Song Ji-ah, the breakout star from Netflix's Korean reality TV dating show Single's Inferno, is more than just a dream date. With her indispensable Prada bag and Louis Vuitton bikini top that she loves flaunting in front of the camera, the 25-year-old is also a walking symbol of her generation's materialistic desires. Her story also serves as a warning on the many perils of social media.
Before her international breakthrough, Song had been a successful online influencer in South Korea since 2019. She stood out not only because of her model-like looks and lively personality, but also her trendy wardrobe full of luxury-brand items.
So when it was revealed that many of those items, seen both on Single's Inferno and throughout her career as an influencer, were fake, her fans felt both shocked and betrayed.
Experts say Song's rapid rise and downfall not only highlights the growing obsession with luxury goods among Korean youth - which has led to a surge of influencers who flaunt their wealth - but also the ills of social media.
According to research company Euromonitor, global luxury goods sales fell 17 per cent in 2020, but remained almost the same in South Korea, which rose to become the world's seventh-biggest luxury market, valued at US$13.5 billion (S$18 billion). Countries trailing South Korea included Germany, whose per capita GDP was about 45 per cent higher that year.
Korean retailers attribute recent strong luxury goods sales to younger shoppers rather than their traditionally middle-aged clients.
Shinsegae department store, one of Korea's largest, reported that more than half of its total luxury goods sales in 2020 came from people in their 20s and 30s.
"In the past, luxury goods used to be consumed by the older generation from the socio-economically upper class," says Joo Eun-woo, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. "Now, people who buy luxury goods are increasingly younger and don't have that much income."
Young people no longer see the point of saving money and believe that even if they do save up, their economic future remains bleak, Joo adds.
"In the 1960s to '80s, the South Korean economy was rapidly developing and produced a lot of jobs and opportunities. Back then, working hard returned solid results. However, with the [rigid] hierarchical structure established by the 2000s, it became extremely difficult for people to rise above the social ranks they are born into. That means labour became much less cost-effective," he says.
"It is now far harder for you to achieve what your parents' or grandparents' generation could achieve - like buying a house or climbing up the social ladder."
This has led many young Koreans to seek instant gratification by splurging on luxury goods or drinking expensive coffee at trendy cafes, he explains.
"It is through these moments that they compensate for the lack of satisfaction in life. Although short-lived, these moments are much more graspable than things they can only dream of achieving."
Song tapped into the frustrations of young Korean consumers, frequently showing off her collection of highly expensive items in her videos.
But it wasn't just Song. Searching for "luxury brand haul" in Korean on YouTube returns an endless number of videos, many of which have views in the millions.
"Back in the day, South Korea's younger generation used to have a sense of antagonism towards people who flaunted their wealth," says Kwak Keum-joo, a psychology professor at Seoul National University. "Nowadays, our youth rarely oppose or feel disdain towards such people, but rather get curious or feel second-hand satisfaction through them."
Kwak believes that Song's passing off of counterfeit luxury goods as the real thing was not just an individual misdeed, but the result of South Korea's growing materialism getting mixed up with the mechanisms of social media.
"Social media is driving everyone to be extremely attention-seeking. Even ordinary people feel the need to constantly post photos and show themselves to others," she says.
"People tend to change what they post online based on what they think their followers like. As an influencer, you start to adjust yourself to what the public wants and desires. So, I would say it's not merely Song's fault. The fans that kept driving her towards continuously posting more and more expensive items hold accountability to a certain extent."
In fact, Song has said that she feels pressure to post something new every time. "I feel like I cannot wear clothes that I have already worn once or posted on social media," she said on a TV show in 2021.
About a month has passed since Song was first accused of flaunting fake luxury goods and she is now taking a break from her influencer career.
"I admit to the recent controversy regarding my usage of counterfeit items, and I admit that it is all my fault," she said in an apology video she posted on YouTube in late January.
"At first I just bought them because they were pretty. When I received a lot of love from other people, I couldn't come to my senses and kept falling deeper. I am deeply regretful."
After the apology video, in which she said she would take some time off for self-reflection, she removed all of her online content, including thousands of Instagram posts and YouTube videos.
"This whole controversy is one of the side effects of materialism and rampant use of social media," Kwak says.
"Going forward, our society should collectively try to veer away from extreme materialistic values and try to stop overly glamorising and flaunting wealth and luxury goods, especially on social media."
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.