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Cynical, predatory, fake: brands on social media are not your friend

Brands are now so successful on social media that rather than having to seek out consumers’ attention, they can rely on the consumer to seek them out, invite their involvement, and celebrate their presence.

On the morning of 5 October, at the height of the outage that saw all of Facebook’s various services go down for six hours, Twitter’s official account tweeted “hello literally everyone.”

Barely half an hour later, the official McDonald’s account replied: “hi what can i get u.”

“hi can everyone see my screen” chimed the official Zoom account a few hours later, obligingly employing the same all-lowercase, punctuation-free delivery.

By the end of the morning, the replies to Twitter’s tweet were filled with a host of similarly wry quips. KFC, Microsoft Teams, Amazon Alexa, Starbucks, Melbourne Uni (?), Pepsi, and countless others had all taken the opportunity to jump into what had quite quickly devolved into a blue tick convention.

The reviews were adulatory: Twitter’s original tweet racked up over three million likes. “this is why i’m never leaving this app” read one user’s tweet, accompanied by screenshots of the various brand’s replies. That tweet itself received over a quarter of a million likes.

The Twitter Tweet, as I’ll call it, was a sobering revelation of the heights that brands on social media have soared to over the past two years.

For a long time, brands didn’t quite know how to navigate social media. Arguably the first brand to realise the potential of the medium was American fast-food chain Denny’s, who launched a Tumblr account in 2013. Rather than speaking with the inauthentic, carefully composed, committee-approved voice of a marketing team, the Denny’s account spoke with the voice of an adolescent. Its posts mirrored the lowercase, abbreviation-ridden prose of its audience and, more importantly, their unmistakable brand of humour.

It didn’t take too long for other brands to catch on. Burger King, Starbucks, and other consumer-facing brands followed suit, capitalising on viral trends and memes to advertise their products. Wendy’s, another American fast-food chain, started to routinely go viral from around 2016 onwards for roasting its competitors on Twitter. The insouciant tone that had developed amongst Tumblr and Twitter users during the early 2010s was now the mainstream voice of online corporate marketing.

But problems began to arise in 2019 when all this quirkiness started to prove too much for social media users. Brands’ desperate attempts to imitate the style that had proved so successful in the mid-2010s had led to oversaturation. One of the architects of the Wendy’s Twitter strategy wrote as much then, arguing that brands were so desperate to start conversations that they had wound up talking to themselves.

It was around this time that the “Silence, Brand” meme made its debut. Deployed liberally by social media users who had quite rightly become altogether fatigued by corporations’ oppressively cynical and invasive attempts to smother online conversation in marketing, the meme embodied a community fightback against aggressive commercialism. People were finally telling brands to shut the fuck up. Brands knew they had reached crisis point too. The Twitter Marketing account posted the meme in June 2019 accompanied with the caption “How can brands join the cultural conversation without killing it?” The top reply was an amended version of the meme that read “Silence, Twitter”.

This state of affairs persisted for a while throughout 2019 and 2020. But in 2021, brands on social media are resurgent, and consumer resistance seems to have morphed back into enthusiasm. The Twitter Tweet is a perfect case in point and is by no means an isolated example. TikTok has proven to be an incredibly successful platform for ‘relatable’ brands. In early October 2021, user @ramblingsanchez posted a video captioned “A bunch of brand accounts should comment on this for no reason.” Tens, if not hundreds of brands replied in the exact same tone as they had done on Twitter days earlier. Some of their replies received in excess of a million likes.

This phenomenon is troubling. Brands are now so successful on social media that rather than having to seek out consumers’ attention, they can rely on the consumer to seek them out, invite their involvement, and celebrate their presence. It’s no wonder that overt advertisements on platforms like TikTok are so rare and non-invasive; they are sewn into the very fabric of the user’s experience.

So how have brands made this comeback? I propose that the reason is a subtle shift in strategy. The reason for the initial success of brands adopting this carefree tone was the implication of subversion it carried. The departure from the sterile marketing voice gave an impression to audiences that young social media managers were to some extent going rogue; that they were contradicting the directives of their stuffy boomer superiors to connect with young audiences in a way that was both genuine and contrary to sanctioned industry practice. By 2019, this approach was so ubiquitous that it was no longer subversive, but conventional.

Brand accounts nowadays are much more tempered, at least on Twitter. Many accounts now post a higher proportion of traditional content across their platforms, or pick one platform, like TikTok, on which to appear casual. In other words, brands have learned to choose the right time and place. This means that when they do make an irreverent, self-effacing, or otherwise humanising comment, it retains the quality of subversion. “i’m not a brand, i’m a social media manager” commented Lionsgate in response to @ramblinigsanchez’s TikTok. “don’t tell my boss i was late” commented Yahoo. Social media users celebrate brands as one of their own because they see them not as the corporate behemoths that they are, but as relatable people who occasionally peer out from behind the veneer of professionalism to connect with consumers.

We ought to be concerned about of the effect of this acceptance. The corporations that these brands represent are, as many of us know, ruthless, indifferent to human flourishing, and single-mindedly focused on profit. Netflix, which celebrated Pride Month by blowing a virtual “gay kiss” to its audience via Twitter, recently suspended a transgender employee for speaking out against Dave Chappelle’s transphobic comedy special. Amazon, while posting quirky TikToks, forces delivery drivers to urinate in bottles and warehouse workers to continue working as their colleagues literally drop dead beside them.

Fundamentally, why do we tolerate these brands’ presence in online social communities? Perhaps the reason is best framed in the terms of classical public relations. Edward Bernays famously discovered that marketing is not about selling a product or a service, but about selling an idea, an image, a lifestyle. Selling women cigarettes was impossible until an entourage of suffragettes were seen smoking them; then it was about selling women freedom and empowerment. Perhaps now our drive to consume these brands is subconsciously driven in part by a desire to be proximate to the detached, effortlessly witty persona that characterises online popularity and also happens to be ubiquitous amongst brands.

Another answer might be a phenomenon that Robert Pfaller and Slavoj Žižek have called “interpassivity.” In subverting and rejecting traditional corporate culture, brand accounts perform our own anti-corporatism for us, allowing us to engage with the companies they represent with moral impunity. We’re not buying from the McDonalds that is currently trying to dodge liability for rampant sexual harassment amongst staff in its restaurants, we’re buying from the McDonalds that tweeted about how their soft serve machines are always broken (are they allowed to say that?!). Mark Fisher draws a link between this phenomenon and Žižek’s characterisation of capitalist ideology. Capitalism, Žižek asserts, relies on this overvaluing of subjective attitude at the expense of external behaviours. As long as we maintain an internal cynicism towards corporations, and indeed have this cynicism affirmed by brand accounts themselves, then we are free to continue to participate in capitalism.

It may even be that we are the victims of our own tendency towards class solidarity. TikTok user @all_day_breakfast_ observed that the managers of brand accounts often use their platform to express concern that the account isn’t receiving enough attention and that they may consequently lose their job. This leads audiences to boost the popularity of the account in an effort to assist the worker, a move which ultimately benefits the corporation that threatened the worker’s job security in the first place. Like the previous example of interpassivity, this phenomenon demonstrates capitalism’s unique ability to adopt and distort anti-capitalism to its own ends.

Whatever the reason for the resurgence of brand accounts, we should rid ourselves of this tolerance. Brands are not deserving of our acceptance in online communities. Their authenticity is a sham. On the rare occasion that social media managers are actually ‘authentic’ online, they are reprimanded, like when Teen Vogue deleted their social media manager’s tweet expressing sympathy with a reader who was appalled by the magazine’s decision to publish a puff piece for Facebook’s election integrity policies in 2020.

Online spaces, for all their flaws, have the potential to be incredible forums for community building. But brands should not be part of these communities. They are the charismatic face of capitalist predation and should be collectively shunned. Instead of welcoming brands, can we please go back to telling them to shut the fuck up?