Making Millions on TikTok — an Ad-Based Revenue Model, Explained

In his book Promotional Culture: Advertising, Ideology and Symbolic Expression, Andrew Wernick (Emeritus Professor of Cultural Studies and Sociology at Trent University) claimed that in terms of content, “the most obvious effect of media dependency on advertising is to create a situation where not only are ads designed with available advertising opportunities in mind, but the non-advertising component itself, i.e., the space between the ads, is also fashioned to suit the ads within its space”.

Had Andrew Wernick made his arguments regarding promotional culture and messaging in 2021 instead of two decades prior in 1991, most of his statements would not seem to be anachronistic, much less irrelevant. This seems to be the case when comparisons are drawn alongside current trends in social media platforms and content creation, particularly in the realm of Tik Tok “influencers”. This statement suggests that content production is often drowned in dense advertising — a notion not very far-fetched from the business model of the highest paid social media personalities on Tik Tok, and in several cases YouTube and Instagram too. In a podcast episode with The Vergecast back in 2020, guest speaker Taylor Lorenz, the internet culture reporter for The New York Times, weighed in on the repercussions on the creator economy should Tik Tok ever be banned, especially in the United States.

Since as of the moment Tik Tok does not directly pay its creators unlike Instagram and Facebook, Lorenz addresses how the top “TikTokers” monetize their content, which is “through basically ad deals and selling merch and sometimes different app download things where you have a “link in bio” and they get a certain amount of money”.

This speaks directly to Wernick’s notion that there is an opportunistic intention behind ad creation and placement into our media, which in the current context creates a codependent relationship between creators and advertisers. Moreover, Lorenz accentuates the role of third parties, stating, “brand deals and direct monetization through things like merch are kind of the main ways that [popular TikTokers are] making these millions”, further reinforcing Wernick’s idea that promotional messages are embedded in the spaces within the typical ads as well, emerging within shopping hauls, product placements, and brand accounts tagged in an influencer’s post. While this has become a viable means of income for some, such approaches become susceptible to taking up a more destructive guise in the larger context.

Wernick also warns that where affluence grows, so does the advertising industry’s need to adopt “campaign strategies which, with the rise of demographics and psychographics, have become ever more sophisticated and statistically precise”.

Bonus Take — Fyre Festival: A Hot Disaster

The conception of the Fyre Festival disaster was borne out of that very notion but specifically in regards to Instagram, with its co-founder rapper Ja Rule bringing in some of its most elite clientele as a result of his own network of supermodels, musical artists, and other socialites. Billy McFarland and Ja Rule, along with investor funding, financed these media personalities to endorse the festival, snowballing into more groups of influencers spreading word about this mismanaged product to millions of their own followers. McFarland and Ja Rule became more preoccupied with their product’s image and endorsement over its quality or maintenance, and because they could not deliver as per the inflated representations of their advertising, it incurred incredible financial losses for them as well as of their countless customers.

This was an example of how no amount of perfectly crafted and obscenely funded advertising, or in Wernick’s words “sophisticated and statistically precise” could make up for the limitations of an underperforming product.

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