I stare at TikTok for 20 minutes a day. If you met me, you’d probably be able to tell. I am head to toe with its influence. In the past year, as a direct result of watching women my age tell me what to buy, I have bought the following: hair gel; expensive hair glue; hair repair serum; another more expensive hair repair serum; frankincense bath salts. (The salts, I was told, were supposed to cultivate my divine feminine energy.)
There’s more: A viral green dress, a gua sha, the Charlotte Tilbury Flawless Filter make-up, a Charlotte Tilbury Flawless Filter “dupe”, setting powder for my make-up, a viral hydrating cleanser, retinoid, vitamin C serum. Then there was the blanket that was widely considered a “dupe” for another more viral Arket blanket; a phone charger organiser; an aesthetically pleasing bullet journal.
Ask my friends what they have bought as a result of staring at their phone screen for a combined nine hours a day and it’s equally frivolous: an ultraviolet light face mask, the Dior Lip Oil, a dupe for the Dior Lip Oil, rosemary oil, a weighted hula hoop, heat activated hair gel that changes colour.
I am one of the millions of people that are being influenced at an eye-watering rate by TikTok. In a recent survey, 55 per cent of users had made a purchase after seeing an item on the platform. It’s not surprising then that a confusing new trend has emerged: de-influencing.
Boiled down into simple terms, TikTok creators are angry about the rate at which other TikTok creators are telling us to buy things. Now, influencers would like us to not be influenced. In fact, they are telling us just that. Content creators are fighting against online shopping by instructing us to buy cheaper products – recommended by them.
According to trends watcher Brandwatch, in the past month online mentions of “de-influencing” has gone up by 34,060 per cent. Search the term on TikTok and millions of videos appear, all saying pretty much the same thing. “I’m going to tell you what you don’t need,” says one creator, “and something that might be better instead.” “Don’t buy everything you see on here. Let me de-influence you,” says another beauty influencer. She then proceeds to recommend high-street cosmetic products that are “so much better” than the more expensive products usually promoted on the platform. This particular video has over 1.4 million views.
This is a confusing place to be in. Take a moment to breathe though, and this new trend is simply an old message repackaged: spend. In fact, TikTok has been blamed for a massive rise of English-language books being bought in Germany, reportedly thanks to the influence of “BookTok creators”.
If the marketing power of TikTok feels more intense than other platforms then, that’s because it is. “The power of TikTok is that consumers have developed a para-social relationship with the accounts that they follow,” says Gillian Brooks, assistant professor in strategic marketing at King’s College London. “They tune in to their daily activities by seeing these short clips every day, and attempt to emulate the lifestyle that they see from these influencers; and that includes consuming items they see online.”
We are, unwittingly it seems, buying into more than just products. “Many of these viewers are unable to differentiate between what is authentic and what is fictional,” says Brooks. “As a result, they emerge from this ‘TikTok spell’ with an increased desire to spend.”
Sound familiar? TikTok’s demographic is predominantly female (57 per cent) and the majority are under the age of 34 (77.5 per cent). As someone that fits into this bracket, I am increasingly aware that this generational overconsumption is making us unhappy.
“TikTok just always makes me feel like I’m one purchase away from being satisfied,” says Kat, 25, who has been using the app for four years. “Whether it’s decor, skincare or clothes, I always feel I’m so close to fixing my life with this product,” she says. “Influencers are always like, ‘this is going to change your life’. It takes a while to realise that, no it’s just a product.”
This race to “run not walk” to the shops (a common TikTok creator slogan) is making us insecure. “Influencers’ main tactic is to make us feel an insecurity about our social status – they not only sell us things, but also represent what it looks like to succeed on social media,” says JB MacKinnon, author of The Day the World Stops Shopping.
MacKinnon has spent decades researching the impact that overconsumption is having on our wellbeing. “Given that a large body of research supports the idea that status insecurity makes us unhappy, influencers are peddlers of unhappiness who, ironically, endlessly hold out the promise that your next purchase will make you happy,” he says.
Kat knows that buying items from TikTok is having a mental impact on her. She feels uncomfortable when she thinks about the purchases she has made over the years. “I bought a big water bottle that everyone was telling me to buy on TikTok and it cost me £1.99. When I think about how unsustainable that is, I feel awful. It’s hard though, when the algorithm just keeps giving you more and more.”
Like Kat, I am all too aware of the hold that social media has over my spending. The fleeting nature of these purchases is only felt months later, when the haze has worn off and the trend has moved on.
Only then do you realise, it’s not just Charlotte Tilbury that’s been duped.