I am a woman with an Instagram account, therefore I look at advertisements for bathing suits several times a day. Sometimes it’s a photo of a thin white woman in a bikini; other times her head’s not in the picture. Sometimes it’s a bathing suit laid out on a plain backdrop, and other times that backdrop includes a pair of sunglasses or a purse. But always, the ads’ goals are the same: for me to buy the swimsuit, with the implicit assumption between us that I will post a photo of myself wearing it, thus adding to the never-ending bathing suit stream that is Instagram.
Why is this? Why are bathing suit ads almost the only sponsored posts I see on the app? Why is it that to be a woman online is to be inundated with images of beautiful people in tiny clothing perpetually on vacation? Where did all these ads, and all these companies, come from?
If you find yourself at a social gathering this summer with a lot of women you don’t know but wish to strike up a conversation, mention this. Say something about the prevalence of Instagram swimsuit ads, and you’re guaranteed to garner at least a few back-and-forths — this, at least, was my experience when I asked my Instagram followers to send me screenshots of the swimsuit ads they came across on their own feeds. You’ll hear tell of women who’d seen so many ads that they finally actually bought one and loved it, or people who are pretty sure that the ads for $10 bikinis from out-of-nowhere brands are total scams (but more on that later).
“I kept clicking them because the women in the ads were hot,” writer Jamie Lauren Keiles told me over DM. “Then I guess because I click them, Instagram serves me more and more, which I keep looking at because I am horny, which begets more ads for a product I don’t wear or buy. Anyway, now my whole feed is bathing suits.”
Besides our collective horniness, the real reason Instagram has transformed into one giant bikini store is multifold. It relates to quirks in the algorithm, the sudden explosion of swimwear brands in the 2010s, and the foundational difficulties of shopping for the tiny pieces of clothing in which most people, multiple brands reminded me, will be the most naked they’ll ever be in public.
The Instagram algorithm makes swimsuits an ideal product
There are a few easily explainable, algorithmic reasons why many women see nothing but ads for swimsuits. One that Keiles experienced (as did I, over the course of reporting this story and clicking on swimsuit ads) is that engaging with any ad on Instagram will result in you seeing many, many similar ads. “Engaging” is defined by clicking on, “liking,” commenting, or sharing, but it can also be as simple as stopping to view a photo or watch a video. Should you have the very human urge to look at a photo of a person in a swimsuit, you’re considered a potentially interested customer.
Instagram also allows brands to target users based on age, gender, location, and interests, among other things, and can also find “look-alike audiences” that are similar to the people they’re already targeting. Brands determine how often they want a customer to see an ad in a period of time, but it’s Instagram that sets the parameters for when exactly they see it. According to an Instagram spokesperson, there’s a kind of qualitative auction system to determine whether an ad gets displayed; the winning ad is the one determined to have the best chance of someone engaging with it.
Though Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, likes to think of itself as a neutral-ish platform (as all platforms do), it has received criticism for the overwhelming number of ads for swimsuits — and, to a larger extent, bras — in many users’ feeds. In 2017, Lauren Hallden wrote an essay called “Towards a Bra-Free Instagram Experience,” in which she takes the app to task for the endless underwear, swimwear, and athleisure ads.
“If you’re a woman who finds [the endless string of half-naked, extremely thin women] triggering — who thinks that lots of time spent looking at these images is bad for our overall mental health and sense of self-worth, or that the sheer quantity of this stuff says something really depressing about our value as women in the world — there isn’t really a way to opt out of it,” she writes. Though users can select “Hide ad” if they see an ad they don’t like, there’s no simple way to get rid of all swimsuit or bra ads.
What’s also interesting is that it’s easy to make the argument that these ads violate Facebook’s own adult content policies (Instagram shares Facebook’s ad system), which bars “excessive visible skin or cleavage, even if not explicitly sexual in nature” as well as “images focused on individual body parts, such as abs, buttocks or chest, even if not explicitly sexual in nature.”
When provided with examples of swimwear ads that reflected these, an Instagram spokesperson said there are additional guidelines to its policies, though they could not share them, and said that none of the ads in question violated them. These are thorny matters, considering many swimwear and underwear brands have attempted to make body positivity a cornerstone of their image.
To Instagram’s credit, it’d be silly to ban an ad for, say, Aerie swimsuits or Fenty bras simply because the images include cleavage. Yet the “adult content” policies still apply to ads for sex toys and vibrators, images of which are largely banned from Instagram advertisements, even when the content itself can be considered body-positive. Instagram has also had a confusing relationship to the meaning of nudity or partial nudity with its users: Photos of larger women in lingerie and swimwear have been removed while similar pictures featuring thinner women are allowed to stay up. The line between what’s “focused on individual body parts” and what’s required to sell swimsuits remains equally blurry.
The perfect Instagram swimsuit ad looks just like everything else on Instagram
For Melanie Travis, the founder of Andie swimwear, Instagram was the easy part. She’d started her marketing career at Foursquare, moved to Kickstarter and then BarkBox, all of which were born on the internet and social media. It was finding a swimsuit that was hard.
“I was going on a BarkBox work retreat to a lake, and everyone had their Away suitcase, their Glossier lip balm, and their Allbirds shoes,” she says. “But, all the women were like, ‘Where are you getting your swimsuit?’ It was a panic, and a stressful experience. I thought, ‘This is a category wide open to create that go-to consumer brand that is just the obvious choice. You just throw it in your Away suitcase and you’re good to go.’”
She launched a successful crowdfunding campaign with the promise of a collection of beautiful, timeless swimwear for women before she even made the actual prototype. What also came before the prototype was Andie’s Instagram account, which Travis filled with photos of women she’d taken on the street while traveling. She left her job at BarkBox in December 2016 and started Andie the following April.
Considering her background, the direct-to-consumer model was an obvious choice, and Instagram was part of its earliest DNA. Today, it’s the brand’s best marketing tool, along with Facebook, where it spends about 80 percent of its marketing budget.
“It’s where our demographic lives, basically,” says Travis. Plus, it’s a marketing tool that allows brands to learn quickly with low stakes: “You can know after spending $50 if your ad is working or not, as opposed to TV, where you might need to spend $50,000.”
Travis found that user-generated content, like an impromptu selfie in an Andie swimsuit, performed best, as well as e-commerce images of a swimsuit against a plain backdrop. What doesn’t, curiously? Highly polished lifestyle photos.
“If you spend a lot of money and hire a great photographer and a great team, and you fly to a beautiful location, and then you put them on Instagram? Those don’t work,” Travis explains. “I think it’s because they look too much like ads, honestly. When people are scrolling, Instagram is more the vibe of friends sharing things.”
There’s a big difference between shady Instagram swimsuit brands and sleek ones
What works and doesn’t for an Instagram swimsuit ad depends on the brand in question, particularly considering the sheer number of brands advertising swimsuits. Over about two weeks, I counted 23 that I had either personally seen or received from friends.
There are two categories of Instagram swimwear brands. The first has a clear identity, it champions the virtues of body positivity and community, and it sells the idea of an aspirational lifestyle back to us on the platform where we’re already most used to seeing it. And then there are the anonymous entities selling you a trendy swimsuit at the lowest possible cost. Where it can get tricky is that it’s not always immediately clear which is which from the advertisement alone.
Many of the former are names you likely know, like Goop, Athleta, or Bloomingdale’s, or brands like Andie, Summersalt, and Left on Friday that use the sleek direct-to-consumer aesthetic (high-quality photos paired with trendy fonts).
But others’ origins are far more mysterious. Their products look strangely like others you’ve seen on Instagram, but you might reasonably be suspicious of their quality and fit based on how inexpensive they are and how similar accounts shilling cheap (or free!) products have been exposed as scams in the recent past. These are brands like Zaful and Shein, which sell dizzying numbers of swimsuits for unfathomably low prices and whose advertisements on Instagram and Facebook are inescapable. Making them feel even shadier is the fact that often their ads are flat lays of bikinis without actual humans in them, giving no frame of reference for how they might fit. (Months ago, for instance, I came across a Zaful ad for a bikini bottom shaped like the letter T, which seemed wildly inconvenient for anyone with a vulva.)
Zaful is aware of its reputation. On its blog, ZafulReviews.com, there’s an entire page and forum devoted to the question of whether the brand is a scam; search “Zaful” on YouTube and you’ll find plenty of haul videos with headlines like “Is this website for real?”
It is, sort of. In 2016, BuzzFeed investigated a handful of China-based companies, including Zaful, which used images stolen from around the web to lure customers into buying cheap clothing that had little to do with the merchandise they’d seen online. What’s more, many of these companies (also including Zaful) were owned by the same man, Chinese billionaire Yang Jianxin.
OnZafulScam.com, which is confusingly devoted to proving that Zaful is indeed not a scam, one post claims that as of 2017, all images on the site are photographed by Zaful itself, although products are manufactured by third-party vendors. There remain many inconsistencies with the way products are photographed — some feature clothing items on hangers, some include models, and some are flat lays of products next to complementary accessories.
The Better Business Bureau gives Zaful a B rating, however, and when I ordered two bikinis from the company — which cost me a mind-boggling total of $20 for both of them (plus $10 for two-day shipping), thanks to a deal on the site — they arrived on time and in good condition, just like they looked in the pictures. Zaful could not be reached for comment: Multiple emails to the support team bounced back, and a call to the customer service line, during which I learned the name does not rhyme with “awful” and instead uses a short “a” sound, like in “apple,” was answered by a man who told me he’d put me in touch with a press representative but never did.
It was, of course, much easier to reach the brands that proudly include their company history in their “About” sections and whose founders also play a role in crafting their images. Summersalt is one of these. It launched in May 2017 when founders Lori Coulter and Reshma Chattaram Chamberlin combined their expertise in swimwear design and DTC marketing, respectively, and it makes size its primary concern (there’s a Butt Coverage Guide and everything). Though when it first launched, sizes only went up to a 14, as of this year, some swimsuits are available in up to size 24, as well as maternity options.
That commitment is also reflected in its e-commerce photos, which feature models in a range of sizes, and its product. The brand sent me a swimsuit, and I found it had the same fit and quality that its shoppers would expect. It’s also why the brand found success in its rounds of venture capital funding, beginning with a small angel round in the spring of 2017, followed by a $2 million round in March 2018 and another $6 million that October. Instagram has been useful for the brand, but Chamberlin and Coulter say they are reluctant to focus too much of their efforts on the platform.
The trouble with relying too much on Instagram to sell swimsuits
Despite her company’s marketing investment, Melanie Travis of Andie shares that same reluctance, particularly considering both Facebook and Instagram are known for making sudden changes to their already mysterious algorithms. Andie has a dedicated employee devoted to testing out new marketing channels for a few weeks at a time so as not to rely too heavily on Instagram. Although it’s still a relatively cheap way to advertise, Instagram is much more expensive than it was even a few years ago. Back then, Travis says, “You could throw up a couple dollars and it would hit the newsfeed, because you had probably 10,000 brands competing for space. Now that figure is something like 7 million. So obviously that raises prices.”
Instagram remains uniquely useful for swimwear brands, though. The category in general is expected to continue growing; Statista reports that the swimwear industry is worth $47 million in the US, the largest market in the world. That’s thanks in part to the worldwide tourism boom, which has been a boon for the global swimwear economy, expected to be worth $20 billion by the end of this year.
“We looked at airline charts and found that the big peaks and valleys have largely been evening out with the rise of unlimited paid time off and the millennial workforce,” says Travis. “A lot of places people go are sunny, water-based vacations. It follows, then, that you’re buying more swimsuits to go on these vacations. Since you’re Instagramming it every day, you need to be wearing a different swimsuit. The number of swimsuits that women are buying, generally, is going up.”
Combined with the fact that swimsuits are lightweight and small and therefore extremely cheap to ship, they’re the perfect product for an era of mass online shopping and constant picture-posting. Why wouldn’t Instagram, then, be the prime place to advertise those very products?
Travis isn’t overly concerned with the heavy competition on the platform. When I ask her how she tries to help Andie stand out among the other brands, she says, “If I’m being honest, sometimes I wonder that myself. I see them all the time. I’m always like, ‘Wow! There are so many out there.’
“But I think it means that founders just need to be more creative,” she says. “You have to be really witty and do something really unique. You can’t just be another ad in the newsfeed or customers will glide right past you.”
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