Not long before the second presidential primary debate, a new photo popped up on Douglas Emhoff’s Instagram feed—a grinning selfie with his wife, Kamala Harris. The accompanying caption was brief, almost an afterthought: “Hello Miami! See you all at the debate on Thur!”
It was typical for Emhoff’s feed, which started in 2013 but had accumulated only about 60 posts by the time of the debate, mostly a smattering of low-key snapshots, like a private photo album that was accidentally dropped into the public sphere. Emhoff posted the day he dropped his son off at college; on his father’s birthday and Father’s Day; on a visit to his wife’s office in Washington, D.C. Things picked up in January, when Harris announced her presidential bid, but still, the feed retained its casual, DIY feel: mediocre lighting, questionable cropping, selfies galore.
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This has Emelina Spinelli concerned. “It’s selfies. It’s all selfies!” she repeated, when I asked her to evaluate the feed. “I think they’re missing a huge opportunity.”
Spinelli, 31, is an Instagram consultant who makes her living helping would-be influencers master the platform. It’s also fair to say she’s an influencer herself: Nearly 75,000 people follow her feed, which is filled with artfully composed glamour shots of her life in Los Angeles. Her posts often show her grinning exuberantly while gazing at something off-camera; lately, she’s also seen holding a Labrador puppy. And to her expert eyes, Emhoff’s anemic, unedited Instagram account is a glaring but fixable miss for the Harris campaign.
Emhoff’s world was once far from Spinelli’s, but not anymore. As social media becomes a critical tool in politics, Instagram is increasingly used as a soft-focus medium to showcase a candidate’s relatability. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared her skincare routine in one Instagram story. 2020 presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand has used the platform to show off her workouts. Indeed, most presidential campaigns now have Instagram presences; even Joe Biden, who is definitively not of the Instagram generation, has a carefully managed feed with 1.3 million followers. His posts, like those of most candidates, have a different voice from his campaign’s Facebook and Twitter presences: less combative, extra-polished, fully promotional. Theyadd a bit of “Here’s why you want to have a beer with me” to “Here’s another look at my pretty campaign logo” and “Here’s a professional video about my climate plan.” It’s all part of the Instagram voice that Spinelli helps her clients achieve:I’m just like you, only a bit better.
A political spouse’s Instagram feed has a different role to play. Done right, it can accomplish the traditional task of humanizing a candidate, in a place where people go to escape the push-and-pull of politics. At a time when people are envisioning new families in the White House, Instagram can present a family that’s just like yours, but better.
Spinelli points to the Instagram feed of Chasten Buttigieg—husband of Pete, card-carrying millennial, confirmed social media genius. He has 176,000 followers, who shower his posts with copious “likes” and messages of love and support.
“Looking at Chasten’s account and just how well he’s rallying people and how vocal people are,” Spinelli told me by phone, puts Emhoff’s sweet, inconsequential posts into stark contrast. Harris, she notes, has 1.9 million followers on her own Instagram account. “Her husband Douglas, I would say, is under-indexing”—marketing-speak for the fact that he should be embarrassed to have a paltry 4,700 followers at this writing. Indeed, she thinks most candidate spouses are, at this stage, underused—good luck finding Elizabeth Warren’s husband on the platform—or, like Emhoff’s, unfiltered through professional advice, left to the spouse’s own whims, selfies and all.
Spinelli is channeling every influencer, marketing executive and 20-something corporate social-media associate who has cottoned to the sales potential of Instagram, the current go-to-medium for young consumers. Instagram, which was purchased by Facebook for $1 billion in 2012, had 1 billion users worldwide as of 2018. A study that year by the Pew Research Center found that 71 percent of 18-to-24-year-old Americans use the platform, and that six out of 10 Instagram users look at the site daily, for roughly an hour each day. Corporations, aware of the need to go where your buyers are, were projected to spend $5.5 billion that year to reach them.
That’s in part due to a particular quality of Instagram: It gives you a hall pass to show off. On Facebook, bragging too much can get you unfriended. On Twitter, bragging is on some level discouraged. On Instagram, promoting yourself—or, rather, promoting an aspirational version of yourself—isn’t just acceptable. It’s what the whole ecosystem isfor.Just ask the many “Instagram husbands” who came before Emhoff, following their wives (or husbands) across the globe, lugging camera equipment, capturing perfect images and editing them to make them more perfect. (What is a U.S. president, after all, if not the ultimate global influencer?)
The trick, though, is nailing down the voice. There’s a way to do Instagram right, and it’s staking out the middle ground somewhere between authentic and aspirational. Too much authentic, and you’re in Doug Emhoff territory. Too much aspirational and you might become the political equivalent of an infamous influencer who was caught eating folded tortillas when she said she was eating pancakes, sparking outrage for presenting a false reality. If the medium has changed, the fraught, precise work of the humanizing spouse has not. If anything, Instagram has made the age-old rules for political spouses only more transparent—and a bit more ridiculous.
Confession: I am a Gen Xer,closer in age to the 54-year-old Emhoff than to the 29-year-old Chasten Buttigieg. My own Instagram feed is so embarrassingly scant, my follower count so minuscule that I don’t even want to type the numbers. And based on Spinelli’s descriptions, I make a lot of Emhoff-level rookie mistakes.
Let’s start with the selfies. They are a no-go, or at least, should be used sparingly, she said. Photos of you should be taken by a third party, composed with care: Images with ample white space around the humans draw more engagement than the ones where people fill the entire frame. Spinelli advises would-be influencers to use filters—though not the Instagram stock filters, which, she says, are woefully inadequate—and to consider a theme of colors or patterns for visual consistency. (Her own feed has a blue motif.) She tells her clients to pose deliberately, heads tilted, toes pointed, no matter now uncomfortable that is. “A lot of photographers will say stick your head past your neck a little bit, which feels very awkward, but it does tend to look better in photos,” she told me. “The more awkward a photo it is, typically the better it looks.” (The rules are more relaxed for “Instagram stories,” which are meant to capture real life as it happens, and expire after 24 hours.)
Not all of this applies, of course, to Emhoff, a 50-something male entertainment lawyer who isn’t looking to sell beauty products or get luxury resorts to comp his rooms. But the broader point remains: To get people to follow your feed and drive up the all-important metrics of engagement—how many people like or comment on your photos—you have to serve up what the audience wants to see.
And what Instagrammers want, Spinelli says, is some strange alchemy of authenticity and very-inauthentic perfection—the conceit is that your unreal photos, by virtue of being unreal, are the ideal window to your actual inner self. “Instagram really comes down to creating, generally speaking, a highly polished brand narrative,” she explained, in marketing-speak.
People turn to the platform to escape their mundane lives or petty troubles. “It’s almost like, if you don’t edit your photos, people are like, ‘Ugh, it’s normal.’”
There’s even a term for this, she informs me: “narp,” which stands for “nonathletic regular person.” The word is alternately used as a slur—like being “basic”—or as a self-deprecating point of pride, say, for someone trying to brand herself as a fitness guru for wimps. But for marketing purposes, Spinelli insists, being a narp is no good. If you’re a narp, your photos don’t encourage people to stare endlessly at every corner of the frame, or to wish, on some level, that they were you. I am a narp. Emhoff, in his current state, is a narp. And Spinelli thinks his unrepentant narpiness could be holding back his wife’s campaign.
Her verdict was echoed by two other Instagram marketers I spoke to, who also specialize in helping people improve their social presence. “If you’re looking to gain a following, you should either be inspiring, educating, or entertaining. It is something that I think of for every story, I think of for every post,” said Lacey Faeh, who runs the travel and lifestyle blog A Lacey Perspective and is schooled in the language of Washington promotion: She once created digital ads for Democratic campaigns and now does social media consulting for “people of influence in D.C.”
Faeh, too, was critical of Emhoff’s account. “Two selfies with kids [posted] on the same day,” she noted, is “not good strategically.” She noted that Jill Biden’s Instagram feed, with 167,000 followers, adheres to the rules of Instagram more effectively: It’s noticeably short on selfies and high on professional photos and motivational messages. And Chasten Buttigieg, she said, has a savvy, winning voice from the get-go. His Instagram bio reads: “Teacher. Theater Ed advocate. First Gent of South Bend. My husband is running for President and my dogs don’t seem to care.”
Emhoff’s, by comparison, reads like an amateur’s, Faeh said: “Dad. @kamalaharris Hubby. Lawyer.”
Still, it’s hard to deny that Emhoff’s Instagram feed, a gallery of warm hugs and dad grins, is as relatable as it gets, with the easy appeal of someone who isn’t trying too hard. Indeed, some 20 minutes into my conversation with Faeh, she thought about his bio again and reconsidered her critique. “The way he described dad first, then husband,thenlawyer—that seems intentional,” she said. “Wouldn’t every woman love to have a man who thinks in that order? Now it makes me wonder if he’s doing this correctly.”
Even if Emhoff is accidentally doing Instagram right, his voice is likely to shift if Harris’ popularity grows, says Shane Barker, a Los Angeles-based digital marketing consultant who teaches a UCLA class on branding and how to be an influencer. “There is something nice about the guy that’s not being advised,” Barker says. “But I can tell you: As this thing goes on, his profile and what he puts up there will change.”
Indeed, Spinelli has loads of professional advice. If she were on Harris’ campaign team, she says, she’d pour resources into Emhoff’s feed, hiring a photographer to shoot a series of charming behind-the-scenes shots, along with polished family portraits and “lifestyle” shots that show him exercising or running errands. She’d strive to get him verified, with one of those blue check marks, and the goal of aggressively growing his following into the 100,000 range.
In the past couple of weeks, Emhoff’s profile has already gotten more attention—a result, in part, of his wife’s strong debate performance. The day after the debate, the millennial-aimed website Refinery 29 declared him “Kamala Harris’ ultimate Instagram husband,” based on his obvious affection. Before long, there was a noticeable uptick in engagement in his posts, along with the inevitable critiques. One reader who came across Emhoff’s pre-debate selfie griped about the caption, with its shorthand use of “Thur”: “You should probably just say Thursday. This is like if Bernie Sanders starts ending his statements with ‘Okurrrr.’ Don’t be afraid to be yourself.”
You can sense that Emhoff is trying to do just that—aiming, in his charmingly narpy way, to project some more Instagram-friendly version of himself, stumbling a bit as he goes. In late June, he posted an inartful snapshot of a bunch of men in a room, apparently at a rally before a San Francisco Pride event. The caption read, “I always want her to go out there with a smile,” though Harris herself was nowhere in the frame.
About an hour later, Emhoff posted again, this time with a photo that miraculously seemed to follow Spinelli’s rules. Taken by someone else, it showed him and Harris behind the scenes at the Pride event, surrounded by ample white space, with a caption that attested to his effort. “Here’s the smile one … still working on my IG skills!” he wrote.
The next day, he posted another selfie.