Opinion

QVC was ahead of its time

'Shoppable' videos on Tiktok and Instagram are a 2020s take on shopping channels' transparent hawking

There is a particular aesthetically-pleasing stovetop pan that shows up in my Instagram feed all the time. My yoga teacher's sister, a full-time influencer, loves hers. I've impulsively reached the check-out page for it more times than I'd care to admit, having carefully selected between colors with names like "zest" and "sage" and "spice," all while refusing to be deterred by its fussy list of "care & use" rules.

Here's the real kicker though: I don't cook.

But catch me at the right moment, in the right mood, maybe on a payday afternoon, and hey, maybe I do need a (totally redundant) pan after all. That's exactly what social media companies like Pinterest, Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat are hoping will happen, anyway, as they collectively embrace "shoppable" live videos — a sort of 2020s take on home shopping channels like QVC and HSN.

That comparison might not sound like a compliment, but at a time when everything on social media is becoming shopping, I actually don't mind the transparent hawking. In fact, I find it refreshing.

HSN and QVC both began broadcasting in the 1980s, about a decade before Jeff Bezos founded Amazon. And aside from a few rough years during the Great Recession, these home shopping channels have proven surprisingly resilient and, in this new phase of social media consumption, ahead of their time. "QVC and HSN had one of their best years ever during the pandemic in 2020, bringing in $11.5 billion for QVC Inc.," Axios reported Tuesday. Even the most resolute penny-pinchers can be lured, despite the channels' obvious sales pitches. The secret, The Atlantic explained in 2010, is that "QVC is expert at creating what consumer psychologists call 'parasocial relationships' — bonds that tickle our subconscious in many of the ways that real friendships do."

Social media influencers cultivate parasocial relationships, too. Like QVC hosts, they put a trusted face behind a product, cutting through the noise online. "People are compelled to spend more freely if they feel like they're being recommended a brand or product with authenticity," Tanya Chen wrote recently for BuzzFeed News' creator economy newsletter, "Please Like Me." "That's why influencers tend to prefer to shill products they naturally like and use." It's a method right out of the home shopping playbook: "QVC hosts usually work in a team, with either a product spokesperson or another host," The Atlantic story said. "That fosters what one spokesperson I talked to called the 'over the backyard fence' feeling of QVC broadcasts." 

That feeling is incredibly valuable because there's a growing sense that everything becoming shopping is bad. "Unlike consumers in China, who view shopping as a hobby, consumerism in America is a sort of passive activity," Vox's The Goods explains. "We are programmatically encountering must-have products on our feeds without searching for them." At times it can even be unclear when we're being sold something, which doesn't feel good.

That's why the transparency of open shilling is actually nice. There's something shady about intending to use social media to check on your friends only to end up with an impulsively-purchased National Parks T-shirt. But with QVC — and its modern iteration, those "shoppable" live videos — you're knowingly opting into a sales pitch. Yes, you can still randomly stumble onto a home shopping channel on TV and, before you know it, end up with a Baby Shark costume. And yes, exploiting impulsive shoppers is a part of the TV model; QVC's "easy pay" installment system is the forerunner of Afterpay.

But for the most part, shopping QVC or an Instagram sales video is a conscious choice. That is, you know QVC is a channel devoted to selling you things. It's not coy. The whole concept is that shopping is fun and escapist, even (sometimes especially) when we don't buy anything. By the same token, no one who sets a reminder for a Pinterest show called "Buy This" gets blindsided by its premise.

That sense of agency is absent from much of online shopping now. Click on an Instagram pan one time and it will follow you around the internet in tantalizing ads forever. Former reality TV stars will try to sell you FabFitFun subscriptions when you just want nosy updates on their dating lives. A lip-syncing app pushes you to refinance a mortgage you don't even have. At least with blatant hawking, you get to opt in. The experience feels more like window shopping at a mall (remember those?) and less like stumbling into a timeshare pitch at the hotel where you're staying on vacation. 

There's still plenty of cause to complain about our culture of gross over-consumption. But the QVCification of social media is among its lesser evils.

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