How laxative teas took over Instagram, one $250,000 celebrity endorsement at a time
Jillian Trigg, a nutritionist from Vancouver, joined Instagram in April of 2012. She had struggled with an eating disorder as a teenager, and was now turning to social media as a source of inspiration and comfort. She posted fitness photos, protein bar recipes, and other health-related images.
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A few months later, requests for sponsored posts from brands of all kinds began to trickle in. Among those getting in touch with Trigg were companies that sold tea promising to detoxify your body; they were called teatoxes. First, brands reached out through email, and then through Instagram itself, once direct messaging was introduced.
"The emails all kind of read the same," says Trigg. "It was something like, ‘Hey, we noticed you're in good shape and we think you'd be a great promoter for our brand. Here's a link to our tea website, let us know if you'd like to post.'"
Trigg was initially intrigued. She was already an ambassador for Viva Health, a Vancouver-based natural skincare line, and AboutTime, which sells protein powder — brands whose products she could get behind. But after going to the teatox companies' websites, she found little information about the teas themselves. Instead, she saw photo after photo of "girls who fit the criteria of being young, good-looking, and in shape, holding the tea."
Trigg declined the various requests from the tea brands, but many, many others have not. If you spend any time scrolling through Instagram, odds are you've seen teatox posts, whether they be from that hot trainer at your gym, the beauty blogger you know from YouTube, or the random girl you went to high school with who somehow managed to rack up an impressive social media following.
Then there are the actual celebrities, from A-list to D-list, that promote them. Nicki Minaj and Britney Spears are on the teatox train, as are Hilary Duff, Coco, Lea Michele, and Amber Rose. A good portion of the Kardashian-Jenner clan promotes these brands:Kylie, Khloe, Kourtney, Scott. Celebrities looking to get back in the spotlight and/or make a quick buck like Snooki and Lindsay Lohan shill for tea. So do social media stars likeBrock O'Hurn and those in the Bachelor universe like Andi Dorfman.
The teatox industry is enormous, with hundreds of brands from all over the world selling their products — and paying as much as a quarter of a million dollars per post to get the influencer seal of approval. In fact, promoting teatoxes has become one of the fastest growing businesses on Instagram.
It's hard to pinpoint what exactly was the original teatox brand, but the companies in play today are all remarkably similar. A simple search on Instagram will bring you to Lyfe Tea,Fit Tea, Skinny Bunny Tea, SkinnyMint, TinyTea Teatox, Flat Tummy Tea,ShowGirlSlim, Baetea, Naked Me Tea, and My Beauty Tea. The list goes on. Most of them are mysteriously operated, with no discernable press representation or even employees made available to answer questions. Some you can place geographically: Teami Blendsfrom Florida, Bootea from England, Skinny Teatox from Canada, SkinnyMe Tea from Australia, TeaTox Me from Russia, Teatox & Co. from Indonesia.
All of these brands more or less sell the exact same product: tea that comes in colorful pouches and breaks down into two categories, morning tea (the "skinny" tea) and evening tea (the "detoxifying" tea). The ingredients are essentially the same, regardless of brand — some combination of green, chamomile, and peppermint tea leaves; licorice, dandelion, rhubarb, ginger, and ginseng roots; and cloves, cinnamon bark, and dried goji berries. A 14-day starter pack usually sells for around $30, a 28-day pack for about $55, and a deluxe combination pack somewhere between $100 and $120.
On the packaging, these brands promise the tea "promotes fat burning," "reduces bloating," "makes you feel light," and "cleans the digestive system." In other words: these teas act as laxatives. The primary ingredient in nearly every single evening "detoxifying" tea is senna, an FDA-approved plant found in Ex-Lax and a number of its stimulant laxative competitors.
Some teatox brands offer full disclosure about senna and its effects. Others don't list ingredients or make them a little bit harder to find, requiring consumers to do their homework. Those that are more upfront explain you could experience "a churning tummy" that will require you to "visit the bathroom more often," but they're also quick to assure customers that you should "not experience diarrhea" — even though many do attest to this side effect. "I am in mortal fear that I am possibly going to shit my pants," Megan Reynolds wrote in a story about using Skinny Teatox for Racked last year.
While senna isn't necessarily harmful for one-off use, health experts say it's not a substance people should be consuming on a regular basis, let alone for two weeks straight as an attempt to drop a few pounds.
"It can cause cramping, indigestion, dehydration, and is also just not particularly pleasant," says Scott Gavura, an Ontario-based pharmacist and writer at the medical watchdog site Science-Based Medicine. "Taking a laxative when you think you're bloated or overweight is not something you want to do from a medical perspective. That's not healthy to yourself, and if you take it for a long period of time, it can be disruptive for your digestion and to the bacterial flora in your colon."
A product like a teatox is "problematic because it's not science-based," says Jim White, a registered dietician with the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. "It also promises quick fixes, which is what worries me." As the Guardian noted in a much-shared pieceabout the myth of the "detox," so-called detoxification is just a "pseudo-medical concept designed to sell you things."
"The healthy body has kidneys, a liver, skin, even lungs that are detoxifying as we speak. There is no known way — certainly not through detox treatments — to make something that works perfectly well in a healthy body work better," Edzard Ernst, an academic physician, told the newspaper. He called products that promise to detoxify your body "a criminal exploitation of the gullible man on the street."
Teatoxes, like all dietary supplements sold in this country, are not formally regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA's Lyndsay Meyer says that while these brands are required to register with the agency, they are only expected to self-determine if their product is safe, as per the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994; this means companies do all of their own testing, without any regulation or input from the FDA. The law also does not give the FDA the power to pre-approve products before they go on sale.
Meyer says the the FDA is well aware of these teatox companies, and Federal Trade Commission attorney Michael Ostheimer says that 21 cases involving dietary supplements were brought by the FTC over the last few years, though he would not disclose any further information, including how many of those cases related to teatoxes specifically.
Teatox reviews are all over the internet, and many of them are positive. Those on Amazon have customers raving they "lost 3 lbs after only 4 days of taking this product every morning"; people claim they have "a lot more energy than I usually do" and that their "bloating went down as well." But you can also find plenty of complaints that label teatoxes as a scam, as well as accounts of the teas messing with menstrual cycles and affecting the efficacy of birth control. However, because few people actually file official reports with the FDA, choosing instead to contact companies directly or post comments online, Meyer says there is little the FDA can do.
"Unless there's a safety signal, there's no reason for us to take action," she explains. "Which is why we tell people, ‘If you think you've been harmed, you need to report to us and not only to the manufacturer,' because teatox companies don't have to let us know what adverse events are happening. Unless people are dying, they don't have to tell us about complaints they are receiving."
Brands often post before-and-after weight loss transformation photos on their own sites and social media accounts, and according to Trigg, many of these photos are stolen from Instagram users who participate in fitness communities on the platform, like Kayla's Army. Even when they aren't grabbing photos from other sources, brands will also post their own weight loss photos and credit the progress solely to their teas, when in fact many of these customers use the product in conjunction with diet and exercise.
"Tea is not evil. Telling girls they will lose 15 pounds by going on a teatox, that is evil," Trigg says. "I work with some clients who are young girls and when they say they want to take a teatox because they feel bloated, I have to explain that it's not actually going to ‘detoxify' them and that these companies are just devaluing hard work."
Emma Richards, a 28-year-old from Waterloo, Canada, is the founder of Skinny Teatoxand the only representative from a teatox brand willing to go on the record for this story. She says she started her company in early 2013 after seeing "a few big teatox companies overseas, like Bootea, MateFit, and FitTea, gaining some attention on social media."
"I ordered a few, and shipping took literally three weeks to a month-and-a-half, and then I had to pay customs to receive the shipment," Richards writes over email. "I thought, ‘Well, that's ridiculous,' so we started a North American-based company to serve these markets with better service and shipping times. There are hundreds — god, maybe thousands now — of different teatox companies around the world, the vast majority of which are independently owned."
There are countless copycat brands, and all of their websites look almost exactly the same; every one of the at least 30 teatox sites investigated for this story is powered by Shopify, a Canada-based e-commerce platform. Brandon Chu, a senior product manager at the company, would not disclose how many tea businesses his company works with, but says Shopify has seen "a lot of growth with teatox." He is similarly vague when addressing the question of whether the brands first came to Shopify or if Shopify sought them out, saying it "was a little bit of both." Part of the strategy involves gaming SEO; when you Google "sell tea online," a Shopify link is one of the first results to show up.
Skinny Teatox operates via Shopify, and though Richards wouldn't share sales figures for her company, she says selling teatoxes is a "profitable business" and claims Skinny Teatox is "the leading teatox company in North America." (She also operates the brand OMG Waist Trainers; waist trainers, as well as teeth whitening systems, are among the most wildly popular products to promote on Instagram.) Richards adds that the largest markets for her teatox company are LA and Miami, and that Instagram has been integral to her success.
Instagram was the perfect place for the teatox industry to flourish, explains Thomas Rankin, the CEO of Dash Hudson, a company that helps brands grow their followings and monetize on the platform.
"There were people early on that realized it was a visual channel, where you could take a visual product and get it in front of a big audience for next to nothing," says Rankin, "and these tea brands were one of the first to do it." A weight loss product marketed by a woman in a bikini is an easy win.
"Everything has shifted," adds Matt Britton, chairman of Talent Resources, a marketing and entertainment company that works with digital influencers. "Consumers are not watching shows on TV but streaming them, and when they listen to music, it's not on the radio but with Pandora or Spotify, so the mediums people used to spend their money on are waning in influence. This generation is glued to their phones, so this is obviously the place where companies can get eyeballs and attention."
Two and a half years ago, the St. Louis-based MateFitpaid Instagram fitness star Jen Selter to post of a photo of herself with its products. Back then, Selter had around 1.3 million followers; she now has 9 million, thanks to her famous "belfies". MateFit decided she should be their first big-name Insta-spokesperson, and the company went through Talent Resources to make it happen. Yehuda Neuman, the company's director of brand relations, says that MateFit set the bar for celebrity teatox endorsements.
"That killed the Instagram marketing game because at the time, there were no competing tea brands working with celebrities, and so they were able to explode," Neuman explains. "That kicked everything off."
Since Selter's first Instagram post, Talent Resources has brokered hundreds of deals between teatox companies and celebrities on social media, working with clients like Bootea, FitTea, and MateFit. Neuman says that when it comes to celebrity buzz, the baton has been passed from MateFit to FitTea, a Florida-based brand that's partnered with the Kardashian family.
While some celebrities are eager to promote teatoxes on Instagram, Neuman says others only post as part of a package deal that also involves more traditional product placement. In the case of Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda," Britney Spears and Iggy Azalea's "Pretty Girls," and Big Sean's "I Don't Fuck With You," Instagram posts were added as a contractual requirement when MateFit paid for its tea to be featured in the music videos.
"Studios aren't funding videos the way they used to. Artists are now funding them, so at the end of the day, they need the money," says Neuman. "Product placement makes or breaks it, so they take the Instagram deal."
Neuman says plenty of talent reps for big stars have turned him down, and that Minaj insisted on tasting the tea before agreeing to any sort of deal. But Britton points out that a partnership with a teatox brand is hard to say no to because posting is "literally no work."
"These deals are like one-night stands," Britton says. "They aren't like the endorsements Katy Perry does with Popchips — they are transactional. Celebrities take them because it's not like doing a long shoot for a magazine, or having to travel for a gig. It requires, like, 10 seconds."
Some agreements even allow the influencer to delete the post a few days later — it's called a "deletion clause" — which is why you won't find live product posts on the Instagram accounts of Kim Kardashian or Scott Disick. You can still find these posts via Google Image, though.
Mike Heller, Talent Resources' CEO, says the pay scale for teatox Instagram posts he places starts at $3,000 and goes all the way up to $250,000. The amount you get paid depends on your follower count, and while Heller wouldn't confirm which celebrities are getting paid a quarter of a million dollars per post, it's fair to assume someone like Kylie Jenner, with her 59 million followers, is among the highest-paid celebrity endorsers.
Yes, it seems inconceivable that teatox brands are able to shell out this kind of cash to influencers. Heller notes, though, that the costs these companies incur are very low. Bundles of loose tea leaves and dried bark are cheap to buy, especially in bulk, and these brands turn around and sell their products at ten times the cost. With such high margins, Heller explains, "they can spend all of their money using digital and social media to amplify and get their message out there." Neuman adds that "these are small businesses that have a lot of flexibility; they don't have the corporate structures, so there's more opportunity to have target investments." Richards says Skinny Teatox only has a team of "three to four," which means very little overhead.
And pay-for-play does help these businesses. According to data provided to Racked by Dash Hudson, a FitTea Instagram post from Kylie Jenner on March 28th performed worse than average, with an engagement rate (likes and comments in relation to follower count) of 1.3 percent as opposed to her normal 2 percent. Still, the photo exposed the brand to her 59 million followers and gained FitTea nearly 3,000 new followers of its own. Plus, Neuman says his team's research has found that teatox companies see an unusually high number of repeat buyers, so every potential new customer is a potential longtime customer.
In addition to tea companies spending money to work with celebrities, they reach out to smaller-scale influencers of all types. Many teatox brands start out by contacting small-time bloggers and lesser-known models. Once a brand gains enough name recognition and sells enough product, they can broker deals with stars who have higher price tags.
Claire Felske, a 24-year-old model and actress living in LA, says companies she's been in contact with typically pay $3,000 per one million Instagram followers. Last year, Felskeworked with a teatox company called Teami Blends. After dating Vine star Curtis Lepore, Felske developed a nice-but-modest following of around 45,000 followers. She was initially offered $700 for three Instagram posts, followed by $600 for two; Lepore, she says, was getting something like $6,000 per post because he had 2 million Instagram followers.
Some brands have found their own niches when it comes to lower-profile endorsers. According to the Dash Hudson data, teatox brand Skinny Bunny Tea has the best results when it works with Eastern European models; its top influencer is Russian modelMirgaeva Galinka. Bootea's posts are most successful when the Instagrammer is male, and since it is a British company, you'll find more "foppish emo images than dudes with six packs," says Rankin. Skinny Teatox generally aligns with food and lifestyle bloggers, with its top influencer being French food blogger Coralie Bancal of @cocohealthyflorist.
Tea companies often use hashtags to identify tight-knit communities on Instagram, and determine which groups to target and who within those groups to work with. They look to every corner of the platform to seek out fit models, Australian surfer babes, and more. Neuman says that once deals are inked, brands study engagement levels to decide who is worth developing long-term relationships with, keeping a close eye on if accounts havebought followers: "We'll test five people from the same demographic and then build from there. It's market research."
This is likely how Teami Blends discovered Latiffa Cisero, a 37-year-old government intelligence officer from Northern Virginia who is a natural hair blogger and model on the side.
"They had to have found me through my natural hair hashtags," Cisero says of Teami. "I'm assuming they were looking for natural girls because I've seen other girls with natural hair like me posting Teami. Someone from their marketing must have been told to go after the natural hair world."
Cisero is sent photos from Teami that she can put on her Instagram if she chooses, though she prefers to take her own. She also gets regular email updates from the company reminding her when it's time to post. (In the case of both Cisero and Felske, the emails come from a woman named Jennyris, who did not respond to any communication from Racked.)
Cisero doesn't get paid by Teami Blends, but instead struck a deal where she gets free tea in exchange for her posts. This is in fact the case for many teatox ambassadors that were interviewed for this story but did not wish to be quoted, for fear of losing their partnerships. The appeal is not necessarily getting freebies as much as it is appearing to be big enough to post sponsored content.
These would-be social media stars hope their gratis teatox posts will trigger other brands, those who will offer money and help seriously kickstart their Instagram careers, to get in touch. It's also about gaining followers. Many brands will regram influencers, and so posting a picture of a teatox product and using the proper hashtags can lead to an increased following of your own.
With so many Instagrammers teaming up with teatox companies, Dash Hudson's Rankin says the space has turned into something of a circus. "It's a race to scale," he explains. "We are waiting to see who will spend the most money on influencers so they can become the number one tea."
If tea doesn't work out, though, brands and influencers alike could just piggyback onto newer Instagram trends, like coffee body scrubs or beauty pills. The Kardashians, of course, are already on board.
Chavie Lieber is a senior reporter at Racked.
Editor: Julia Rubin