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Junk Banter’s Instagram Is A Go-To For Foodies & You’ll Never Guess Who Runs It

In a post-Kardashian world, every millennial thinks they have what it takes to go viral, but few consider what that online fame actually looks like in a person’s daily life. In Elite Daily’s new series Life Behind The Likes, we speak with the people you know on the internet — from the people behind major Instagram accounts to the Daaaaamn Daniels of the world who went viral for one remarkable moment of their lives — to meet the people behind the screens.

There’s nothing better than scrolling through Instagram and coming across a bizarre new Oreo flavor or a delicious Ben & Jerry’s pint that just hit the market. Food-centric Instagram posts give the photo-sharing platform so much flavor (literally), and the internet has viral foodie accounts to thank for the seemingly never-ending flow of mouth-watering images. One account in particular that gets me hungry every time I log onto Instagram is Junk Banter. The account — which currently boasts more than 163,000 followers — posts about new and rumored snack product releases on a daily basis. Believe it or not, the human behind this account works for the U.S. government. Yep, that’s right. His name is Chris Brugnola, and he’s the mastermind behind Junk Banter’s Instagram page.

Brugnola is a senior auditor for the Department of Defense when he isn’t trying new snacks and posting photos of them on Instagram, he tells me in an interview for Elite Daily. He says, “I plan and execute audits of U.S. Army maintenance operations with the goals of improving mission readiness, achieving cost savings, and protecting the lives of soldiers.” The 32-year-old’s full-time job stands in sharp contrast to his online persona as Junk Banter, a flavor enthusiast currently living in Baltimore, Maryland.

Before Brugnola was the man behind tasty food photos in your feed, he was a kid passionate about fun food flavors. He tells me, “I really loved junk food and snacks growing up. I always found myself liking the quirky flavors of stuff. Every time there was a new cereal, I would get really excited for something new.”

In the early 2000s, when unique Oreo flavors started coming out, he became invested in trying new flavors and reading about them. After he went to college, he found himself “reading reviews of all these new things that would come out.” Eventually, he and a friend (who remains anonymous), decided to take their love for food flavors to a new level and applied to be writers for a food blog. Unfortunately, it didn’t go as planned.

“We both got rejected,” he says. “They weren’t fans of our writing style. And I was like, ‘OK, well there goes that.'”

His friend didn’t give up, though. “She goes, ‘No, screw that, we’re way funnier than this website. Why don’t we start our own?’”

And that’s how Junk Banter was born. In 2015, Brugnola and his friend blogged about what they loved and turned it into a website.

IF WE’RE GONNA DO THIS, I REALLY WANT IT TO BE SUPER SUCCESSFUL. I PUT MY ALL INTO IT.

It wasn’t as easy as it sounds, though. Brugnola says he didn’t know how to start a website, so he asked his friend — the anonymous cofounder — to set it up for him. Once the website was up, it become Brugnola’s “passion project.” He says he thought at the time, “If we’re gonna do this, I really want it to be super successful. I put my all into it.”

The website initially consisted of Brugnola and his friend writing food blogs back and forth to “make each other laugh.” However, that wasn’t enough to get readers onto the site, so he decided to start an Instagram page that same year.

“Little did I know that Instagram, especially, was gonna be what took off. So basically, what I started doing was, every time that I would find something new on the shelves that I thought was exciting ([like] a new product), I would post a picture of it and try to do some kind of witty caption or something. The captions evolved over time,” he says.

“I didn’t even know anything about hashtags. I was probably not reaching anyone when I first started doing it on Instagram, because I barely understood how Instagram worked,” Brugnola says.

After researching foodie hashtags within the app and using them accordingly, Brugnola started seeing results. “Eventually, it just started to pick up traction. People were finding [my posts] organically, I didn’t understand how, but I was like, ‘OK, these hashtags seem to work,'” he says.

Brugnola noticed fitness accounts liking his content, so he decided to incorporate fitness hashtags into the mix. With the juxtaposing combination of foodie hashtags and fitness hashtags, Brugnola’s account accumulated thousands of followers within the first year, hitting 10,000 in spring 2016. About one year later, in May 2017, his account ballooned to 100,000 followers.

As Junk Banter began picking up more and more traction, Brugnola started investing money into his posts without making money in return. In order to try a new ice cream flavor, you have to actually buy the ice cream — so tasting something new every day got expensive. At the time, he was only making revenue from the ads on his website, but those weren’t enough to cover the expenses needed to travel to grocery stores and purchase different food products.

Brugnola tells me, “There’s no organic way to make money off of [Instagram], other than doing sponsored posts.” So, that’s what he did. In his sponsored posts, companies would give him products to promote on his page and pay him for doing so. Brugnola says he’s gotten up to $500 for posting a promotional photo, but he tries not to flood his grid with sponsored posts. In fact, he’s only done about seven or eight in a total of three years, and claims the “balance is always going to favor legitimate organic content.”

“When I negotiate [with] them, I’m careful to make sure they allow me creative freedom to use my own voice while still meeting their requirements,” Brugnola says about sponsored posts, adding that he tries “to make it a fun sponsored post at the very least.”

Regardless, his fans don’t seem to mind the ad posts on his page from time to time. “I’ve actually found my followers are forgiving because I very rarely do them, and some will comment that they’re excited for me because they think I deserve it,” he says.

By now, Junk Banter is a total pro at creating the perfect foodie photo — he has a process that collectively takes around 20 minutes. After buying the food he’s about to post about, he does a photoshoot of the product. He tells me, “A photoshoot — depending on what I’m doing — can take 5 to 20 minutes.” That’s pretty dang quick, considering the fact it takes me an hour to take a good selfie.

Once the photoshoot is done, he moves on to the editing stage. He says, “I might do a little photo editing to it using just Instagram’s built-in stuff; that takes me 30 seconds. By now, I know what kind of stuff to do. Then I’ll write a caption, probably another 5 minutes.”


Apparently, the least glamorous part about the entire posting process is something you can probably relate to: coming up with the caption. He says he sometimes struggles to get the caption right, wondering, “What the hell am I gonna say about this?”

Yup, been there.

Based off Brugnola’s success, it’s obvious he’s got the process down pat. His captions are hilarious and stay true to the persona he tries to express online. “I kinda like that people show up to my website, read my voice, and they have their own image of what I could actually be. You know? I kind of enjoy that,” he says. In other words, he likes that he’s mysterious AF.

When Brugnola isn’t posting on his Junk Banter Instagram, he uses a personal one that’s full of “dogs, the sky, food, little things like that.” Even so, he tells me he rarely checks his personal feed since Junk Banter got so popular. Instead, he’s often sweeping the internet (and the shelves) for more food content that he can share on his grid.

In fact, working on his Junk Banter Instagram so much has affected some of his relationships IRL. “I found that I’m not going out as much as I used to in my mid-20s. I’m 31, about to turn 32. Now, when I have some free time, I try to get ahead on my content. My friendships haven’t really been affected, people just kind of know, ‘Oh you know, he just got a little bit busier these days,’” he says.

Brugnola adds that having so many notifications from the viral account “does get really hard,” so he only has notifications on for people that he follows. “I try to tell people: tag me in your photo, don’t tag me in your comments,” he says.

However, he stresses that he “never wants to become an account that doesn’t interact back with people.” If you want to get in touch with him, he suggests tagging him in a photo so he can respond (if warranted).

If you’re really trying to communicate with Brugnola, he suggests adding him on Snapchat (@JunkBanter) in addition to Instagram. He says, “On my Snapchat — which doesn’t have as big as a following as Instagram, but it has a sizable one — I show myself all the time. I incorporate some of my personal life, which people really enjoy. They like learning about the person behind the scenes, and they talk to me all the time.”

In fact, Brugnola’s favorite part about running the account is hearing from his followers — especially those who have found some solace from Junk Banter. “Some of the best feedback that I’ve gotten is from people that have struggled with, or are recovering from eating disorders. And some of the feedback that they’ve given me is really appreciative comments about the humor that I use in these posts … [and how it] has boosted up their mindset about food, and helped them enjoy it,” he says.

Brugnola explains that he appreciates “when you can positively impact some people that you would have never expected, and possibly make changes in their lives.”

Next time you’re scrolling through Instagram on the lookout for a new snack, make sure to check out Junk Banter’s page. His passion for flavors shines through his grid, and it’ll certainly make you hungry.

Instagram star isn’t what she seems. But brands are buying in

Like many social media infuencers, “Lil Miquela” posts photos of herself wearing high-end designer clothing with cleverly crafted captions.

She wears clothes from companies like Proenza Schouler, Coach and Balenciaga, and recommends hair products from OUAI for “keeping my strands silky smooth.” She has more than 1 million followers — most of whom are Millennials and Gen Zers.

Miquela also voices support for social causes like Black Lives Matter and has partnered with Prada on a campaign for Milan Fashion Week. She’s even released a few songs on Spotify(SPOT).

Since launching her Instagram account in 2016, the 19-year-old model from Downey, California, has become increasingly recognizable on social media. Her dark brown hair is often styled in double buns. She has freckles, brown eyes, bangs cut straight across her forehead, and goes to popular events like the music festival Coachella.

lil miquela main

A photo of Miquela from her Instagram page.

But in April, she made a confession.

“I am not a human being,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “I’m a robot.”

Miquela is a CGI — or computer generated image — created by a Los Angeles-based startup called Brud. The company specializes in artificial inteligence and robotics. According to TechCrunch, Brud is backed by venture capital firms like Sequoia Capital, BoxGroup and SV Angel. Sequoia Capital declined to comment on whether they’re connected to Brud. BoxGroup and SV Angel did not respond to a request for comment.

Miquela is a part of an emerging group of “fake” virtual influencers, including Bermuda, Blawko and Shudu, who’s known as the world’s first “digital” supermodel. Like Miquela, Blawko is a creation of Brud. (The company is reportedly behind Bermuda, too). A fashion photographer named Cameron-James Wilson is behind Shudu, who has over 120,000 followers.

Related: Snapchat is fighting Instagram for celebrity users

Like human social influencers, these CGI accounts often promote brands and products. But it’s unclear if any posts have been paid for by sponsors. Brud declined multiple requests for comment on this story.

In at least one case, Brud is profiting. Lifestyle news site Highsnobiety collaborated with Miquela on an $80 patterned shirt. According to a spokesperson for the brand, Miquela’s team receives a cut of the profits if the item is purchased from her online store, but not on the Highsnobiety site.

The concept of advertising via CGI influencers raises questions: How can they promote products they can’t try? Should companies and brands be transparent about creating or using virtual influencers?

“There’s room for consumers to be confused — and this should be [remedied],” said Olivier Toubia, a marketing professor at Columbia Business School.

Toubia says CGI influencers should have a “transparent relationship” with their followers about sponsorship deals, and it should be clear “who is real and who is not real.”

Jennifer Grygiel, a social media professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, agrees.

“It’s not obvious [she’s a CGI], and it’s not obvious on the post level,” said Grygiel, calling this concept “deeply problematic.”

“When I was growing up, at least we knew Barbie was a doll,” she said. “For over two years now, there could be people, teenagers especially, who thought [Miquela] maybe was a person,” she said. “We need the brands to disclose. We also need these companies to help so they’re not facilitating and participating in this mass deception.”

lil miquela 2

Miquela modeling a Proenza Schouler design.

Related: Instagram prioritizes newer posts after user complaints

But some advocates argue that being completely transparent about a CGI influencer’s identity isn’t necessary, that it’s obvious these aren’t real people and that actual humans edit themselves with Photoshop, too.

“How much do you see on Instagram that is authentic?” said Yoon Ahn, co-designer of the Ambush brand, which has worked with Miquela on an unpaid post. “How many Instagram models got surgically enhanced [and] are selling things? It’s the same thing, isn’t it? It’s not real.”

“Those products didn’t make that kind of hair. Those products didn’t make those kind of lips,” she added.

Ryan Detert, CEO of Influential, an AI-enabled influencer marketing platform, views it as an authenticity issue, rather than an ethics one.

“Mannequins have been around for the last 100 years, and those are things in the store to sell beauty and to sell an ideal. So I think it’s not much different than that,” he said.

Why CGIs are attractive to brands

So what’s in it for brands? Virtual influencers can be particularly appealing to companies, according to Influential’s Detert. It can be less risky than partnering with a person because there is more control over the image.

“Assuming the design team can design quickly enough, they will always be able to post the right thing at the right time with the right angle that the brand wants,” he said.

There won’t be issues in a CGI’s past that could get the brand in trouble, such as criminal history or use of profanity, Detert added. It’s also a way for companies to show they’re creative and on the cutting edge of technology.

Tyler Haney, CEO of Outdoor Voices, said her company likes to be “experimental” when speaking to an audience about the brand. Miquela posted photos of herself wearing an athletic dress by Outdoor Voices as part of a recent campaign.

Haney began following Miquela on Instagram and originally didn’t know she was a CGI. She was later connected to Brud through an investor. Haney wanted to partner with her even though she learned she wasn’t human.

“We’re constantly thinking about ways we can use tech to create a more interesting, engaged customer experience,” Haney said. “I enjoy finding cool and interesting ways to bring product to life.”

Other brands, such as Barneys, don’t seem to mind Miquela isn’t real, either. Marissa Rosenblum, VP of content at Barneys New York, told CNNMoney the company was interested in reaching Miquela’s audience of Gen Zers and didn’t partner with her solely because she’s a CGI.

Experts believe we’ll see more of these CGIs in the future.

“More and more, people might start blurring the line between AI and human,” Detert said.

Brand interest and guidelines

Through social media stars, brands can reach specific, niche audiences in a more authentic way compared to traditional advertising.

“One of the big benefits is trust,” Columbia’s Toubia said. “People tend to trust recommendations from people more than they trust brands or advertising or commercials.”

The Federal Trade Commission has guidelines for human social influencers endorsing products. But these rules should apply to CGIs too, the agency told CNNMoney.

“The FTC doesn’t have specific guidance on CGI influencers, but advertisers using CGI influencer posts should ensure that the posts are clearly identifiable as advertising,” said an FTC spokesperson.

This means social media posts should have a disclosure, such as “#ad” or “#sponsored” if the company is paying you to promote something. The FTC also advises influencers to make disclosures if they receive items for free.

Brands can be subject to fines if guidelines aren’t followed.

Issues of transparency

For early creators, such as photographer Cameron-James Wilson, not being upfront about the CGI influencer’s true identity was part of the mystery, and contributed to the hype and intrigue.

shudu gram

A photo of Shudu “wearing” a lipstick from singer Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line.

His creation Shudu appeared so lifelike that Semhal Nasreddin — the creator of clothing line SOULSKY — thought Shudu was a promising up-and-coming model from Africa. Last year, Nasreddin reached out to Shudu and sent her a free shirt to promote.

It wasn’t until a few months ago that Wilson admitted to Nasreddin that Shudu wasn’t real.

“I thought she was a real emerging person with incredible potential,” Nasreddin said. “As you can imagine, it was a surprise to me [when I found out]. She just looked so real, which is a credit to how good his artwork is … and a tribute to how far the technology has come.”

But Nasreddin, whose background is Ethiopian and Eritrean, said she didn’t feel deceived by Wilson.

“I feel like he represented her image in a dignified way,” she said. “There was nothing exploitative about it, or demeaning, or anything negative behind it.”

Wilson told CNNMoney he has not yet participated in any paid deals with Shudu. He didn’t immediately disclose she wasn’t real because he wanted to see if people would think she’s human. Now, Shudu’s Instagram profile page says “Shudu Gram World’s First Digital Supermodel.”

“When you’re doing 3D, for people to be convinced that what you’re doing is real, is a major thing,” said Wilson, calling her a form of art.

But when asked whether or not Wilson would hide a CGI’s identity from followers again, he said: “Absolutely not.”