"Sponsored" posts are ruining Instagram

An unfortunate trend I’m seeing more of every day on Instagram are “Sponsored” posts. Not actual ads placed by companies through the proper channels. I’m talking ads posted like any other picture by users in their stream. Sometimes they’re denoted by #ad or #sponsored, but often not. (I’m also frequently seeing these on Vine, to be fair.)

It sucks.

I’m of two minds regarding even the official ads on Instagram. On one hand, I think it’s the lazy answer to monetization. Amass a large user base, start sprinkling advertisements into their feed. Advertisers are lured by the possibility of hundreds of millions of impressions, and Instagram has no shortage of suitors. I get why it’s the easy answer, but I feel like it shouldn’t be the only answer.

Some day, a company will dare to break from the Google model of monetization and change online advertising.

On the other hand, Instagram does ads, so far, better than anyone. (Tumblr does a great job at them, too.) Super high quality, selective, and infrequent. I’m not seeing a new ad pinned to the top of my stream every time I refresh. When I see them, it’s not instantly obvious that it’s foreign or misplaced. In that sense, Instagram’s doing it right.

But I don’t like seeing sponsored posts by friends and photographers I respect. Here’s why:

  • They’re deceptive. This isn’t always the case, and some people are worse than others, but when I see ten people in my feed posting pictures of a tour of GE’s facilities, it’s pretty obvious. I’ve had someone I’d consider a friend tell me that Instagram “frowns upon promotional posts” and then proceed to share a “sponsored trip” two weeks later.

  • They’re buying your followers, not your talent. The common argument is: Don’t you want to see artists get paid for their work? I’d love to see talented artists get paid. I’m an artist. But these brands aren’t paying for your talent. Not directly anyway. They’re paying for your followers. They’re paying you because Instagram hasn’t started accepting their cash or credit or Bitcoins. You’re nothing but a number to them, and while it’s great you’re getting a paycheck, you’re not getting the respect you deserve out of the relationship. Carrot Top gets paid to tweet ads and it’s not because of his talent level.

  • They destroy the foundation of Instagram. I follow you because I’m interested in you, not what company paid you to get to my eyeballs. You don’t see these kinds of posts on Facebook, or Twitter (unless you follow Carrot Top), or Tumblr, or Pinterest… why are Instagram and Vine the outliers?

I would love to see independent artists hired by brands to overhaul their Instagram account. Spend a week (or three) teaching their social media managers how to take non-blurry photos. Share behind the scenes pictures on your personal Instagram account. Tell me how cool it was to work for that company every day for a week.

But please don’t turn into a number of followers for a marketing manager with a budget to spend.

Mobile photography agencies tout their photographers' follower count because that’s exactly what advertisers (think they) want. It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not a long-term strategy. It’s the spray and pray method at best.

When Instagram starts accepting their money directly, that’s where their cash will go.

I love Instagram and photography so much I’ve made short documentaries like Portrait and Street Fashion Photography. I want artists to be recognized for their talent. I want to see photographers hired for that talent, not for a number.

It’s not wrong to share what you’re working on. It’s not wrong to use Instagram to support your art or business. I do think it’s wrong to pretend brands are doing anything but taking advantage of the service and its high-profile users.

Andy Newman