We live in flawed social systems. At least, more people share this sentiment every year, especially among active users online. Even those who favor the systems of capitalism and consumerism still often criticize the brands within them. Why? Because they’re brands. They’re not people. They’re entities designed for profit, no matter how altruistic or well intended they may be, therefore when a brand attempts to appear human on social media, it’s natural to respond with phrases like “this is peak late capitalism” or “this is so 2019,” then go right back to mindlessly scrolling until the next cycle of outrage and confusion begins. Rinse. Repeat. Of course, there are countless topics with more substance to focus on that warrant our critical attention (as well as better distractions), but if you’re off-put by the current landscape of advertising and want to critique the humanization of brands on social media, it’s best to deep dive into a systemic understanding of advertising, technological integration, and the history of how we got to this hellhole where irony rules and nothing makes sense anymore.
The Blurry Lines Between Brands And People
The ethics of advertising have always been questionable at best with the ultimate goal being to further some bottom line through manipulation tactics, such as storytelling, visual allure, emotional appeal, and so on. Some argue it’s a necessary evil or “just the way it is.” But that’s not much of an analysis. Reality is that advertisers rarely provide a balance of pros and cons to their goods and services. It’s not in the best interest of any brand. They typically highlight the pros, ignore the cons, and if they can, obscure the facts as much as possible to sell you an experience or feeling. Advertising isn’t informing, it’s misinforming. It isn’t designed to make you think, it’s designed to indoctrinate. Think of how fast food corporations, streaming services, Internet providers, or even political campaigns present themselves. “We’re the best!” Of course you are, McDonald’s. “Other providers suck!” Right on, Verizon. Brands compete for our attention so they appeal to the most primitive parts of our brains. We’re hardwired to favor this binary good/bad thinking over balance or nuance, so naturally this is the world we live in. That said, not all advertising and not all brands are created equal. Some play in this space and shed positivity in the world. Some consist of more ethical infrastructures, some consist of more diabolical ones. Some provide goods or services that are necessary or enhance the human experience, others sell you stuff you don’t need and probably shouldn’t want. The world has always had market places with competing businesses and individuals who use every tool in their toolbox to win consumers, but today the landscape is more grey than it’s ever been.
Prior to the mass social media migration, the line separating people from advertising was much clearer. Ads primarily came from behind television screens, radio waves, or print, in the style format of infomercials. “This is my product, this is what it does, please buy it.” Of course, the best advertisers still sought to blur these lines long before social media. For example, in the 1920’s Coca-Cola began incorporating the emotionally appealing imagery of Santa Claus to help their soda sales in the winter months. We saw the rise of brand mascots like Ronald McDonald in the 1960’s, who was inspired by Bozo The Clown to appeal to children and sell burgers (hard to imagine now). By the 1990’s, culture-wide entertainment campaigns were spread like Budweiser’s viral “Wazzup?” series. We saw brands becoming more emotionally compelling, sexual, experiential, funny, ironic, and now in the age of social media, human. We’ve surpassed mere entertainment and branched into brands acting “woke,” depressed, relatable, sassy, angry, and beyond. In the past 20 years specifically, social media has destroyed whatever arbitrary line there was separating people from advertising. We did this to ourselves. As every aspect of culture integrated into the online world, of course advertising was going to follow. The lines continue blurring and the world continues turning. Now people and advertising are swirling together in a dystopian soup and everyone is either laughing or crying.
When people criticize brands for acting human on social media, it’s most commonly because… brands aren’t human, despite what the 14th amendment says. They’re brands. So naturally, this inevitable blurring of those lines is confusing and manipulative. But before getting into the weeds, let’s take a look at some brands that have seamlessly integrated into our lives to similar effects, largely paving the way for all this. Disney for example, has built a global empire in the past few decades by selling more than just products and more than just an experience, but also a fully integrated world. The same could be said for Harry Potter, as well as Marvel. These aren’t just movies or shows or places that we enjoy, these are massive advertising machines peddling merchandise, ticket sales, and most importantly, a story. You’re paying to visit Harry Potter World for the experience, but once you get inside you realize that you can’t take 5 steps without being sold something (and as soon as you buy tickets you’re being targeted with merch from all over the web). The goal of these massive brands is to immerse you to the point of forgetting that it’s all made up and that you’re being sold something. It’s escapism. It’s world-building for consumerism. You can apply this principle to brands like Nike as well. Nike isn’t just a shoe and apparel company, it’s a lifestyle. You’re buying status. You’re buying into a style that latches onto who you are. Nike wants to convince you that it is you. It’s an appendage. You need it. So is all this inherently wrong? Who can say. But you can see how these are no longer just goods or services being sold. They’re massive entities that carve out massive chunks of real estate in our culture and then become tied to people’s very identities. We may consciously understand that these brands aren’t acting “human” per se, but they’re using the same fundamental human traits and drives for the same bottom lines.
This concept can be correlated to areas of art, social movements, and other traditionally held hobbies as well. Who we are is no longer just tethered to our local communities, religions, careers, or general political affiliations. Now we grow up influenced by an endless barrage of brands and perspectives. Every little piece of culture becomes part of us. If you wear Warby Parker glasses, that’s part of your identity. If you stand for #BlackLivesMatter, that’s part of your identity. If you’re depressed, that’s part of your identity. If you drink Starbucks, that’s part of your identity. If you stan Shane Dawson or Ariana Grande, that’s part of your identity. If you believe in conspiracies, that’s part of your identity. If you’re a Netflix or Hulu subscriber, that’s part of your identity. If you love comic books or Game of Thrones or buying local food or peddling essential oil pyramid schemes or listening to K-Pop or My Favorite Murder or love Trump or hate Trump, that is now part of your identity. Because everything feels like a brand now and brands are part of our identities, advertising comes along for the ride. It’s like when you’re trying to hang out with someone but they always have that annoying friend who has to go wherever they go so it becomes some sort of package deal every time you want to get together.
Because of social media, we are all “brands” now in some abstract sense. We each have bottom lines that need to be met in order to grow and flourish and we each establish this identity based on our values, experiences, needs, and desires. If I’m posting online, I’m subsequently projecting myself onto an interactive billboard or podium where I can extract attention, build an audience, and reach some goal, whether it’s selling something directly or just personal fulfillment. If I want to say something to my friend and I tweet at them instead of direct messaging them, I want other people to see it. It’s like the equivalent of shouting on a busy street corner. Social media has given each of us an identity based loosely around our identity irl. We see this more and more with social media influencers, brand ambassadors, self-help gurus, entrepreneurs, streamers, activists, people promoting their services, and so on. Social media is like a marketplace. We don’t just share jokes and memes and opinions, but we share our goods and services. We give and we take. The more these lines naturally blur between what constitutes a brand and a person, the worse social media and advertising distorts them.
How Do You Do, Fellow Social Media Brands?
Corporate brands began the trend of acting human on social media (mainly Twitter) between 2011–2014. The approach is often referred to as “parasocial interaction (PSI),” which is the psychological relationship between an audience and mass media, where audience members begin to view media personalities as friends, but in reality it’s almost always a one-sided relationship. This theory has evolved over the decades, especially in recent years with reality TV, the rise of the Kardashians, and now with brands acting human on social media. Wendy’s had one of the first viral hashtag moments with their #TreatItFwd Twitter campaign and Taco Bell addressed their infamous beef crisis on YouTube in 2011, which was one of the first times a CEO used YouTube to address the public. In 2012 Old Spice and Taco Bell got in one of the first publicized brand Twitter back-and-forths. Denny’s launched their iconic Tumblr account in 2013. Around 2014 many brands began to (regretfully) hijack “millennial lingo” with words like “bae” or “bruh” or “fleek.”
This trend was red hot in marketing circles. Self-proclaimed social media gurus were slinging snake oil ebooks left and right about how to target millennials with hip slang. You knew these people were the real deal because they would have 26,432 followers and they’d be following 36,928 people. #Content #MarketingWizard #Hustle. If you were paying attention to this then, chances are you were extremely online. Although it was covered in the media, brands acting human online wasn’t a “meme” until 2017 when Wendy’s went viral for roasting someone who forgot refrigerators existed. Wendy’s then continued their virality with their #NuggsForCarter campaign later that year, cementing themselves as the #1 brand household name in Internet culture. By August of that year is when MoonPie went viral for their “lol ok” eclipse tweet and all the other brands were off to the races. It’s important to note here that the 2016 election cycle marked a time period when the Internet became more centralized than ever before so this content started getting spread across YouTube, Reddit, Imgur, Tumblr, 4chan, BuzzFeed, and other Internet curator and aggregator sites, making it more relevant and covered in pop culture than years prior.
Both praise and criticism toward brands acting human on social media has been around since those early days. The cultural force and amorphous blob known as “Weird Twitter” (which cross polinates with “Left Twitter”) led the charge by trolling major corporations and satirizing their attempts at being cool. Most of the prominent users of this online community had migrated from Something Awful’s FYAD forum and were people who spearheaded a ton of the joke formats, language, and humor in general that brands later tried to hijack. For obvious reasons, they took offense to this. By 2014 the Twitter account @BrandsSayingBae launched, which helped spread satirical criticism of brands trying to act human and sites like Gawker were hubs for criticizing the movement. Perhaps most infamously, r/FellowKids became the place to share all the most cringeworthy brand content that same year as well. However, because this was all new, most of the media attention and audience reception was positive or neutral. Think of all the clickbait lists with titles like “8 Of The Funniest Brands To Follow On Twitter!” or “13 Of The Most Savage Brand Clapbacks!”
To this day, the vast majority of media coverage is still positive. Every time Wendy’s roasts someone or Hamburger Helper drops a mixtape or Arby’s designs a user’s faces out of food, the media eats it up. Critics argue that this humanization stifles criticism from being leveraged against brands, especially when it’s needed. These self-aware personas are used to instill a sense of satire and irony that deflects criticism in ways that are difficult to counter. People feel connected to them (or the people behind them) so they are then hesitant to “be mean” to them. It becomes anti-marketing-marketing. When Wendy’s roasts someone, everyone laughs, then if someone says “Wendy’s pay your workers a living wage” they’re just seen the uncool jerk ruining the fun. It’s sort of like when everyone is talking at a party and one person goes “all your iPhones are made in sweatshops.” At a deep level, everyone knows this is true, but it’s seen as killing the mood so no one wants to have that conversation. This is a valid criticism and more people should consider how the personality they attribute to a given brand may be affecting their opinions toward it as an entity.
Although the majority of media is still positive, critics have always covered brand scandals and we’re seeing a notable shift in people’s attitudes more recently, leading to more frequent critical coverage. For example, Denny’s has been called out for racism at franchise locations for years, despite their quirky online presence. Wendy’s using slave tomatoes became a hot topic in early 2018 after a viral Twitter thread by @RespectableLaw, despite them being the cool brand on the block. In more recent news, SunnyD has been under major media heat for tweeting “I can’t do this anymore” during the Super Bowl, which was then memed and interpreted as them commodifying depression. A few days after that, Pluckers Wing Bar unknowingly posted a fetish meme. Then Netflix was horny. People now more than ever seem to be getting fed up with this trend of humanization. It’s been going on for a long time (in Internet years at least). In many ways it feels like the wheels are coming off and the further brands push the envelope, the more people and media crack down. The online narrative is shifting. More articles are being written with the “brands are not our friends” sentiment.
Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle preventing criticism of brands isn’t social media humanization, but rather that people generally don’t care about the ethical practices of the brands they support. Meat and dairy companies utilize the most horrific factory farming practices imaginable, but everyone still eats meat and cheese. Nike uses sweatshop labor, but everyone still wears their apparel. Apple has had an alarming number of employees commit suicide over the working conditions of their factories, but people still buy their devices. The list goes on. We all operate in our own little universe of cognitive dissonance so it’s hard to say how much the media narrative on a given brand actually affects the average person’s perception of it. You can however, make a more systemic argument that brands and media have always worked in lockstep with each other because brands (advertisers) partially pay for media companies to exist, which is a serious issue when discussing the biased coverage of advertisers with a given media company. So in some sense, no matter how much some media companies might rail on brands, they often benefit from them, directly through funding or indirectly through clicks. Whereas journalism in its ideal state is reporting facts as well as keeping society, corporations, and government in check, today it’s evolved well beyond that with filler content to meet consumer demands in every possible niche. People all over the world are online 24/7 so there’s always something to report on — serious, trivial, or absurd.
The Advertising Evolution of Brands Acting Human
When we look at this conversation at large, we can see that the fundamental problems with brands humanizing themselves on social media ultimately isn’t a problem with the humanization, but a problem with advertising and brands themselves. Just like leftists believe capitalism is unsustainable and eventually eats itself, advertising can be interpreted as doing the same. Any brand at the corporate level exists to sell you something and all advertising is done to further that bottom line. When a company projects an image, it’s for a bottom line. When they do philanthropic work or meaningful campaigns, they’re still driven by a bottom line. Of course, people inside the brand can genuinely want to help others and do social good, but the brand itself will use that good will for their bottom line. This becomes a conversation of how you measure intention and where you see a given brand falling on the corporate scale. It also reinforces the idea that brands are in direct opposition to people. Their purpose is to sell and to do anything they can do accomplish that goal. The truth is that we live in a world full of things people don’t need. Even the things we do need are entirely subjective (think food or clothes). Brands don’t care about that, they just need your business.
Brands acting human on social media is a mere evolution of everything we’ve seen brands do in the past. They’ve used mascots to create human connection, they’ve built worlds that we willingly immerse ourselves in, they’ve highlighted holidays into consumer-driven events, they’ve co-opted every branch of entertainment, and they’ve created identities that we now can’t live without. The best advertising always occurs on a level that doesn’t feel like advertising. It feels exciting, funny, heartfelt, maddening, or relatable. As people become more active (savvy) online and as more brands flood the airwaves, it isn’t enough to just throw some refined image into an ad. Brands have to be on the cutting edge of new apps and trends to maintain that seamless integration that they’ve always fought for. Humanization on social media works as an approach because we live in a time when people feel more disconnected than ever. This is being studied and written about at length, so no need to pontificate here, but we all know about the rising rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, and general angst in the world. People crave connection on every level.
Brands that cater to those emotions can be viewed as malicious or natural or somewhere in between. Brands have always undermined deep human emotion in given categories. PETA appeals to our empathy toward animals by using fear, sexuality, and guilt. Pharmaceutical companies appeal to mental health issues by promoting joy and stability to sell drugs. With rising rates of young people feeling helpless and hopeless, many of them are going to memes and Internet culture to cope. The people who work behind brands see that. Some of them who are at an executive level only see dollar signs, but many of the social media managers who actually run the accounts see the problem and engage the best way they know how. They speak the language because it’s their language. It’s true that brands themselves are not your friends. They don’t have feelings. They can’t tell jokes. They can’t be depressed. But the people who work behind the brands can do/be all those things. It says something about our society when you see people gravitating toward brands on social media for entertainment, comfort, and even life advice, but it says something even more about the system of corporate brands that helped drive society to this point where now some of those same corporate brands are hijacking the negative human behavior that they created for their own advertising. Round and round we go.
We live in strange times. It’s also easy to forget how recently social media has become normalized in mass society. It’s been about ten years, depending on who you ask. Between 2008–2012, smartphone technology became widely accessible around the world and most major social media platforms settled in after years of ones coming and going. Sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, 4chan, and Tumblr have only been around for 10–15 years at this point. We’ve begun to see sci-fi come to life in different forms like AI-modeled devices, intuitive algorithms, and our individual profiles of data collected by these sites. Social media and smart technology have blurred the lines between what has traditionally been understood as “real life” and “online life.” Television, movies, and radio were once separated entities from people’s daily lives, now they’ve become somewhat like appendages through our devices. Advertising is so immersed in pop culture we barely recognize it anymore. Our attention spans are shot (speaking of which, if you’ve read this far you deserve a medal). We’re overly inundated with information, which only makes us feel more anxious, confused, and helpless toward everything. When people get overwhelmed like this, they revert to tribal instincts. Good, bad. Right, wrong. It’s difficult to make sense of anything.
Advertisers are caught in the middle of this, with older detached executives usually not sure what to make of these trends, and young burnout creatives feeding into them since it’s the best way to leverage what they know. At the end of the day you either believe all brands are inherently bad, therefore all advertising is bad, or you believe that there’s a spectrum of brands with different power, size, practices, ethics, and people. I tend to go with the latter. The system we have isn’t perfect, but it’s the one we’ve got. We don’t see an equal distribution of power or the same problems across the board. Multibillion dollar tech corporations like Netflix have different structures and issues than multi-million fast food franchises like Wendys, which are different from multimillion dollar news media companies like Vox, which are different from small businesses, startups, entrepreneurs, and so on. Every brand partakes in the system, but not every brand is the same. Media companies and YouTubers and authors advertise for clicks, readers, and subscribers. Comedians, musicians, and anyone else creating any craft or service advertise for their art.
No matter what you believe, we can hopefully agree that maintaining a healthy level of skepticism toward all brands is crucial — even the ones we work for, the ones we consume, or the ones we enjoy on social media.
How People Perceive Brands Being Human
There are four general categories of people who engage with this whole concept of brands acting human on social media. The first being leftists (socialists, Marxists, anarcho-syndicalists, etc.) who are anti-capitalism in its totality and view this as the most recent reveal of Werner Sombart’s theory of Late Capitalism. Late Capitalism is a concept that was popularized in the 20th century that originated from Karl Marx and highlights the distortions of capitalism, showcasing that as competition increases through the fundamental drivers for profit, the model itself is unsustainable and will result in cultural chaos like brands acting human. People in this framework are the most vocal critics and believe that we’ve reached a point in capitalism where advertising no longer even pretends to honestly inform consumers, but rather it actively misinforms and misdirects them in order to keep the wheels turning. They view brands acting human on social media as fundamentally harmful because brands are ultimately driven by a bottom line and even with the best intentions, this creates the manipulative facade that they are “just like us.” Brands don’t have feelings, therefore they can’t and shouldn’t be seen as human. Leftists are typically not interested in critiquing systemic problems with a balanced view because they believe the problems themselves are inherently oppressive and unbalanced, so any attempt to do so just reinforces the status quo. This is why they prefer to communicate through irony and vulgarity, which is difficult if not impossible for brands to engage with or combat.
The second category being people who feel so inundated by advertising and life as a whole that they are just weirded out or even disturbed by the whole concept. These critics can be vocal, but usually in more dismissive ways, rather than systemic ones. They see brands trying to be “cool” as a nuisance and have some apprehension toward the future of advertising from watching so much Black Mirror, but instead of having an overarching sense of cynicism toward capitalism, they more often have a general level of skepticism toward it all. These people are the majority of critics. They’re caught up in much more tangible problems day-to-day like making rent or getting healthcare, so they aren’t spending their free time theorizing the ethical issues of institutions like advertising, they just have a sense or idea that something is off when brands say “bae” and “fam.”
The third being people who are similar to the second category, but instead of being primarily skeptical, they primarily enjoy this craze and embrace the weirdness. These are people who, when you ask them, are typically aware that the whole setup is advertising, but they still have fun engaging. Many of them are so worn down from being engaged in nonstop culture wars, 24 hour news cycles, online outrage, and so on, that interacting with a brand being silly, weird, or relatable, is just a fun outlet for them. It’s attention. It’s entertainment, almost in a celebrity-like effect. Many of them don’t have much social influence or much of a community online, so when a brand engages with them, it instills some sense of value. Others in this category are completely isolated from real communities and resources so they use social media as a tool to fill that need, and when brands engage with them they feel connected in some strange paradoxical way. I wrote about this large grouping via a Steak-umm twitter rant that was described as both “woke” and also “exploiting millennial angst.”
The fourth and final category being people who also love engaging with brands on social media, but do so at least partially unaware of what they’re actually participating in. If pop culture and social media are measuring sticks, this is where the most people appear to fall into. It’s normies. It’s people who grew up with the Internet and have seen this style of advertising as the new normal. They aren’t actively thinking about it. Maybe they even think they’re immune to the effects, which can actually lead to them becoming more vulnerable. This is something called the “third-person effect” and is when people believe others are more susceptible to mass media messages than they themselves are. The most important quality of this group to consider is that most of them haven’t taken the time needed to build up a healthy immune system to the subversive power of advertising and thus are the easiest targets for any brand looking to expand their awareness online. Many of them willingly follow or “like” brand pages, some even watch their commercials for fun. Marketers rely on this group to create loyal followers and grow their base. You can find a range of producer/consumer relationships here from relatively healthy to innocuous to detrimental to malicious depending on the brand, but many lean toward the negative end of the spectrum due to the consumer’s lack of full cognitive understanding of what’s happening.
Where Brands Go To Be Human and People Go To Be Mad
As Stefan Heck says, “if you aren’t familiar with how Twitter works, each morning, somebody posts something stupid. The rest of Twitter takes turns pummeling this person into submission. Then, we forget what we were mad about and do it all over again the next day.” Twitter is a lot of things. It’s home to some of the best and the worst sides of humanity, but above all, it’s where everything is happening in real time. News breaks and is circulated through Twitter faster than any other platform. The user base is highly engaged and never sleeps. It’s home to the 24/7 outrage machine. This is why so many news outlets have built entire branches of their business to focus solely on what people, and brands, tweet. There’s always a story.
It’s much harder for brands to break through in any human connection via Facebook or Instagram or YouTube. Most of this phenomena happens on Twitter, with the occasional brand breaking through on Reddit or Tumblr. Among the major social media sites, it’s the least affected by algorithms. You choose what you see or don’t see for the most part. Despite the character limits and conditioning of brevity, people have the deepest interactions on it due to the simple structure of response. Those who work with brands have known this for a long time, but it’s propensity to divulge into chaos has deterred many of them up until recently. Most brands also rely on paid advertising for their social media presence and Twitter has had the least impressive platform for gaming the system with ads. This is why it still has such a grassroots user base that remains loyal, despite their love-hate relationship with it. Rather than brands investing in billions of dollars in ads like they do on Facebook, they invest in building a persona that engages with a community of users and drives media attention to the platform. People prefer no brands on their timeline, but ultimately they’re going to be there either through ads (like Facebook) or organic posts (like Twitter). Brands pay social media platforms to advertise, which is the reason the platforms exist freely for everyone to enjoy.
This is partially why Twitter has become the primary battleground over users and brands. People know that once brands infiltrate any online space, it’s no longer sacred in a sense. The more Facebook became a hub for ads (and old people), its originally young user base left in droves. The main factor that makes Twitter so immune to ads is that it has the most powerful organic reach system among the major platforms. The retweet. Tumblr’s reblog operates with a similar function, but the platform isn’t as open or accessible to the masses. The retweet allows a given tweet to be seen by potentially millions of people within minutes. Not to mention the clean post layout has become the primary staple for image and text meme sharing. Years ago you would see Reddit, Tumblr, 4chan, or Facebook posts screenshotted and copied across platforms for memes and text formats, now (since somewhere around 2014) you see tweets being screenshot and shared across all platforms more than anything else. It’s become the hub for original content, which has subsequently made it a playground for brands to push the boundaries and develop human-like personas.
Remember The People Behind The Brands
If you’re with me so far, you would then concede that separating a brand from a person’s identity who is behind the brand, is no easy task. Let’s look at the recent media layoffs. If you were someone who publicly railed on BuzzFeed for being a bad company after the layoffs were announced, do you think the former employees were unaffected by that rhetoric? BuzzFeed was part of their identity. It’s like when you make fun of Trump, Trump supporters feel offended because he’s their guy. He’s part of their identity. The brands we work for, consume, or are passionate about become part of who we are. That’s not to say we should avoid criticizing these things, but more so that we should be constantly reminding ourselves how interconnected we are so we can have more effective conversations.
When it comes to many of the most prominent brands on social media, there are typically people (or a person) behind the content you see who are overworked, underpaid, and misunderstood in their work environment. The job is like walking a tightrope every day while juggling an insane amount of responsibility with very little reward. If you have a tweet go viral, usually coworkers don’t understand the value and if they do, the company or your boss will take the credit and frame it as some grandiose strategy while you’re told to keep quiet about it. If you mess up a tweet, you could be responsible for tanking the brand with waves of negative PR and spiteful customers. We’ve all seen brands throw their social media managers under the bus by calling them “stupid interns” when they’re caught in a crisis. You have to be on your game every day working in social media. You can’t afford a single mistake and you have to juggle being a brand ambassador, PR person, customer service worker, entertainer, designer, copywriter, and likable personality.
Social media managers exist in this strange space between being constantly targeted by critics as soulless capitalist shills ushering in the downfall of civilization and bumbling millennial morons who shitpost for a job that anyone could do. It’s mixed signal city. Many of the same people who criticize brands on social media (or their managers) will also be the first to defend the working class of those same brands. When a video goes viral of some cashier flipping off a rude customer, they’re deemed a hero, but when a brand on Twitter goes viral for some deranged tweet, they’re the problem, even though chances are the tweet was posted by some low level creative at an agency. Yes, there are fundamental differences between these two scenarios. Service jobs are seen as part of an opportunity-void industry that abuses workers, while advertising jobs are seen as part of an industry that feeds off the working class and perpetuates that abuse. But it’s more complex than that and there are similarities as well. Social media managers are not big wig advertising vampires. They’re almost never the ones giving keynote speeches at conferences or presenting strategy in meetings. They’re working at the ground level. And as much as some of them may love their jobs or have fun being online for a living, they also deal with disproportionate amounts of harassment, angry mobs, and anxiety-inducing situations that require damage control. Let’s be honest, the scales of the Internet often tip more toward soul-sucking than life-giving.
Some of the people who run these accounts are creatives that got into advertising because it’s a competitive field with areas to express themselves and others came from failing industries or misfortune, and had to begrudgingly join to get by. Most of them grew up immersed in Internet culture and are now being told to capture lightning in a bottle every day by their corporate overlords. Some of them are tightly tethered to strategy, such as with larger corporations, while others are working remotely as freelancers or low-level creatives with much more freedom. In most cases, these individual social media managers have (limited) agency to write tweets how they please. It’s actually somewhat similar to journalists writing for media companies that are bought by advertisers who have (limited) agency to write with conviction from behind the brand. Given these industry similarities, it’s often struck me as odd to see so many journalists throwing social media brands and their managers under the bus to further some hot take that places various blame on them, while conveniently exempting themselves from the same systemic problems they’re railing against. Again, in theory not all industries are equal. Journalism is a crucial field meant to critique and report on the truth of what’s happening in the world, including within power structures. Unfortunately, since the age of the Internet, the need for clicks, engagement, and narrative building has compromised many of these companies. This is another example of how technological integration has blurred the lines between industries and it’s worth considering when discussing the roles of individuals who work within them.
People should be able to criticize media brands the same as they should be able to criticize food brands. We should be able to criticize all brands because we should be able to criticize power in all forms. As soon as people who work in any industries, including advertising or journalism, stop self-criticizing or thinking deeply about the implications of the systems they work in, the plot of everything written about here is lost. We should be mindful of how brands become part of the people who work for them and be critical of the brands themselves. This tension between brands and people is not going away anytime soon so the best we can do is improve dialogue and awareness to both the positive and negative sides of the issue. We all bring our biases to the table when doing cultural analysis. I work in social media advertising for a brand. Maybe I subconsciously started writing this with the conclusion that my work is justified in order to work backwards from there. Who knows. But I do know that I wrestle with the tension of my job each day. And I try not to take what I do too seriously. I’m not an open heart surgeon. I’m shilling for brands on social media.
So if you’re someone who’s critical of brands (or wants to be), in the midst of your criticism remember the people behind the brands. When you go to Best Buy and speak to a customer service person, you don’t treat them like they are the brand itself. They’re a person. And although they are of course being paid to sell you something, they’re still human. The same loose concept can be used with many brands acting human on social media. People are fundamentally purpose-driven. We create it wherever we go, even if that purpose is tied to a brand with a bottom line. We need to convince ourselves that we’re able to make a difference in whatever we do. When gay marriage was legalized in 2015, hundreds of brands changed their avatars and branding to rainbow colors in solidarity. Was this all companies performing marketing stunts for PR or was it people behind the brands excited to join in the movement? Yes. Both. Just like when Nike partners with Colin Kaepernick, just like when Starbucks bans plastic straws, just like with the latest Gillette ad. It can never been seen purely as real support, because it’s ultimately PR leveraged to further a bottom line, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t real people behind the brand who actually hold these values.
Brands are acting more and more like humans on social media because the humans behind the brands are getting more and more influence to direct the brands. Take what you will from that, but remember that there are real people behind these brands and the tension between the two matters.
We Can Criticize and Coexist With Brands
If you want to make informed decisions about how different brands and their advertising are affecting you, always stay skeptical and ask questions. How necessary is the good/service? How is the good/service benefiting others? What are the ethics of the brand behind the good/service? How well do they treat their workers? Do they care about the environment? Do they add or take away from human flourishing? How powerful are they and how does that power affect their drive for a bottom line? Are they honest about what they are? What effect is their advertising having on the world? What is the institutional framework the brand exists in? These types of the questions help define how a given brand coexists with people.
It’s true that in many cases it’s beneficial to use platforms like Twitter to direct societal criticism (mostly outrage) where it’s needed. The Internet likes to paint big, bloody targets that are an easy bullseye for everybody. Sometimes that’s good, like with the recent #FuckFuckJerry campaign, which has risen mass awareness to the issue of online joke theft. Other times it can take focus off more tangible issues and nuanced perspectives. It can also trick us into a tribal mentality of being holier-than-thou, when it actuality we all partake in a sum of patterns that negatively impact the world. This unnecessarily increases polarization in ways that rarely further the causes we post about online. All this to say, we could each improve how and where we direct our energy, right?
People should maintain a healthy level of skepticism and criticism toward brands in general as they exist across the spectrum. People should also know that the power of brands isn’t distributed equally and that there are workers behind these social media accounts who more often than not, grew up immersed in the same culture/content as you, and are deeply invested in the work they do. None of this is black and white. In fact, even telling someone that they need to criticize institutions or brands with power in a neat, balanced fashion, isn’t right. Given a person’s temperament, circumstances, and so on, they may feel that the best way to criticize them is through absurdity or irony, which is how they see brands acting human on social media in the first place. Absurd. This rant is for people who want to expand their perspective on the conversation and better communicate its implications with others in the future.
Barring some social revolution or natural disaster where all this is run into the ground, it’s not stopping any time soon. The more technological integration increases, the more brands will naturally integrate into people’s daily lives in new, subversive, intrusive ways. As soon as their presence becomes too apparent on one platform, they’ll move to others and continue hacking the system and human psyche like they always have. Brands want to be people and people want to be brands. This is the world we now live in. As for the current trend of brands acting human online… who knows what’s next. It may be headed toward a cliff this year if they keep tweeting about depression, being horny, and using more aggressive language, but it doesn’t matter because before long they’ll just take over the next platform or cultural wave. For better or worse, this is the trajectory we’re on so we ought to get better at talking about it in ways that educate people on the advertising effects of brands while simultaneously encouraging empathy toward the workers behind them as these lines continue to blur.