The Science of Selfies: Why Narcissism Sells in 2015

Business.com / Marketing Strategy / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Millennials aren't the only ones posting selfies; they're growing in popularity with people of all ages and marketers are taking note.

Millennials aren't the only ones who are reveling in the selfie. What's rooted in this increased need for affirmation, and how does it translate to branding, business and the way you communicate with customers?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever taken a selfie. Now raise your hand if you’ve ever posted one online. If you’re telling the truth, you’re one of the 26% of Americans who have shared with the internet a photo of yourself—that you took yourself. Millennials are the biggest fans, with around 55% percent of people between the ages of 18 and 33 reporting that they’ve done the deed.

Related Article: Social Media Marketing World: 8 Key Social Media Trends for 2015

Selfie Science

Even though it’s one of those words that sounds ridiculous when you say it over and over again, the selfie has become part of life. Once a novel concept, taking a photo of your own face or whole body to share with the world is something so commonplace that it’s a subset marketing strategy. The #selfie campaign is an everyday occurance, what's even more shocking: it's working.

Their elders, bemoaning the perceived narcissism of the millennial generation, point to selfies as exhibit A. It’s all about them, they say. They’re self-centered, unconcerned about the world in front of the camera. Indeed, a few recent studies in the new “science of selfies” showed that people who exhibit characteristics of narcissism are more likely to use selfies as a tool for expression and headpats.

But it’s not just the millennials. Those studies included people up to age 47, and with baby boomers (ages 51-69) considered the largest age group in America, they’re bound to get caught up in selfie fever. After all, they are considered the “Me Generation.” 

Gen X users (ages 34-54) are halfway between, with only 24% admitting to having posted a selfie. I guess they’re too busy making money or experiencing the existential dread of middle age to spend much time applying the perfect filters.

After watching the trend evolve to the point of putting people in physical danger, internet journalist Nicholas White wrote a scathing sendup.  “We are watching the selfie jump the shark in real time...It is not our true selves that we share. It is a manufactured self, an artificial ontology.”

In other words, like it or not, people of all ages want to look good, connect and receive affirmation in a world that is increasingly less personal and more digital. Smartphones and the internet just make it a whole lot easier to do all of those things.

Related Article: Tweeting About Adult Diapers? Nothing's Off Limits in Social Media Marketing

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em—and Give ‘Em a Coupon


By March of 2013, over 35 million photos were shared on Instagram with the hashtag #selfie. Marketing 101 has taught us that ads with people’s faces in them do better than those without, and Instagram stats show us it’s the same with user-generated content—those pictues are liked more often. Though it took a while, big business finally caught on and figured out a way to make the selfie work for them.

That can be a good thing for all of us, because the #selfie campaign just might make a user less self-centered. When a brand incentivizes customers to take a selfie with its product by doing a giveaway or offering a coupon in return for a Facebook or Instagram share, they take the focus off of the self and put it onto the creative inclusion of the product in the image. Consider any #GoPro #selfie share: no one’s going to care about what you look like in that shot. They’re just interested in seeing you do something remarkable.

It’s brilliant marketing. Take something people already love to do and give them an assignment. Small businesses can utilize the labor, creativity and network of their customers to get eyeballs on their products without a big production or ad spend.

The product doesn’t even have to be in the image. With the right message and successful consumer engagement, no product placement is even necessary. Users will share selfies, a brand social media handle, and a custom hashtag for the chance to win (see People Magazine’s #PeopleNaturalBeauty contest or Lancome’s Project #bareselfie).

Related Article: Millennials Give Business Intelligence a Big Boost

Show Yourselfie

Posting selfies of your team on your company’s website and social media channels could be useful by revealing the human faces behind a logo or adding some personality to a corporate image. However, proceed with caution. We all know how one little mistake can turn social media against your business. As with anything your company puts out into the world, you want it to be positive: a selfie snap of your corporate responsibility VP participating in a road race for charity would be great. A group selfie of your sales team on a yacht in Hawaii during an incentive trip is just showing off.  

For larger companies, a selfie contest can promote healthy competition and team building within the organization. Central Arkansas Water created a public outreach campaign, in which the agency ran an internal contest in which employees shared information and creative use of selfies featuring water. The best were shared on the organization’s Facebook page for customers to view.

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