnoticed by brands of the world with the fashion and beauty categories being amongst the first to experiment with virtual influencers. Prada, Chanel, Burberry, Diesel, Moschino, Supreme and Balmain to name a few looked to ride the spike in interest in this new age form of influence. Fashion brands have been able to make the most of the PR exposure that was a result of this unusual choice of models. These virtual influencers have done everything from sporting the brands clothing to appearing with real-world celebrities and even appearing as a hologram within live events.
For brands, virtual influencers have been seen as a natural evolution of the digital world after being burned a number of times over the last couple of years with adverse publicity that has engulfed the influencer economy (artificially inflated follower numbers and volatile personalities). While brands have tried to implement processes that minimize such risks (careful vetting of influencers and rigid terms of conduct contracts), some marketers have decided to jump ship and work with influencers that are made of pixels and are much easier to control. No more coaxing humans to pose a certain way or say a certain thing, virtual influencers hold the potential of complete creative freedom.
If you think about it, human influencers have an expiry date, but virtual IP can be extended infinitely. The newest kind of content system for the influence economy, as after all does it matter if an influencer is fake if they have the same ‘influence’ as someone who is real?
One of the concerns that might leap to mind is the value of authenticity, now that consumers know that the ‘person’ they are being exposed to isn’t real but a digital creation.
Mobbie Nazir, Chief Strategy Officer at We Are Social points out “Many consumers are fed up with overly-contrived social media posts that purport to showcase ‘real’ life, and may prefer unashamed artificiality. This gives brands the opportunity to be openly fake – indeed, owning it and coming across all the more real for it”.
Akin to the world of videogames brands using virtual influencers can benefit from coming across as ‘meta’, sharing that ‘knowing’ bond with its customers of this virtual reality, allowing themselves to suspend their disbelief and play along with the antics of these characters.
From a consumer standpoint, it also helps that we are becoming more and more used to and dependent on technology in the context of everyday life. From digital assistants like Siri and Alexa to chatbots online we are increasingly accustomed to interacting with fictional characters and more importantly being influenced by them.
While Virtual Influencers are seen as a shiny new toy it is by no means a magic bullet and comes along with its own concerns. Foremost, they might not work across all industries, being more receptive in the fashion world rather than healthcare where the same influence might not translate. The other major concern is if human models now have to compete with perfectly animated avatars, there is a huge risk to the ‘self-esteem’ of the human race.
International fashion photographer Manny Roman noted, “While I do admire digital art, I don’t like the non-realistic message that is being sent out to society, I fear the CGI models image will escalate the body and image dysmorphic epidemic”.
Another concern (that we can thank Elon Musk for) is the potential power of AI and what impact that could have on society as a whole. Will AI evolve to a stage that the influence on human-kind is decided and determined by technology and algorithms (On second thought, it seems like that’s already here). The important point to note is being able to distinguish the lines between technology and reality and acknowledging the mental effects the blurring of those lines might have (As seen in video game addiction in young children).
The future of virtual influencers could range from real models being scanned and working simultaneously across multiple locations in the world to reality TV shows that star hyper-realistic virtual characters, essentially anything could be possible. Ultimately there are still many questions unanswered and many avenues still to be explored in this category that makes it hard to gauge whether it is a positive step for the future of a negative one. But it is clear from the traction it has had so far that virtual influencers have proven themselves worthy of a seat at the table alongside their real-life counterparts.