Your nearest and dearest may soon be selling you products inadvertently as online retailers move to social media to sell, writes Victoria University of Wellington’s Dr Michael Daubs and Dr Vincent Manzerolle

Product placement is as old as Hollywood, but it is Snapchat and Instagram, not the movies, that have now taken it to its next level and in the process commodified their users’ social media experience even more.

From an early example such as a petrol company logo on the wall of a garage in a 1920 Buster Keaton and ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle two-reeler through to James Bond abandoning his customary vodka martini, shaken not stirred, in favour of Heineken lager in 2012’s Skyfall, the history of cinema is full of films trying to sell us something.  

But what if they could literally sell us something and could do so while we watched? What if we could click on the screen and buy the products placed before us?

Movies can’t do that—at least not yet—but Snapchat and Instagram have been slowly rolling out something very similar in the United States, with the technology bound to reach the rest of the world, including New Zealand, in due course.

Snapchat’s new visual search feature was launched in September in partnership with online retail giant Amazon. It lets users identify products either through their camera or in images sent by other users. The tool pairs with Amazon technology that reads barcodes or recognises unique features such as logos, artwork or packaging. Once the product is identified, a pop-up window appears displaying current information and pricing on Amazon. If the user selects one of the options, they are taken to the product page in the Amazon mobile app or, if they don’t have the app on their phone, the same page in their web browser.

The addition of visual search comes on the heels of another recent purchasing-based initiative, the Shoppable Snap Ad, which displays products in a carousel of images through which users can browse and make purchases. The app also has ads with buttons that lead to a shopping page, app-install page, video or website without leaving Snapchat.

Instagram, meanwhile, has announced it is integrating into its mobile app a payment feature called Checkout on Instagram. In order to facilitate this, it has partnered with international payment services company PayPal. As TechCrunch editor Josh Constine noted: “It lets you register a debit or credit card as part of a profile, set up a security pin, then start buying things without ever leaving Instagram. Not having to leave for a separate website and enter payment information any time you want to purchase something could make Instagram a much bigger player in commerce.”

Checkout is just the latest attempt to integrate shopping experiences into Instagram, which “wants to be the shop window of the internet”, according to tech journalist Amelia Heathman. Features include retailers being able to tag products in photos, allowing users to tap and select products to view in-app information such as a product description, price, additional photos and a Shop Now button that redirects users to their web browser.

Checkout on Instagram and Snapchat’s Visual Search typify the ‘transactional culture’ that increasingly governs digital media, converting everyday experiences and interactions with friends and family into bite-size consumable chunks.

“Because transactions are now computer mediated,” Google chief economist Hal Varian has said, “we can observe behaviour that was previously unobservable and write contracts on it. This enables transactions that were simply not feasible before … Computer-mediated transactions have enabled new business models.”

One of the overarching logics of modern digital platforms is to act as a two-sided marketplace in which users are not only sold to advertisers but also able to engage in interwoven monetary and non-monetary transactions in an ever-increasing array of contexts.

In this, mobile apps like Snapchat and Instagram represent a beach head that allows market transactions to be embedded seamlessly in everyday life – a key element of digital platform companies’ long-term growth strategies.

The potential of ‘contextual commerce’ – i.e. the ability to discover a product or service and buy without being redirected – is staggering, as an industry report outlines: it could mean “watching a show on Netflix and buying a featured product, purchasing tickets to a concert while listening to an artist’s songs on Spotify or getting the same pair of shoes Kaia Gerber wore in a photo on Instagram – and all without ever leaving the page or app that provided the context.

“Buying in context can not only reduce the steps required to checkout, but also increase a merchant’s odds of conversion by helping a consumer visualise or see how others have used something he, too, is thinking about buying. It introduces a buyer to a merchant he may never have found outside of that contextual experience, and it makes it easy to connect the dots from potential to reality.”

Enabling digital platform users to make instantaneous purchases melds with the ‘like’ or attention economy that has facilitated the rise of influencers and ‘native advertising’ and creates a marketplace where cultural and commercial exchanges are enclosed by a single interface.

In short, shopping and socialising via digital platforms like Snapchat and Instagram may, at best, be the new equivalent of going to the mall with friends and, at worst, turn our friends and family into individualised product showcases to inform our future purchases.

Dr Michael Daubs is director of the Media Studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington.

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