Annoying ads and problematic products: My opinion on TikTok Shop

“Click the link in bio” is a phrase that no longer exists in the world of TikTok. In September 2023, Gen Z’s favorite social media app unveiled a new way to shop online, and quite literally, shopping has never been easier. With that ease comes a mix of good and bad, though I must admit to some hesitance in using the word “good” to describe TikTok Shop. While TikTok Shop has boosted views for small businesses and increased their profits, long-term success is a rare occurrence. Rather, those who have benefitted from the introduction of this new platform are conglomerates in the fast fashion industry. The structure of TikTok and TikTok Shop has allowed for the platform's impressionable young audience to spend money on shabby products at the touch of a finger. And further still, the incessant waves of advertisements that have flooded the For You Page, drowning out other content, have negatively affected the platform’s user experience.

My personal issue with TikTok and TikTok Shop is that they have been abusing the For You Page—the main page of the platform—in order to boost sales. I can’t speak for every TikTok user, but I know that the majority of the time that I spend on the app is just me scrolling past advertisements or videos with product placements. I see ads for countless brands on my For You Page, but there is one that is more frequent than the rest: a brand by the name Bloom Nutrition. This brand sells drink mixes which claim to provide users with nutrients and vitamins, and alleges their concoction can boost gut health, while still tasting good. Bloom Nutrition has hired so many different creators from so many different industries that even those who don’t make health-related content whatsoever have created videos promoting their drink. For instance, in these sponsored videos, the creators could be sharing their thoughts on some upcoming political campaign before making a random and abrupt segue about being thirsty. They would then transition into a shot of them pulling out a glass of water and their Bloom mix to make themselves a drink. This constant and indiscriminate bombardment of Bloom advertisements, of course, annoyed TikTok users, so they had to resort to stealthier tactics. Creators then no longer explicitly talked about the drink; they just subtly placed it somewhere in the background of their video to expose the product to users. It got so crazy that TikTok users started playing a game: “Is this a normal TikTok, or is it a Bloom ad?” An insidious element to all this is the difficulty users have in differentiating normal videos from videos that are glorified advertisements. Sometimes the only way that you can figure out whether a video is an advertisement or not is the tiny “#ad” at the end of their caption or the “Eligible for Commission” sticker above their username. This inconspicuous labeling means that unless you are actively remaining vigilant, you will miss the sign marking the video as an advertisement.

Regretfully, I did fall victim to the Bloom trend. As someone who struggles with gut health and has a few nutrient deficiencies, I figured that this drink mix would be a great option for me. I would be able to get all the extra nutrients I needed in just one glass of a—supposedly—delicious drink! But when the product arrived, I was utterly disappointed. I ordered the most popular flavor of the greens mix, only to realize that it was not what everyone had been hyping it up to be. Not only was it hard to stomach because of its…shall we say…interesting… taste, I also saw no changes in my gut health. I soon stopped forcing myself to drink it, and the product has since been sitting on a shelf in my cabinet for months. After my poor experience with the drink, I saw countless other Bloom consumers uploading their videos onto TikTok detailing the same shortcomings.

Bloom is a brand that started as a small business then skyrocketed to popularity because of its incessant advertising on TikTok, but this hasn’t always been the case. Many other small businesses have gained a lot of traction through TikTok, but since the app is constantly changing the kinds of content that it promotes, presumably to attain user attention, countless new products are exposed to the public eye every day. As such, a lot of the fame that comes from TikTok virality doesn’t last long. This is especially prevalent if the small business cannot keep up with the influx of new orders or if their products don’t live up to the expectations of the buyers. In the cases where businesses miraculously manage to stay relevant, their social media traction might not necessarily equal sales. A lot of viewers who come across small businesses on TikTok don’t end up purchasing the product. This is because these types of shops tend to have higher prices because their products take much more time and effort to produce, and they can’t achieve the low costs of production large corporations can. Since TikTok’s primary audience is fairly young, a large portion of that demographic would probably opt for cheaper alternatives. To this, TikTok Shop once again enters the equation to solve that issue—well, sort of. TikTok Shop began providing a 30 percent off discount, as well as free shipping, for people’s first orders on the platform. This discount was not introduced solely for the use of small businesses, but it ended up benefiting them immensely. It effectively allows people to purchase those more expensive products sold by small businesses at a lower price, while still providing the sellers with the full value of their product. Though this marketing tactic is great for the short term, it is not so great for the long term. Rather than promoting brands by showing the rationale for purchasing their products, TikTok promotes by telling users to buy the products because of how much they would be saving with the sale. However, the one-time use deal nature of this marketing strategy dissuades any possibility of brand loyalty. After that first purchase, users will have to pay full price for the products from then on out, which is much less appealing to the average user. In fact, now that we are months after the introduction of the discount, small business sales are plateauing and many users are also making this exact realization.

The biggest issue that I’ve noticed with the introduction of TikTok Shop is the influx of fast fashion present on the app. Many of the products that have been gaining popularity on TikTok Shop are dupes of famous clothing brands or items that chase the latest clothing trend. Unfortunately, most of those items are produced by fast fashion companies. For a full understanding of TikTok’s involvement in fast fashion, we need to examine TikTok’s app economy before the creation of their shopping platform. Many fashion content creators on TikTok used, and still continue, to use “shopping hauls” as a part of their influencer brand. If you are interested in fashion (like myself), your “For You Page” will likely be covered in videos like that. TikTok’s algorithm, which incentivizes creators to post videos every day to stay relevant, encourages fashion influencers to keep pace with the algorithm through the use of fast fashion. Shopping haul reviews of fast fashion companies like “Shein Haul”, “What I Bought at H&M”, “Uniqlo Lookbook”, and so many other similar titles make up the bulk of fashion content on TikTok. Since these fast fashion giants are the only companies that can keep up with the swift trend cycle of TikTok, many creators rely on fast fashion for new items to review. However, with the introduction of TikTok Shop nowadays, those same video titles from before now read something along the lines of “TikTok Shop Haul”, “What I Bought on TikTok Shop”, “TikTok Shop Lookbook”, etc. This is, of course, still fast fashion that’s just been repackaged with a different title.

Fast fashion is not a problem unique to TikTok; it is a problem that has plagued the younger generations since the rise in popularity of brands like Shein, H&M, and Uniqlo. The idea that fast fashion is bad has been circulating for a long time now, but it has not been taken seriously by many. Most consumers know that purchasing clothes from fast fashion companies isn’t the best idea, but a majority choose to ignore that sentiment to get cheaper clothes. Or they might think, “Ordering one more time won't hurt, will it?” However, since these mindsets are held by so many people, those businesses grow larger every day. The reliance of synthetic fabrics is what particularly makes the fast fashion industry so detrimental to our society.

I personally have not purchased any clothing items off of TikTok Shop, but the only reason that I have not is because I have seen other people’s reviews of the items. I have seen countless scathing videos of creators reviewing fashion items that they had bought on the platform. Jewelry that turns your skin green, sweaters that are falling apart at the seams, shoes that break after one wear, and so much more. Though I am sure that there are some items on TikTok Shop that are good quality, from what I have seen, it is a safe bet to say that most are not. I have purchased clothes in the past from fast fashion brands, before I knew of the negatives of the industry, so I have first-hand experience with the downfalls of products made out of synthetics materials. Synthetic fabrics are coarse, stiff, and just generally subpar. Even still, a lot of those products are thrown away and end up being burned in a landfill somewhere because of their poor quality. It’s at the landfill where an even bigger issue arises. Synthetic fabrics are made out of chemicals that are similar to those that comprise petroleum. Therefore, when those fabrics get burned they release those chemicals into the atmosphere. But this is not the end of the negative environmental effects of synthetic fabrics. Synthetic clothes also release little bits of fabric into the air as we wear them, and as of yet we have no idea what effect these have on our bodies and the environment. The only thing we can be certain of is that it can’t be good.

Boosting horrible production practices, pseudo-promoting small businesses, and just being overly pushy, TikTok Shop has stained the reputation of TikTok itself. No matter how convenient the shopping platform is or how many businesses it has made viral, I am positive that it isn’t worth the negative side-effects that it has brought along. Now, if only we could get corporations to care… The past has proven that to be unlikely, but who knows—there's a first time for everything, right?