The rise of realism over perfection on social media

Thought Leadership

Over the past few years, Instagram has risen to become arguably the most influential social platform in the Western world. With its success, a certain kind of aesthetic has become the norm – the Insta life.

The gap between real life and the polished portrayal of one’s self on Instagram is something we’re all aware of, but the impact of seeing other people’s perfect lives played out in our feeds can be emotionally draining nonetheless.

Then, enter 2020 – the year that almost everyone’s lives went to shit as Covid-19 swept the globe. And it seems our attitude to social media shifted alongside it. In recent research we undertook with GlobalWebIndex, almost half (42%) of social media users surveyed said they felt less pressure to portray an unrealistic image of their life during the Covid-19 pandemic and corresponding lockdowns, in contrast to just 23% who felt the pressure continued. People have also been more honest about their issues: 46% of men and 31% of women said they’ve been more open on their social channels about the struggles they are facing.

This is an important deviation from the norms of the past and one that brands should be aware of. With people facing so many hardships in their daily lives, there’s little desire for having perfection rubbed in our noses. We’re looking for content that shows empathy and honesty – particularly when ads sit alongside some very personal stories from friends and family on our social media feeds. An aspirational approach to advertising doesn’t quite fit the zeitgeist.

Some brands have already recognised this. Dove – always a leader of the pack when it comes to honest advertising – launched “Courage is beautiful” in the US that showed faces of healthcare workers marked by personal protective equipment. One lovely Instagram campaign from French fashion label Jacquemus saw the luxury brand share photos from its community recreating its asymmetric heels using weird and wonderful household items such as lemons and toilet roll. Many brands also started rolling out practical and useful content, such as Burger King and Wagamama giving away secret recipes, or YouTube and the BBC helping parents cope at home with educational assistance for desperate home-schoolers.

Influencers have long been the purveyors of aspirational content that showcases an unachievable lifestyle, but the smart ones have shifted their approach. They have recognised that not many people were interested in listening to them talk endlessly about make-up or fashion when there was little point putting these tips into practice in lockdown. Instead, we saw many pivot to covering topics such as how to cope (or not) during lockdown and how they were managing relationships and mental health.

Again, honesty and authenticity have been key here, whether it’s Dr Alex George (pictured, top) taking us behind the scenes in the NHS or bloggers such as Hurrah for Gin’s Katie Kirby telling us “it’s OK not to be productive right now”. In recent influencer interviews we conducted about how their approach has shifted during lockdown, creator Mikai McDermott noted that her focus had shifted from fashion and beauty, and she’d become a “quarantine chef” – and the content made her more personable to followers.

That’s not to say every piece of content has to be gritty and showcasing the struggles of today’s lives. There’s plenty of room for escapism and humour – our research also showed that funny content was one of the most-shared categories right now. But with social media feeds currently reflecting reality more than ever before, brands can have a role to play in maintaining this more balanced landscape as we start to emerge out of lockdown.

People are more willing to be human and less perfect online. This might not be the new normal, but it’s certainly the now normal. And even as we start to emerge from lockdown, the effects of the pandemic are stark, with financial and economic uncertainty and no clarity over when our lives might get back to how they were before. This will of course impact our approach to marketing. We know from conversations with creators, for example, that this shift isn’t just a flash in the pan for them. They feel as though they cannot just go back to one-dimensional content after lockdown.

It’s time to re-evaluate what matters. Now is not the time to be flashy; it’s a time to be humble. The long-term effects of this pandemic on society can’t be underestimated and I’d argue that aspirational and unattainable have had their day for the immediate future at least – and possibly even beyond. The brands that maintain a tone that is empathetic, honest and useful will be those set up to succeed.


This article was originally written for Campaign magazine by our Chief Strategy Officer, Mobbie Nazir.