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Newspapers are paid for through a combination of subscriptions and advertising. Radio programs are paid for by selling advertising slots. Television programs are paid for by selling advertising slots, and sometimes even by product placement within the programs themselves. (Those characters on that show always using a certain makeup brand? Not a coincidence.) 

On some level, we’re mostly aware of this. We’re all familiar with these mediums and we know when we’re being advertised to. We understand that someone has to pay all the people who go into making something and that money usually comes from advertising revenue. Key to this understanding is the fact that none of these mediums (newspapers, television, radio) are new within our lifetimes. To us, as we grew up, they had simply always been.

Now, travel with me to the dawn of Instagram. We could go further back, to YouTube and mommy blogs and Tumblr, but it wasn’t until Instagram that “influencers” really broke out of a niche following and became truly mainstream.

Many had learned from Instagram’s predecessors (especially mommy blogs and Tumblr) that “aspirational” content was what really sold. People wanted to see their ideals as achievable, and so those who were able to appear to live the dream attracted attention. As people watched the lives of these influencers unfold, they felt they knew them and they trusted them. Brands, through traditional advertising, had never achieved this type of relationship and level of trust. At the same time, influencers had to maintain their fabulous lifestyles and continue to create fresh and droolworthy content. Thus, it was at that intersection a beautiful friendship was born.

Influencers could get products or services for free or at a discount, or even just flat-out be paid, with the agreement that they would post positive things about the brand to their followers. And in the beginning, there was no regulation for this. Just as you would trust a friend recommending a product to you, many people trusted these social media stars’ recommendations. Ethically, however, it was a total mess. 

This led to the creation of #ad. Instagram rolled out rules requiring creators to disclose to their followers when they were being paid to promote something. There were rules, and the most obvious one to the non-famous Instagram user was that the caption on “sponsored” content had to contain #ad. 

With these new rules, the Wild West became a slightly less lawless place. There was a new sheriff in town, and it looked for a little while like everyone might finally be getting the hang of things.

Enter: TikTok

Launched in 2016, popular first among teenagers, and growing steadily in popularity through 2019, TikTok was widely considered “a lip syncing app for kids.” The appeal was utterly inexplicable to most adults, but seemed harmless enough. Two things happened during the “unprecedented times” of 2020, however.

1. People were stuck at home, bored, and ready for something new and 2. Instagram launched “Reels,” their attempt to steal the younger generation back from TikTok. This backfired, however, as Reels ended up introducing tons of people to the kind of content that was on TikTok. As many people realized that TikTok wasn’t just a lip syncing app for kids, TikTok became the single most downloaded app of 2020 and surpassed 1 billion active users in 2021.

So, it would seem that Reels didn’t replace TikTok entirely.

Instagram threw a little bit of a temper tantrum. In February 2021, Instagram started punishing users for recycling TikTok content on Instagram. Reels that bore a TikTok watermark (meaning they had been created in TikTok and then uploaded to Instagram afterward) were suppressed by the algorithm — leading to a rush of online tutorials teaching creators how to remove the TikTok watermark. There didn’t seem to be too much more Instagram could do. 

Except, actually, they secretly declared war.

This town just ain’t big enough for the both of them.

On March 30, 2022, the Washington Post reported that Meta (the parent company that owns both Facebook and Instagram) has been paying a major Republican consulting firm to orchestrate a full-blown smear campaign against TikTok. We’re not journalists, so you should probably read a real article on this, but seriously, it’s pretty wild. They’ve been spreading rumors about dangerous or criminal “TikTok challenges” that never actually existed, getting tons of media coverage, and generally stoking negative public opinion.

Not to paint TikTok as the damsel on the train tracks in need of defending, but Meta abusing their sizable power in this way is really concerning. 

All this to say: this is a new frontier. TikTok is replacing Instagram as the new Wild West, and Instagram doesn’t like it. And with that Wild West status comes similar problems to what Instagram dealt with back in the day: regulating advertisements.

Check out our post about the best TikToks we’ve seen this year to read about all the ways brands are advertising on TikTok — and how some of those ways are sneakier than you’d think.

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