High schoolers are testing out their social media marketing skills with a new side gig: TikTok Shop. Teens on the app are bringing in millions of views using the new feature, despite the fact that TikTok forbids minors from applying to the program.
NBC News identified six TikTok accounts that have published dozens of TikTok Shop videos over the past two weeks. The creators all identified publicly as under the age of 18.
In a statement responding to questions about the presence of teens on TikTok Shop, a TikTok representative said, “As TikTok Shop rolls out in the US, we continue to evolve our safeguards and are taking steps to address this issue.” TikTok asks users for their age when signing up for an account, which offers a loophole — kids can pretend to be older.
The findings are the latest demonstration of how users are quickly taking advantage of the relatively new TikTok Shop functionality to make money. The feature, launched in September, has rapidly gained popularity and TikTok has appeared to struggle to moderate how people are using it. It also demonstrates the rapid influence that TikTok Shop’s new system, which encourages the fast production of internet advertising by creators, is having on the internet.
One of the creators, who said on his profile (which had over 33,000 followers) that he was 16, made a TikTok Shop advertisement for $4 women’s leggings that said the wearer “may get pregnant” — a joke about how good the wearer would look in the leggings. In the video, the teen danced to “Billie Jean” (in which Michael Jackson sings, “But the kid is not my son … ”). Another video the same teen made advertising the leggings, in which he imagined a “10/10 baddie” wearing them, has over 1.1 million views.
In the two weeks since its debut, TikTok Shop has made major waves in the social media advertising scene, with the app becoming a conduit for a new type of commission-based marketing. With TikTok Shop, users can advertise nearly any product available through the app and get a cut of the sale. The company also makes it easy for large and small retailers to sell their goods via the shop.
TikTok Shop videos are served to TikTok users via the same algorithm that determines the “For You” page, which means that videos that quickly get engagement will often be pushed out to even bigger viewership almost instantly.
This has resulted in a near-endless stream of TikTok Shop videos marketing all kinds of products, including dubious health supplements and too-good-to-be-true gadgets. Some TikTok Shop videos feature clips copied from content like podcasts that the creator uses to advertise an unrelated product. In that case, the creator isn’t affiliated with either the content or the product.
Many of the creators using TikTok Shop are adults, and typically they either make the product they’re advertising, are sponsored by the company whose products they’re advertising, or they order the products to test them before advertising them.
Some teens appear to have jumped onboard as well, posting videos that look like they’re shot in high schools with backgrounds showing lockers, desks and hallways. Some are even recorded during class.
Some of the TikTok Shop creators don’t appear to be using or buying the products they’re marketing. Some are just putting text over a simple background with a plea to purchase the product, sometimes even making a series of videos with slight differences advertising a product over and over again — dozens or even hundreds of times — trying to get an algorithmic win on at least one video.
The TikTok Shop feature is not supposed to be used by minors, but the voluntary age submission process has allowed teen users to slip through the cracks. While TikTok requires people selling their own products to provide TikTok with a form of government-issued ID, creators who are just advertising other people’s products don’t have to prove their age.
According to the TikTok Shop Content Policy, “Creators are prohibited from uploading, posting, streaming, or sharing any content that targets minors,” including content trying to persuade minors to buy products or services or content to try to get minors to persuade their parents to buy them products or services.
Much of the merchandise being sold on TikTok Shop comes from China, even though it is being sold by many creators in the U.S.
The same teen made a video advertising a studded $10 belt with the caption: “Imagine your parents this belt just whoop you.” That video has over 1.2 million views. The teen made all three videos in the same day.
The leggings the teen advertised are from a brand listed on TikTok Shop as Ying Fu Apparel, based in Zhejiang, China. The belt was from a brand called “HeartinBelt” that is also based in Zhejiang.
Some teens making TikTok Shop videos are actually trying the products that they’re advertising. One girl who said she was 15 made a TikTok Shop video lip-syncing to the song “Creep” by Radiohead. She advertised the Radiohead T-shirt she was wearing in the video, which she wrote was “cute af” and “only costed me like $1.27.” Her video was viewed 2.8 million times.
The shirt, which currently costs $13.99 to $58.99 on TikTok Shop, is being sold on the platform by an individual based in Missouri whose products include a lot of music merchandise.
TikTok Shop has been compared to Chinese fast-fashion giants like Shein and Temu, but executives at the company have reportedly said they view TikTok Shop more like Amazon.
In some ways, TikTok Shop has emerged as a new concept altogether — not fast-fashion production, but fast-advertising production. It’s a no-holds-barred approach to affiliate marketing, a type of influencer brand marketing popularized by early-to-mid 2000s bloggers.
Affiliate marketing is when a company like Shein contracts an influencer to create content marketing their clothes. Often, that influencer is provided with an “affiliate code,” which shoppers can use like a discount code. Because the influencer is an affiliate, they receive a cut of the proceeds from purchases made with their code.
TikTok Shop streamlines this concept so that companies don’t need influencer marketing employees and creators don’t need to be influencers. Anyone with at least 5,000 TikTok followers can begin making affiliate content for TikTok Shop — although NBC News spotted accounts with fewer followers making TikTok Shop content, too.
According to TikTok’s rules, users must be 18 and provide valid tax and banking information to enroll in TikTok Shop.
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