Appetite suppressant lollipops and detox teas have been promoted by the companys hand-selected celebrities and Instagram models
The image was arresting: a pretty young woman sucking an” craving suppressant” lollipop splashed across a canvas of millennial pink. Flat Tummy Co, an online retailer that had previously existed almost exclusively within the digital confines of
Instagram, arrived in New York City like Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita updated into a 21 st-century boss babe.
The product for sale- 35 calories worth of flavored cane sugar laced with an extract of saffron that supposedly curbs hunger- triggered immediate backlash for a company that had constructed its brand selling so-called ”
detox” teas. Good Place performer Jameela Jamil called out Kim Kardashian West for promoting the lollipops to her 116 million Instagram adherents (” You terrible and toxic influence on young girl ,” Jamil tweeted ), and more than 100,000 people signed an online petition call for the billboard’s removal.
Flat Tummy Co’s response has been to keep calm and’ gram on. The company is the ultimate Instagram brand success story: a perfect instance of how unregulated social media marketing practices can repackage questionable science in the feelgood trappings of a wellness brand and spin women’s insecurities into cash. And Instagram, which claims to want to be” one of the most kind and safe” places on the internet, has neither the power nor the will to police it.
Indeed, Instagram is such a crucial factor in Flat Tummy Co’s value that when the company was sold for $ 10 m in 2015, its” significant social media presence” was highlighted in a
press release ahead of actual assets or marketings figures. Armies of “influencers”- including Kim, Khloe and Kourtney Kardashian and Kylie and Kris Jenner– promote its products to their followers. Most of the influencers are strictly Instagram-famous: semi-professional models with tens of thousands of female followers who almost always fail to disclose that their endorsements are bought and paid for.
” It’s not a positive message for women, is it? It’s pretty bad ,” said one former Flat Tummy Co employee, who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, about the company’s move into selling appetite suppressants.” The ex-employees are all quite close … Everyone’s just kind of,’ Ugh, we were a part of that .'”
The former employee argued that the outrage toward the Kardashians was misdirected:” Why is no one calling out the company? This isn’t about them. It’s the company that’s the problem .”
‘We thought we’d hit gold’
Flat Tummy Tea
debuted on Instagram on 14 June 2013. It took period for the company to develop its current Instaesthetic: the tea was originally sold in transparent plastic bags that presented off the product’s earthiness; the label was a purplish blue; the typeface had yet to lose its serifs.
But the beginnings of a brand identity were apparent from the outset: aspirational images of beautiful women with tiny stomaches and big butts, before and after shoots of customers’ bloated and deflated bellies, and a studied mix of pseudo-feminist millennial boss bitch posture:
mason jar smoothies, jokes about alcohol, girl power mottoes, an smorgasbord of healthy-ish dishes, junk food and pink workout gear, and the odd inspirational quote from Nelson Mandela.
Laramie Taylor, a prof of communication at UC Davis who research media and idealized bodies, described the body image the brand promotes-” a very flat and toned stomach but the bust and posterior of someone whose body mass index is considerably higher”- as absurdly unrealistic.
” It comes down to this idea of setting expectations for women that are frequently contradictory and impossible to satisfy ,” Taylor said.
The company was a humble affair at first, according to an interview founders Bec and Tim Polmear dedicated to a
Tasmanian business publication in 2017( they declined to speak to the Guardian ). The tea was reportedly formulated to treat Bec Polmear’s” digestion and bloating”, and they fabricated it in their home garage in Australia with ingredients bought from a local herbalist.
The company’s first coup was a social media post by a popular nutrition blogger from New Zealand.” We had 17 orders in an hour and thought we’d struck gold ,” Ted Polmear explained.
From there, the company started paying Instagram influencers and built an algorithm that could predict a model’s marketings potential, Polmear said. By November 2015, the brand had racked up 500,000 Instagram adherents and was sold to Canada’s Synergy CHC Corp for $10 m in cash and stock.
‘You’re not worth that much money’
In interviews with the Guardian, two former Flat Tummy Co employees described the process by which the company flooded Instagram with thousands of paid-for posts.
Each week, they were tasked with identifying and contacting between 150 and 200 new influencers, with the goals and targets of getting 50 to 60 of them on board for a series of four promotional posts each. The ideal model was a woman with at least 100,000 followers.
” They had a rating system, depending on how’ on brand’ you two are ,” explained one of the former employees.” You don’t want someone who already has a six pack. You want a mum who is on her fit journey trying to lose weight after having children .”
African American and Latina models were prized because their posts “converted” well into marketings, while models were downgraded if they were too ” slutty ” on the assumption that their followers would be mostly male.
‘ No one is going to listen to a skinny white daughter say that she bought this tea and it’s great ,’ said a former employee of Flat Tummy Co.
” If someone is a little bit bigger, they get a higher rating than if someone’s skinny ,” one former employee said.” No one is going to a listen to a skinny white girl say that she bought this tea and it’s great .”
Added the other former employee:” If they were sexier, indicated a lot of skin, or depicted too much boobs, “its like”,’ Don’t pay them, try to get free posts .'”
Valentina Barron, a spokeswoman for Flat Tummy Co, told the Guardian by email:” The ambassadors we collaborate with are a mix of all different types of women, because that’s what our customers are. Females can experience bloating, digestive issues or anything else in between no matter what their size .”
The former employees said they were pressured to keep the cost of influencer posts down. While the Kardashians reportedly earn
six-figure fees for their Instagram ads, the influencers that the former employees worked with were” luck to get $25 to $50″, one of the former employees said.” You basically had to cut them down and say,’ You’re not worth that much money .'”