If you’ve found yourself roaming popular tourist destinations in LA this past week, you may have come across a vending machine urging you to swipe your credit card to buy a candy-shaped box of “like & likes,” “witty captions,” or “DM sliders.” Pay $10 USD and you can buy 1,000 fake Instagram followers for your profile. Or you can purchase a “hashtag 8 ball” that tells you whether to post the caption you’re thinking of or not.
The trippy traveling display, currently at the Ace Hotel in Downtown LA, is a marketing promotion for a new documentary released on iTunes this week, Social Animals , which follows the highs and lows of three teenagers aspiring for Instagram fame over two years. The well-received film premiered at SXSW in March, and follows a rising daredevil street photographer from Queens named Humza Deas; aspiring fashion mogul Kaylyn Slevin; and a Ohio student Emma Crocket, who represents those of us just trying to exist in today’s social media minefield.
Over the past two days, the movie’s marketing team, Conscious Minds, has placed two vending machines in popular LA tourist locations like Venice Beach, Melrose, and the downtown Walt Disney Concert Area for a few hours at a time, prompting onlookers to take pictures with it. According to Social Animals producer Blake Heal, they’ve purchased over 100 of its products, which are sometimes pure jokes and other times actual Instagram currency packaged in a silly way. For the latter, the buyer DMs a code to the Social Animals Instagram page and the marketing team sources them followers and likes from websites like buzzoid and igramfollower.
The twist is that the profits are going to non-profit Reboot and Recover, an organization that seeks to provide education and resources to prevent social media addictions and cyberbullying. They also get a copy of the film, which producers are hoping will help buyers think more critically about the culture they’re consumed by. One of the machines, for example, is heading for San Francisco, where it will be placed in front of Instagram and Facebook headquarters and other locations where it’s message might pack more of a punch.
Some of the products for sale are clearly making fun of those of us who do a little too much for the ‘gram. For example, the $12.99 USD “Helping Hand” is a prosthetic “bae hand” you can hold in pictures to make it look like you’re taken, while the “Thumb spa” is for when you need a scrolling break: it’s literally a thumb-sized robe, mini cucumbers and lotion. But some of the most popular items at the vending machine have been selling likes and followers, for which there is a very real market that Instagram has allegedly been trying to be more vigilant about policing in recent years, though in an interview, Heal told me he thinks Instagram is more focused on large followings. “I don’t think Instagram is actually cracking down on everyday people as much as they say,” he explained. “They’re focused on influencers who are false advertising having a lot of followers.”
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A similar, more straightforward, Instagram vending machine in Russia made headlines in 2017, but this one leaves it to visitors to figure out that the whole thing is making fun of them. A row in the middle of the machine sells a “product” that advertises Social Animals with a description that reads, “If you couldn’t make it to therapy this week, or haven’t realized you need it yet, watch the film that will enlighten you on your own behavior.“
The documentary it’s advertising is a cautionary tale about people who get too wrapped up in the Instagram world, but, as you might expect, the vending machine’s extra-witty “products” are very picture worthy. This means even if people buy items that are clearly making fun of influencers, they’re still likely to share it in some way, proving the point that they are attracted to Instagram-ready trinkets. Why would you buy one if not to share it in a photo or in person for a different kind of social currency? Some items may not literally buy you likes or comments but it could get you those things if you choose to gram them. You can be critical of Instagram on Instagram. You can even adopt an online brand that’s all about being an “in the moment” kind of person, perhaps someone that promotes meditation or scenic moments in nature. On another level, the creators of the vending machine are engaging people in real life but still beholden to using their social media savvy to draw in an audience.
There have been other projects that move criticism of internet phenomenons into the real world; a recent experiment by the Columbia Journalism Review took fake headlines from the internet and placed them on fake newspapers on newsstands in New York. If pedestrians opened one, they’d find a pamphlet inside explaining how consumers can spot and avoid fake news the next time around. But that example also highlights the trouble with these kind of experiments—how effective are they, if it’s likely someone could feel annoyed the fake newspaper was on the shelf in the first place or find the pamphlet condescending? Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that someone obsessed enough with Instagram to buy 1,000 fake followers would suddenly see a new, positive perspective when they realize the machine is making fun of them. And there’s always the possibility that some could buy products to sincerely boost their profile, especially through the anonymity of their website.
To its credit, Social Animals, has generally been positively received as a compassionate non-judgmental look at the struggles and triumphs of its three leads. Director Jonathan Ignatius takes the film beyond the way teens use Instagram to also incorporate why their hobbies and backgrounds have lead them to care deeply about the topics they’re known for online. One gets the sense that rising photographer Deas would still be passionate about his photos if Instagram never existed, and, likewise, that Slevin would still have an eye for entrepreneurship. This light touch means the tone comes across as less finger-wagging than it could when it does start exposing the dark side of Instagram, like the cruel comments popular influencers recieve and the anxiety of feeling like an outcast online.
It’s no surprise the Instagram vending machine went a lot further with its commentary than the nuanced film it’s designed to promote. The marketers behind movie campaigns are notorious for playing into elaborate gimmicks, like when Deadpool 2 created a fake Tinder account, holiday cards, and an ad campaign that placed their characters in posters for other movies. Or when The Dark Knight Rises sent fans in 300 global cities on a hunt to take a picture of Batman graffiti that could gain them access to the movie’s third trailer. But Social Animals’ Instagram vending machines are still noteworthy, for their meta commentary on the subject it’s advertising, using the incentives of our current culture to sneakily direct money toward dismantling it. The machine proves the necessity of its film, and also the inescapability of social media’s influence on every way we communicate, including in person.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.