How can it be that a barely 3 year-old app has come to almost dictate what foods we eat, which products fly off shelves and sell out, and what songs top the charts?
The way TikTok has penetrated almost every aspect of life, from fashion to food to politics, is one of my more frequently contemplated topics – and one I approach with equal parts fascination and concern. I think back towards the end of my late teens, when TikTok was first relaunched to the international market after merging with then-popular Musical.ly, and the app first started to gain traction.
The first word that comes to mind is ‘cringe’. This was when TikTok was basically Musical-ly repackaged- and what that meant was mostly lipsync, dance and comedy videos, with the majority of TikTok’s users (at least in the mind of myself and my peers) being tweens and young teens. It was, to say the least, uncool. It was something your younger siblings had – think Fortnite dances, slime videos and 12 year olds doing sped up lipsyncs _ and had absolutely nothing to do with me, let alone advertising, global fashion trends, celebrities and world politics. The names Addison Rae and Charli D’Amelio meant nothing to me, or anyone else.
Then came what I like call the ‘Whipped Coffee Revolution’. And everything changed.
You know how everyone seems to remember where they were and what they were doing when Michael Jackson’s death was announced? I think everyone has a similar story with when they first downloaded TikTok.
I remember March 2020, living in a tiny shared apartment with my best friend, when the very first two-week quarantine was announced. We were so scarily ignorant of the seriousness of it all- what was a fortnight off uni? When I think of those two weeks in quarantine as a then 19-year-old, before the devastation and permanence of Covid-19 and lockdown set in, I think of these things:
- The complete and utter lack of toilet paper in what seemed to be every Woolies known to man
- Incessant bread baking
- House party – whatever happened to that?
- Chloe Ting workouts and…..
- So. Much. Whipped. Coffee.
The whipped coffee trend, popularized in video (with now over 10 million views) by TikTok user @imhannahcho, was one of the first and arguably most prevalent TikTok trends – and certainly what kicked me down the TikTok rabbit hole. I remember begrudgingly downloading the ‘cringe’ app because why not, I was bored, and it could be fun to waste time on. I didn’t have an inkling of how the app would come to mediate almost all of my consumption – be it the media (books, TV, films, music) I consumed, the food I cooked, the exercises I did, the clothes I wanted (and bought!) and how I decided to do my makeup and skincare.
The ‘Whipped Coffee Revolution’ saw an exponential surge in users during the onset of Covid 19 – with a growth rate of 180% amongst users aged 15-25. This made TikTok the most downloaded app in 2021, reaching a 1 billion-strong user base by September 2021.
Now, the power of TikTok is such that you can physically see the impact of the app around you. A recommendation from a single user that a product as simple as Cerave Moisturising Lotion ‘completely transformed their skin’ can cause a chain reaction, with the products in question quite literally flying off the shelves. I purchased my first Cerave product on recommendation from TikTok ‘skinfluencer’ ‘Skincare by Hyram’ – and for a while he became the be-all and end- all of skincare advice for both myself and countless other TikTok users. Hyram is great, but at the end of the day, he’s no dermatologist.
Hyram is one of many skinfluencers who have been criticized by dermatologists and doctors for promoting skincare trends such as ‘slugging’, in which Vaseline or similar occlusives are applied thickly to the face overnight – a practice that can severely worsen acne in some users. The low barrier to entry, and the algorithmic, visual nature of TikTok as a platform means that anyone can blow up, and as such the information that gets put out there can lack nuance and accuracy.
Other notable #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt products (many of which I’ve bought myself) include the Maybelline Lash Sensational Sky High Mascara, Charlotte Tilbury Blush, Pink Stuff, pheromone perfumes and the Revlon Hair Dryer Brush. Feta cheese went viral and subsequently faced a supply shortage when a recipe for baked feta pasta under hashtag #FetaPasta went viral (with almost 1 billion views).
TikTok absolutely dominates the trend cycle – as Vox writer Rebecca Jennings writes: ‘Fashion is just TikTok now.’ YouTube fashion critic ModernGurlz, has observed the rise of ‘TikTok fashion’- think the resurgence of Y2K trends, cargo pants/skirts, denim, corsets, major cutouts, and streetwear. Many are even starting to base their persona around distinct TikTok ‘aesthetics’ – like ‘Clean Girl’, ‘Cottage Core’, ‘Dark Academia’ and ‘Coconut Girl’.
TikTok’s unique propensity to make products go viral and sell out – facilitated by its unmatched algorithms and collection of user data, has placed the app at the forefront of marketing consciousness. Marketing expert on targeting younger demographics Gregg Witt observes how brands prioritise marketing for TikTok- be it through creating content suitable for TikTok’s narrow vertical video style, or even appointing ‘Chief TikTok Officers’.
Tiktok’s relative youth as an app also contributes to its capacity to create organic reach, and allows companies to jump on trends and use ‘sounds’ to not only market products, but give consumers insight into a companies brand identity.
Consumers naturally gravitate towards those brands and/or influencers they deem authentic. TikTok influencers such as Mikayla Nogueira, a makeup and skincare creator, along with the personable nature of TikTok as a platform, are extremely well placed to sell you things by recommending and endorsing products. On TikTok, ‘inauthenticity is rabidly sniffed out and policed’, and allows creators to harness the power of traditional world of mouth marketing, and amplify it a thousand times over. It’s easy to see how TikTok gets you to buy absolutely anything- you get the feeling that everyone you see is your best friend recommending you a product that’s totally changed their lives.