There have always been influencers.
People whose words, actions and appearance affect those around them to such an extent that they emulate and copy them.
To feel like part of the tribe, we have long invested in the same clothes, accessories, possessions and experiences as those we choose as the leaders of that tribe.
Duchesses and princes, religious leaders and travellers, authors and scientists, entrepreneurs and athletes have all had and have their huge followings. Many have used that fame to earn a crust (or maybe a whole breadbasket) through sponsorships, partnerships and associations.
None of this is new. But today’s influencers have upped their game. The rules of engagement haven’t changed but the speed of that engagement has, according to leading psychologists.
When once us mere mortals would have gone out to search the hillsides for the same feather a leading light of Georgian society had in their hat according to a newspaper a month old, today we click the Amazon Prime link included in their Insta post from five seconds ago. The shoes, tech or airline tickets could be in your hands the same day, maybe even the same hour.
That instant gratification, that hit of dopamine that fades as fast as it arrives, can and regularly does spell financial disaster long after the Insta king or queen has moved on to the next “must have”.
But the average single post by the world’s top Instagrammers contains £6,700 of luxury items. With one in three of the under-40s aspiring to live the influencer lifestyle, according to research by fintech business CreditKarma, they’d need an annual salary of £1.7m to achieve it. Or £3.1m if you include the vehicles on display.
Real or not, Generation Z-ers and millennials collectively spend £400m every month imitating the stars of social media. Around 70 per cent are going into debt to do it. Others say so-called “social spending” is affecting their saving, including hindering long-term goals like buying a house, as well as their ability to cover everyday costs.
Jo Hemmings, a behavioural psychologist who specialises in celebrity culture, warns that it’s especially hard to see through the smoke and mirrors to decide what’s real and what’s not on social media. “It’s essential to remember that posting about expensive items and lavish lifestyles is a full-time job for many social media influencers. Many of these ‘social celebrities’ have either been gifted these items or have been paid to promote them. You can see whether there is formal promotion behind a post by looking at the hashtags – influencers often reference #Ad at the bottom of a post. Others on Instagram have a disclaimer at the top that says ‘paid partnership’.”
She suggests that we gravitate towards those with similar values whom we see as authentic. We buy items related to those people, endorsed by those people as a validation, not just of the items we own or places we’ve been but who we are. And all that costs money.
“When people buy the items being displayed on social media the values of each item often aren’t that much, but cumulatively, it becomes a lot of money,” Hemmings adds.
When it comes to luxury goods in particular though, part of the satisfaction of buying seems to be about setting yourself up as a special member of your particular tribe.
Separate research from Hitachi Personal Finance released this week suggests that four in 10 UK adults prefer to buy expensive items rather than cheaper alternatives, but not simply because of the perceived or real quality of the item itself. In fact, the same proportion of people would buy an expensive item when lower priced alternatives were available because they know “not everyone could afford them”.
Meanwhile, the UK’s record personal debt levels keep on spiralling upwards.
“It’s vital we cut through the noise and look at the important facts when discussing debt,” says John Ellmore, director of comparison site Know Your Money. “That 69 per cent of under-40s have some form of debt is not surprising – indeed, our own research shows that 70 per cent of all UK adults are in debt.
“What is important is that people feel in control of their debt, and unfortunately a quarter of consumers say this isn’t the case. Feeling out of control of your debt, which can result from taking on too much debt or not first considering repayment plans, can lead to significant mental health problems. We must ensure support and education is provided so people only take on responsible, manageable debt; in turn, this will help us break the taboo surrounding the subject and prevent debt being treated as a dirty word.”
So where does the Insta generation – and anyone else who tends towards a bit of Fomo or keeping up with the Joneses – go from here?
“We’re still in the instant gratification stage of consuming,” says Hemmings. “We’re not in the habit of delayed return of even stopping to think about saving for something. We’re not questioning the thought process. I think will be some time before we get back to considering purchases like that. This bubble isn’t close to bursting.”
But, she adds, it may be close to being questioned as we become more aware of the damage our consumer spending is having – on our emotional wellbeing, the environment and on our personal finances.