Clout at any cost.
Instagram and TikTok are places for rich people to show off their lavish, unearned lifestyles to their millions of followers — and for people who want those lifestyles to pretend they already have them, in pursuit of one day finally getting it for real. It’s a never-ending circle.
If you’re an influencer hungry for brand sponsorships and deals, even if you’re actually not very wealthy, it pays to look like you are. When the highest-paid posts are earmarked to earn $1 million, many are willing to go to any lengths to pretend to be rich. Even sitting in fake jets to go on fake trips.
I think I’ve always known, deep down, that everything on Instagram is fake — the hair, the nails, the eyebrows, the eyelashes, the skin, the no-makeup selfies, the poses, the outfits — all of it is carefully manufactured by influencers to appear as though they have a perfect life, in the hopes of earning your “like,” your “follow,” and your potential to either buy from them or from a brand they partner with.
It’s one thing to know that. It’s another to see the same luxury private jet that occupies a large corner of Instagram exposed for a scam. All of this still raises one very important question: why do influencers pretend to be rich? Why can’t they influence from a modest middle-class status? Why must they pretend to be absolutely dripping in extravagance to sell us things?
Being Fake Rich Is Nothing New
It’s true that 20 years ago, the “How to Be Fake-Rich on Instagram” market didn’t exist. Nobody paid a fee to sit in a fake jet because there was no way to share that clout with others. What would you do, take a photo, develop it, print it out, and frame it to show off at dinner parties?
Instead, people faked wealth in other ways: knock-off Rolexes, houses they couldn’t afford, outfits they’d return the next day. Even just a decade ago, Apple capitalized on being a status symbol by selling overpriced-but-just-affordable mobile phones.
The key is in the phrase “status symbol.” Our communication is largely non-verbal, and we can say a lot with very little. And because we have a hard time disbelieving our own eyes, we often act as though everything we see is true.
Jonah Berger, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania, tells NPR that while we’re great at spotting when peer pressure and social influence affects other people, we don’t see it in ourselves.
“When we look to ourselves, though, we look to our introspections. We look for evidence that there’s a reason that we behave that way…you don’t think it affected your own behavior even though at the end of the day it actually did.”
The Image of Wealth Makes It Easier to Sell
Not a lot of people know that Abercrombie & Fitch paid Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino a lot of money in 2011 to not wear their clothes. He was effectively bogging down their good name and associating their brand with his lifestyle, which they didn’t like. It’s also alleged that Snooki received a Gucci bag from one of Gucci’s competitors, again in a bid to make Gucci look cheap, and the competitor brands more luxurious by contrast.
“It turns out influence is very much like a magnet…but it just as well repels us,” says Jonah Berger.
Association is everything. If you see the Jersey Shore lifestyle involves posing with a Gucci bag and you pride yourself on not having that lifestyle, well, maybe you’ll buy Ralph Lauren next time. Similarly, simply by appearing rich, followers associate personas with success.
“I notice people like to follow people who look rich, who look as if they have their sh*t together, who look as if they know what they’re doing in life,” said YouTuber Mirella Derungs, in her video titled How to Look Rich AF!, “who have goals and are working on something. People just like to follow successful people. Because it makes them feel inspired.”
If you’ve got all the trappings of wealth, the pretty friends, the fancy parties — then our monkey brains associate that with success. And we want to know how you did it. Luckily for us, those personas are almost always happy to give us their secrets — at a price, of course.