TikTok is a massive juggernaut in the pop cultural arena. Millions of people around the world are active on the app, and naturally, advertisers and marketers are eager to tap into this market, especially the younger demographic that may include your girl+. In this article, we’ll break down the commercialism of TikTok and the strategies that sellers use on the app. This insight will help you the next time you find yourself “having to have ” a product that TikTok told you that you need.
TikTok’s Addictive Algorithm Design
Like its “older sibling” YouTube, TikTok works by building an “interest graph” for each user, learning about one’s interests based on how each user interacts with videos. Because the videos are all less than a minute long, the TikTok algorithm has a massive amount of data to learn from, so it can better understand what will entertain each user and keep them coming back for more. According to Shelby, an active TikToker I spoke with while researching this piece, “We think we have time for it, and so we make time for it.”
Users are presented with videos, and depending on how they respond to each video, the algorithm handles the rest. It learns what you like, and then points you towards more concentrated versions of that same thing. This is what makes TikTok feel so personalized, and why the TikTok algorithm can feel almost supernatural in its understanding of a person’s interests. But really, it’s just a well-designed piece of software with hundreds of millions of videos to train with so it can build up a data set and achieve its goal: more people spending more time on the app.
From the statistics, they’ve succeeded marvelously, with 689 million monthly users around the globe at last count. It is a massive community made up of countless smaller communities, and that age-old desire for belonging and the fear of missing out colors the entire TikTok experience. As they say in their promotional material, “if it’s in the culture, it starts on TikTok.” TikTok inserts itself into every aspect of people’s lives, as they use it to find communities based on common interests, discover new artists and musicians, and even keep up to date with the news. So this raises the question, how do the marketers and sellers of the world make themselves a key part of someone’s interest graph? How do they embed themselves into someone’s TikTok feed and make an “until-now-unfounded” desire for whatever it is a key tenet of the user experience?
Key TikTok Selling Strategies
The For You Page
Advertising on TikTok begins on the “For You” page with ads in the feed, which are much like any other video on the app. Its content is determined by the imagination of the seller, the user can like, share, interact, or ignore the videos as they see fit, teaching the algorithm more about themselves along the way. They often feature a call to action for the user to direct them towards the merchandise.
TopView Ads and Brand Takeovers
TopView ads and Brand Takeovers work similarly to “For You” page ads. In all of these cases, it is immediately clear that this content comes from a seller looking to spark your interest in a product. The trickier component comes from more concealed advertising efforts, which tend to have more of an impact on the audience.
Marketing is at its most effective when it appears to come from a place of authenticity; a person you admire or trust endorses the product, and the would-be buyer is more likely to consider the product for themselves than they would if an impersonal entity made the same claim. This is the bread and butter of the influencer world. People build up a brand around their personality, lifestyle, interests, etc., and interested users gather around these charismatic technically-not-actors as they show off any number of things for sale.
One of the most well-known influencer strategies is the “haul video” format, in which an influencer showcases their recent purchases. Shelby attributes its appeal to the age-old “intrigue of more”: this happy or happy-seeming person presents the product, implicitly telling their audience to associate the product itself with happiness. Haul videos are especially popular in TikTok’s fashion and beauty circles, where intrigued customers find themselves shopping for the promoted products several times a week to keep pace with the restless world of fashion trends. This kind of overconsumption is, at its most innocent, a frustrating money-suck as satisfaction is perpetually deferred onto the next new object to purchase. At its worst, it feeds into the infamously unethical world of fast fashion. The injustices at the heart of fast fashion are widespread, but suffice it to say, a pleasant social media personality who cheerfully recommends this-or-that is a very helpful tool to major companies looking to keep their uglier sides out of mind.
Lastly, there’s user-generated content, the “Holy Grail” of social media marketing. UGC is exactly what the name implies: someone who has the product, prompted or unprompted, shows themselves off demonstrating the product, which the seller can then leverage as evidence of a quality, worthwhile product. Consider the world of branded hashtag challenges, where a brand encourages users to show themselves off with the product in question, parading sincere, smiling faces across your device to feed your FOMO. For example, here is a post from Aerie asking customers to post pictures in their clothing, tag their account, and use a hashtag for a chance to be featured on their social media platforms.
The Consequences of TikTok Consumerism
And we return to the defining characteristics of TikTok: short videos, fast paced-culture, and a massive data set to fuel the algorithm. Trends come and go at breakneck speeds, and by the time the latest happiness-guaranteeing product has arrived in your life, something new has captured the app’s attention and the cycle repeats. As with most advertising, none of the things being promoted are needed for a happy life, nor are they necessarily conducive to one. But the unique impact of TikTok obscures that from the target audience, especially young people.
To TikTok’s credit, this same affordance can also be used to inform about and respond to this kind of content. To make a TikTok, all you need is your phone and something to discuss; anecdotally, Shelby has described that reactions to and critiques of harmful trends and ideas have garnered more attention than uncritical examples of said problem. However, by algorithmic design, TikTok is still a highly individualized platform, and the ultimate shaper of a person’s TikTok experience is the user themselves.
In TikTok as in life, the key to a positive experience for your child is honest, open communication. It’s ultimately up to the parent to model self-respect, critical thinking about products being hawked at them, and above all, give the child a place to share their feelings about what might be bothering them without invading the child’s own private space on the internet. Every family is different, but it all begins with just talking with the child, and together deciding what works for them to watch and engage with as they explore themselves and their interests online.
Critical thinking about social media content is at the core of all of our programming at MEDIAGIRLS. We speak specifically to the commercialism on platforms like TikTok and Instagram and break down the tactics used to sell products. If you are interested in signing your girl+ up for our programming to learn more, head to https://mediagirls.org/girl-programs/.
Katherine Lynch is a student at Emmanuel College in Boston, Mass. She studies Communications and Media with a minor in Marketing. She loves to read, write, and learn about the world, passions she is eager to share with the MEDIAGIRLS community.
Special thanks to Shelby Ward and Victoria Harding for their insights into TikTok culture for this piece.