Envy Sells: The Psychology of Instagram Marketing

Envy Sells: The Psychology of Instagram Marketing

As I aimlessly scroll through my Instagram feed, past the endlessly narcissistic #wanderlust and #foodporn snaps I begin to notice some pretty aggressive advertising crammed into my phone’s tiny screen. What triggered my curiosity was how unique this advertising is, nothing like other platforms like Twitter or Facebook, advertisements almost blended in with my feed of food snaps and annoying travel pictures. When Insta first became popular in Europe, I was skeptical about how successful it would perform as a marketing platform. My skepticism was evidently unfounded. 


If I don’t Instagram it, did I even have hot chocolate? 

In recent years, Instagram has seen phenomenal growth, with over 600 million users and over 8 million businesses using the site, (Lister, 2017).  Instagram is evidently an effective marketing tool, with 60% of users saying they have discovered a product through the site and over 120 million users have reported making direct contact with a company based on an advert they saw on Insta.

The increasing number of businesses jumping aboard the heavily filtered gravy train shows no signs of slowing. Research conducted by Nanigans has found that the number of companies advertising on Instagram is rising steadily, (Waber, 2016), pointing to significant marketing success. 

The Power of Envy:

So why is marketing on Insta so successful? My theory and the theory of many others is that is can all be traced back to one single human emotion: envy. As I scroll through Insta I am guaranteed to come across someone’s recent indulgences or gifts. The flood of a certain brand of watches on Christmas day with the tags #boydidgood and #spoiled are my personal favorites. The comments sections are of course usually filled with comments akin to “OMG, so jealous”.


How much envy do we feel while scrolling through Instagram?

The feeling of envy has three parts: we must be confronted with a person who has a greater quality than us, we must desire this quality and finally, we experience some negative feeling as a result, (Burton, 2014). Do we all want to be surprised by a shiny new watch at Christmas? Maybe not originally, but when its put in your face, a tinge of envy is a likely side effect. 

The pain of envy is not caused by a desire for the advantages of another but rather by the frustration caused by our sense of lack, (Buron, 2014). “Why don’t I have a huge spread on the 25th that I can slap a filter onto?” This is far from a nice feeling and can drive consumers towards purchasing the product to make these feelings go away and to rebuild a sense of pride (and of course upload a slightly better composed photo than Sarah did). 

So how can a brand sell envy?


By now readers may note that I find the whole Insta craze a little amusing and I met the idea of “influencers” with some major reservations. Despite my amusement, influencers have a major impact on sales. Influencers are essentially individuals with a large group of followers who promote products based on the deals they get, (Soldsie, 2015).


 Could #Wanderlust be a major marketing tool for travel companies? 

After some reading I quickly discovered that Instagram has its own ecosystem. Although celebrity advertising is commonplace on Instagram, what we might consider typical celebrities don’t have quite as much advertising power as expected on the social media site. Research by Djafarovaa & Rushworth (2017) found that although celebrities on Instagram do influence the purchasing behaviour of young women, “Instafamous” social media posters have a greater effect. This is because the interviewed users found Instafamous users more relatable and credible than traditional celebrities. Being envious of a celebrity may be considered normal and may not really impact users too much, but being envious of an influencer who seems more in reach and similar to ourselves could, hypothetically push consumers harder to buy a product. 

This may be because it is evident right away that a celebrity is being given a hefty cheque to sell skin cream whereas an influencer may be slightly better at hiding this fact. Either way, influencers appear to be a excellent method of driving sales.

Building a Brand Army:

Who hasn’t been mentioned in a comment under an Insta post at some point or another? Many Insta users either knowingly or unknowingly advocate for their favorite brands.


Build your #brandarmy

Previous research has found that consumers on social media are much more active compared to those exposed to traditional media, (Chu 2011; Kozinets et al. 2010 as cited in Kwon et al., 2017). At the touch of a button consumers can like, share, comment and invite connections to engage with a brand. My theory is that this has the advantage of adding familiarity to a brand. If a friend is invested in a brand, it removes any potential anxiety of the unknown. There is a real sense of trust evident. 

What makes a consumer provide a brand with free advertising? Kwon et al., (2017) found that social media advocacy behaviours were influenced by three perceived benefits: self-enhancement, community belonging and delivering benefits to others. So if a brand has enhanced my life, made me feel like I belong to something and I can share this to help others, then I am likely to pass the brand name on. Of course these perceived benefits are mediated by where the brand stands in society and individual factors.

On the other hand it was found that advocacy behaviours are less likely to occur when consumers fear social judgment from others and disapproval of behaviours undertaken as an advocate. Even though I love this brand of cologne, if I think people are going to tell me to get lost, then I won’t exactly jump at the chance to promote a brand.

My tip is that marketers should focus on creating some conversation around their brand that already loyal customers would be willing to pass on to their friends. Promotional offers that benefit not only the loyal customer, but also their friend could be an excellent way to achieve this (for example: 50% off each for referral). 

The Actual Photo:

Envy may be a major motivator on Instagram, but nobody is going to be envious of an obnoxious neon green post that screams “we hate to interrupt your scrolling, but buy this”What makes an photo stand out from the crowd just subtly enough so that it doesn’t cause consumers to think “ugh, another ad” and disengage? Waber (2016) suggests ensuring advertisements fit in with a standard Instagram feed by making them look organic, using minimal branding and sticking to the 20% rule regarding text.


Simplicity is the order of the day

Putting this into practice can take some research. Look at what your target audience is posting and come up with a text minimal, high quality image that stands out just a little bit. This may be through the higher quality or text, but ensuring it doesn’t scream marketing is key.


Instagram marketing has skyrocketed as a marketing platform, with 70.7% of US companies using the site to advertise, out taking Twitter for the first time, (Lister, 2017). It is forecasted that mobile ad revenues from Instagram will reach $2.81 Billion this year, accounting for 10% of Insta’s parent company Facebook’s global ad revenues, (Lister, 2017). It is uncertain how long this upward trend will last, but for now, Instagram is #marketinggoals.


Burton, N. (2014). The Psychology and Philosophy of EnvyPsychology Today. Retrieved 20 August 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201408/the-psychology-and-philosophy-envy

Djafarova, E., & Rushworth, C. (2017). Exploring the credibility of online celebrities’ Instagram profiles in influencing the purchase decisions of young female users. Computers In Human Behavior68, 1-7. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.11.009

Kwon, E., Ratneshwar, S., & Thorson, E. (2017). Consumers’ Social Media Advocacy Behaviors Regarding Luxury Brands: An Explanatory Framework. Journal Of Interactive Advertising17(1), 13-27. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15252019.2017.1315321

Lister, M. (2017). 33 Mind-Boggling Instagram Stats & Facts for 2017Wordstream.com. Retrieved 20 August 2017, from http://www.wordstream.com/blog/ws/2017/04/20/instagram-statistics

Soldsie. (2015). Instagram Psychology: How Consumer Envy Can Drive SalesSoldsie. Retrieved 21 August 2017, from https://new.soldsie.com/blog/instagram-psychology-how-consumer-envy-can-drive-sales/

Waber, A. (2017). Instagram Advertising: What’s Working?Marketing Land. Retrieved 20 August 2017, from http://marketingland.com/instagram-advertising-whats-working-157977


Managerial Psychopaths: A Bad Investment

Managerial Psychopaths: A Bad Investment

We often think of psychopaths as dangerous criminals locked up and kept behind bite masks. While some psychopaths are indeed incarcerated many remain in society and in very successful careers. Psychopaths are often attracted to positions of power with management being a prime example as it gives them access to groups of people they can control to amuse themselves and exploit for personal gain. The prevalence of psychopathy in leadership positions is estimated to be four times higher than in the general population, (Whitbourne, 2015) which paints a grim picture for employees and organisations alike.

I am not for a second saying that managerial positions are overrun with psychopaths but rather highlighting the risk these people pose to organisations when they do get in the door. Many managers are kind, caring and effective but when they are not problems arise and fast. The best and most effective managers will earn employee’s trust, respect employee’s time and use a consistent style, (Lipman, 2013). Poor or nasty management styles have been shown to majorly impact motivation, (Bianca, 2016) which in turn destroys productivity. Management is the backbone of a healthy, happy and productive workplace. To clarify once more I am not saying that every nasty manager is a psychopath; they could just be a nasty person who was put in the wrong position through poor selection. The focus of this post is however on when psychopaths are managing employees, why this is organisational suicide and what to do about it.

The term psychopath is no longer used in psychology or medicine and has been replaced by the term Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) but for ease I will continue using the term corporate psychopath as it is most commonly used to describe this phenomenon.

 How to Spot a Corporate Psychopath:

Spotting a corporate psychopath can be hard as these individuals use their superficial charm to rise through the ranks quickly and go unnoticed due to the hectic nature of modern organisations, (Boddy, 2011). Thankfully research has isolated a few common characteristics. Cable (2013) & Eichner (2014) have put together excellent lists of warning signs to look out for.

These individuals may be likable, often too likeable, which can fool superiors and leave them with an attitude that they can do no wrong. Behind this charming façade can be a lack of empathy, a pleasure in undermining others, a love of causing conflict and confusion and taking credit for the achievements of others. Character assassination, blackmail and seduction are also commonplace. Attempts to correct these behaviours may expose the individual’s true colours very quickly. When corrected, these individuals tend to shift blame onto others (such as subordinates) in a seamless fashion, leaving superiors confused and duped. One often covert sign is outward displays of emotion followed by an immediate return to normal, which is possible due to psychopath’s inability to feel emotions properly or at all: returning to normal after crying is easy because it was all an act. Other things to look out for include fleeting friendships (which end once the individual gets what they want), constant requests to take into account extenuating circumstances for poor performance and unnecessary risk taking.

Any of these signs are red flags for organisations. Let’s see why.

 The Cost of Psychopaths:

One of the most common behaviours psychopaths in the workplace engage in is bullying. Boddy, (2011) found that organisations with no corporate psychopaths showed a bullying incidence of 54.7% whereas those with corporate psychopaths showed a 93.3% incidence. This unacceptable behaviour is expensive and is estimated to cost organisations €3 billion per year, (Harrold, 2015). This is due to a number of reasons such as high turnover, sick days due to stress and legal repercussions, (Parris, 2015). Psychopaths leading teams won’t do your profits any good it seems.

Psychopathic managers also breed toxic behaviours into employees with subordinates learning negative behaviours from these leaders (Boddy, 2013). This makes sense as managers are in a position where they are supposed to be setting an example for others to follow: unethical behaviour breeds unethical behaviour. Unethical behaviour can lead to legal issues, reduced productivity and a bad name for your organisation.

Not only do corporate psychopaths damage those they manage, they also directly damage organisational performance as they themselves may not be anything special and may underperform, (Mathieu et al., as cited in Whitbourne, 2015). Using superficial charm and manipulation these individuals may just convince organisations that they are performing at their best. A tailored suit and an easy smile go a long way. When things do go wrong and the blame is pointed at the psychopath they will easily find someone else to blame, and you will most likely be tricked into believing it, (Eichner, 2014).

If these behaviours are allowed to go unchecked employees will begin to talk and quite soon the reputation (and success) of an organisation can be in tatters, especially if the organisation relies on public consumption, (Fowler, 2012). A reputation for bullying, poor performance and unethical behaviour is unlikely to attract consumers and investors. This risk of destruction by word of mouth has no doubt risen significantly in the age of social media and can sink an organisation in a very short period of time.

Protecting your Organisation:

A central problem is that organisations seeking managers are attracted to intelligent, driven, energetic, charming and charismatic individuals who can influence others which are all traits commonly displayed by organisational psychopaths, (Babiak as cited in Eichner, 2014). So how can organisations separate psychopaths from those who are genuinely all of the above? Here are some tips which may be useful to organisations when selecting leaders:

Stay Informed:

Information is power right? Recruitment and HR teams need to be made aware of the above warning signs. Although it is unlikely recruiters or HR teams are psychologists or physicians some education on what to look out for may just be a stitch in time.

Prevention is better than the Cure:

Psychometric screening may detect anti-social traits during the recruitment phase. Inclusion of simple tests in standard batteries may stop these individuals from reaching positions of power. One of the most famous and used tests is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), (Hare, 2003). Another short (20 item) test is the B Scan 360, (Mathieu, Hare, Jones, Babiak, & Neumann, 2013) which is specifically tailored to sniff out workplace psychopaths.


What are employees saying about leaders? The human ear is frustratingly underused in organisations. Remember that employees may see these traits on a daily basis and may be able to inform HR better than anyone else. Turning a blind eye to reports when they do come in makes employees feel undervalued and I don’t need to highlight what that does to productivity. Listen, investigate and act.


A psychopath is leading your employees, demoralising them and draining your organisation. I think the solution is pretty obvious: remove them from the organisation. Keep in mind that this may not be a walk in the park: psychopaths are experts in lying and manipulation and may convince organisations not to dismiss them. Rehabilitation is difficult when working with psychopaths; in fact it is one of the hardest conditions to treat, (Berger, 2014). Sensitivity training run by the HR department will be of little use here.

In conclusion: if years of Hollywood productions have taught us nothing else it should be that psychopaths are bad news. Organisations can become a playground for these individuals quite easily if nothing is done. A very expensive playground.



Berger, F. (2014). Antisocial personality disorder. National Institute of Health. Retrieved 17 June 2016, from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000921.htm

Boddy, C. (2011). Corporate Psychopaths, Bullying and Unfair Supervision in the Workplace. Journal Of Business Ethics, 100(3), 367-379. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10551-010-0689-5

Boddy, C. (2013). Corporate Psychopaths, Conflict, Employee Affective Well-Being and Counterproductive Work Behaviour. J Bus Ethics, 121(1), 107-121. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10551-013-1688-0

Cable, J. (2013). How to Spot a Psychopath in Your Workplace. Ehstoday.com. Retrieved 17 June 2016, from http://ehstoday.com/safety/nsc-2013-how-spot-psychopath-your-workplace

Eichner, B. (2014). 11 Ways to Spot a Psychopath at Work. RecruitLoop Blog. Retrieved 17 June 2016, from http://recruitloop.com/blog/11-ways-to-spot-a-psychopath-at-work/

Fowler, J. (2012). Financial Impacts Of Workplace Bullying. Investopedia. Retrieved 15 June 2016, from http://www.investopedia.com/financial-edge/0712/financial-impacts-of-workplace-bullying.aspx

Hare, R. D. (2003). Manual for the Revised Psychopathy Checklist (2nd ed.). Toronto, ON, Canada: Multi-Health Systems.

Harrold, M. (2015). Workplace bullying costs money, trust and can even ruin lives. The Irish Times. Retrieved 15 June 2016, from http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/health-family/workplace-bullying-costs-money-trust-and-can-even-ruin-lives-1.2141818

Holt, S. & Marques, J. (2011). Empathy in Leadership: Appropriate or Misplaced? An Empirical Study on a Topic that is Asking for Attention. J Bus Ethics, 105(1), 95-105. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10551-011-0951-5

Lipman, V. (2013). 5 Things the Best Managers Do — and Don’t Do. Psychology Today. Retrieved 15 June 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mind-the-manager/201309/5-things-the-best-managers-do-and-dont-do

Mathieu, C., Hare, R., Jones, D., Babiak, P., & Neumann, C. (2013). Factor structure of the B-Scan 360: A measure of corporate psychopathy. Psychological Assessment, 25(1), 288-293. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0029262

Parris, T. (2015). Business Costs of Bullying in the Workplace. Overcomebullying. Retrieved 15 June 2016, from http://www.overcomebullying.org/costs-of-bullying.html

Whitbourne, S. (2015). 20 Signs That Your Boss May Be a Psychopath. Psychology Today. Retrieved 15 June 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201509/20-signs-your-boss-may-be-psychopath