How TikTok products go viral: CeraVe, Sky High Mascara, Squishmallows, Amazon leggings,

A couple months ago, I was hunting for the holy grail. Somewhere within the chaotic aisles of a Target in the suburbs of Washington, DC, was a magic wand that would somehow transform my very short, very thin, very flat, and very blonde eyelashes into the lash equivalent of a mink coat. Granted, most mascara commercials promise as much, but this was different. I’d actually seen it happen, on TikTok.

The video went like this: A girl shows the vast difference between her normal eye and the one anointed with the mascara, then the video cuts to another user whose lashes curl up in the exact same impossible way. The second video acted as confirmation that it wasn’t all a prank, that These Are Not Paid Actors. It was, in other words, like a really good, really short infomercial.

The magic wand’s real name is the Maybelline Lash Sensational Sky High mascara, which comes in a rather demure rosy tube but otherwise looks exactly like the other 12 billion products in any makeup aisle. The only way I knew I’d arrived at the right place was when I came across a devastating scene: Two teenage girls staring at a single empty rack.

“It’s sold out,” one of them moaned, and I understood exactly what “it” was.

Videos tagged with #skyhighmascara have a combined 259 million views on TikTok. That’s a lot!

Here is an incomplete list of products that have become difficult or impossible to buy because of their popularity on TikTok: a mysterious cleaning paste called The Pink Stuff, a specific pair of Aerie leggings and a different pair of Zara jeans, Isle of Paradise tanning spray, Elf concealer, Dr. Jart Cicapair color corrector, Cat Crack catnip, the Prepdeck kitchen organizer, feta cheese (all-encompassing), and an Eos shaving cream that one user promised would “bless your fucking cooch.” My editor often laments that products by her longtime favorite low-cost skincare brand, CeraVe, are constantly sold out because of the company’s exploding popularity on TikTok. Last summer it was almost impossible to find roller skates due to a handful of viral videos of girls speeding through their hometowns.

There’s now so much stuff that’s gone viral on TikTok that people have opened stores dedicated to it: A 15-year-old student opened a store in his local mall called “Viral Trends NY,” which carries omnipresent TikTok doodads like Martinelli’s apple juice and Squishmallows stuffed animals. “Everything in this store is super high demand and you really can’t find it anywhere else except on eBay fully marked up,” he told a local news broadcast; a similar shop also exists in Indiana. Downtown Manhattan has its own “TikTok Block,” where two big TikTokers have opened shops with curated vintage clothing. There is now so much stuff that’s gone viral on TikTok that the factories producing those products have gotten on TikTok and now have a hand in making them go viral in the first place.

This is only the first chapter of the “TikTok made me buy it” phenomenon, referring to the culture of compelling product review videos and the many impossibly stylish people who flaunt their lifestyles on the platform. Though TikTok is still in the testing phase for its in-app shopping feature, its Chinese counterpart Douyin netted a whopping $26 billion of e-commerce transactions within its first year. Currently, TikTok allows certain creators and businesses in the UK and Indonesia to sell products within its TikTok Shop, though the feature doesn’t yet exist in the US. But it’s almost certainly coming. What effect that might have on American consumerism depends on whom you ask.

Say you’re a teenager — or anyone, really — who wants to get very famous, very fast. There are worse places to go than TikTok, the app responsible for the careers of thousands of previously unknown normal people who’ve built up enough of a following to land their own pages on the website Famous Birthdays. What TikTok has done to turn an enormous swath of human beings into microinfluencers, it has also done to the music industry, where many of the top songs currently on the Billboard charts are simply the ones that have gone TikTok viral most recently. Now, the same phenomenon is happening to stuff.

There are a few reasons why TikTok is so adept at blowing up one thing — a song, a beauty product, a trend, a person — very quickly and forgetting about it several days later. The first is its algorithm, which is unmatched at identifying what individual users want to see and serving them more of it, sprinkled with a well-calibrated dose of randomness.

The course of a viral video tends to go like this: TikTok shows it to a handful of people on their For You pages, and if those people engage with it, it’ll show a few more. Videos that break out tend to snowball quite quickly, often in a matter of hours or overnight. Videos that don’t — the vast, vast majority — peter out entirely. That means that when you open the app, what you’re seeing is the culmination of what everyone else has decided to like or engage with, yet, of course, orchestrated by the invisible hand of the ever-changing TikTok algorithm and the people who control it.

The other reason is TikTok’s 60-second time limit: People can watch many more TikToks in the amount of time that they could watch, say, a YouTube review. That also gives it a lower barrier of entry, welcoming more creators onto the platform: To run a YouTube channel, you need equipment and some level of expertise, whereas with TikTok, all you need is your phone. The ability to duet, stitch, and share sounds encourages TikTok’s remix culture, wherein videos can capitalize off of each other’s success.

The prevalence of building off of others’ work has been a boon for a certain type of content: the product test. It was in this sort of video that I was first introduced to the magic mascara, and it turned out that this is how the mascara went viral in the first place, by people reacting to the original video in order to confirm that yes, this mascara was actually magic.

But the first wasn’t quite as spontaneous. Jessica Eid, a 19-year-old at Arizona State, had joined TikTok last fall as a bet with her friends to see who could get the most views. Jessica, explaining the bet in her first TikTok, won. It was about a week later that a Maybelline publicist reached out, asking if they could send her their new mascara and if she’d make a video about what she thought about it. No money was offered. “I was like, ‘Of course, that’s Maybelline, they’re so cool!” Jessica told me. After the video blew up, Jessica says Maybelline paid her in a five-figure deal to use her video in marketing materials for six months.

Jessica is only one example of someone who went viral because they recommended a certain product. If the idea of “influencerhood” is someone who advises you how to spend your time and money by making a certain type of life look enviable, recommendation influencers are the ur-example. The internet is full of them — there are influencers devoted to recommending Madewell jeans, seasonal Trader Joe’s snacks, even cheese plate accouterments. Creators who’ve become adept at the skill of evangelizing have built it into wildly lucrative businesses.

22-year-old Mikayla Nogueira is one such influencer, who, like many people, joined TikTok in March of 2020. Within days, she’d found out that she’d been temporarily laid off from her job at the local Ulta beauty store and that she wouldn’t be able to finish her senior year of college in person. “I needed to find something to do with my time,” she told me.

That month, a particular transformation trend called the catfish challenge — wherein you show your face before and after putting on dramatic makeup — was popular. Mikayla’s first stab at the format blew up. “Once I went viral, I essentially said to myself, ‘Mikayla, this has been your dream your entire life, to teach the world beauty and talk about makeup. This is your moment,” she said. “So I started putting out videos every single day: reviews, tutorials, lifestyle videos, just to see what people would like.”

It turns out that the people really, really liked her product reviews, which were peppered with refreshing honesty and a thick Boston accent that endeared her to viewers. While her expertise at Ulta was in higher-end makeup, her audience begged her to incorporate more accessible products they could find at CVS or Walgreens. “A lot of the viral products we see are drugstore products,” she said. “Drugstore makeup is crushing it right now.” Some popular topics: foundation (“People are always looking for a good foundation”), self-tanner, and anything affordable that allows customers to at least be able to try it…

Read More:How TikTok products go viral: CeraVe, Sky High Mascara, Squishmallows, Amazon leggings,

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