What Happens When The Fourth Wall Breaks Down Between Brands And People?

A new fusion of advertising, smart technology, and Internet culture is integrating more into our lives every day. It’s saturated through pop culture and media to the point of normalization, which causes less people to wonder about the implications. We’re so inundated with sensationalist headlines, Sci-Fi TV shows, and surrealist humor, that when we consume information on the topic, it just feels like one more drop in the river. This fusion has culminated into our devices, the newest human appendage, which we have all welcomed with bent necks. If the trend continues, it may even be replaced with some centralized wireless system. Who knows anymore.

What we do know is that the more we integrate with technology, the more advertising does the same. Over time it’s not enough to sound cool, you have to provide an experience; it’s not enough to provide an experience, you have to align with people’s values; it’s not enough to align with people’s values, you have to be relatable; it’s not enough to be relatable, you have to be transparent. This cycle never stops. The past few years we’ve seen it progress into brands being more “human” on social media, acting as the people behind them, and we can expect that trend to continue in even more dystopian ways.

So what does this transparency mean for the future of advertising?

I’m the social media manager for Steak-umm and one of the most common questions I get asked is, “what do you think about brands becoming more human?” Since our agency started managing their account, my approach has largely been projecting part of my personal identity into the brand’s voice. Obviously, there are guardrails and brand building blocks confining the process, but it’s mostly just me being myself as the brand. Being human. This has in turn created some great success and also critical backlash. Everyone has an opinion on the subject. Some marketers think it’s tacky or edgy or just a fad. Many politically active leftists have critiqued it as an unraveling of Werner Sombart’s theory of late capitalism, which highlights capitalism’s distortions through critique and satire, observing that capitalism cannot go on this way forever (e.g. companies humanizing themselves). It seems that a fair amount of younger people tend to enjoy it. Some for the absurdity, some for the entertainment, some for the need to feel connected or seen, and some for the almost celebrity effect of being able to interact with a brand they admire. No matter what we might think of it, we all agree that it’s… strange. As the lines blur more between advertisers and people, how does this affect our social psychology? More so, where does this train stop?

First it becomes a conversation about what constitutes a brand. Brands are not people, but they are made up of people. They’re a separate identity, yet one that is integrated with the humans behind them as well as the ones who consume them. For example, Nike isn’t just a 29.6 billion dollar corporation. It also employs over 70,000 people. It’s also a lifestyle. An icon. An identity. Consider this: if a company has 100 employees working together and the CEO makes a polarizing political statement that jeopardizes the business, is that CEO representative of the entire company? On the same note, if a company has 10,000 employees and each of them pitch in $100 to donate to a coworker’s medical fund, is it the company that donated the money, or the people? These musings can go on forever and the answers aren’t as obvious as they might seem. The same tension is found perhaps most glaringly in brand social media management. Most major brands around the world employ somewhere between 1–10 people to run their online presence, including brand development, strategy, content creation, digital targeting, community management, and so on. These aren’t interns. These are (generally) young, savvy individuals. They grew up with the internet. Social media is basically in their DNA.

This is revealed more and more with different brands making a mark for themselves online (particularly Twitter), from the pioneers of Denny’s and Wendy’s, to recent viral sensations like MoonPie or Pluckers. There are millions of brands around the world creating a digital presence and in many cases these social media teams are at the helm of the entire advertising sector. So if those workers are representing their brands on a daily basis, often having their work displayed to thousands, if not millions of people, are they themselves the brand? Each day social media workers essentially create a cocktail of marketing, shaping and steering the brand voice. In the past, a brand’s voice was confined to radio, print, and commercials, now it’s reeled out in every medium imaginable, including live videos, back and forth conversations, and even ongoing relationships in some cases.

The humans behind these brands don’t get talked about enough, partially because the media/masses are more excited by the angle of a brand on social media than a person, and partially because it complicates matters for the brand. Anytime someone is public about representing a brand, they incidentally become a brand ambassador themselves. Suddenly what they say or do matters because it reflects on the company in some capacity (which is why you see those silly “my personal views don’t reflect my employer” bio disclaimers). Most companies want to avoid that because they want to be seen as one entity, not as the people behind it. People are complicated. They make mistakes, disagree, and are difficult to control. A brand, on the other hand, can exist safely in its own dimension. However, as of 2018 many companies want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to keep the fourth wall up between the workers behind them and the consumers in front of them by establishing a consistent messaging and relationship at arm’s length, yet they also want their social media representatives to express more of themselves through the account, being hyper-committed and uniquely human. In a way it’s like they’re saying, “I want to use all the individual characteristics that make up your identity for marketing… but I don’t want your actual identity.” This is the ultimate bottom line drawing all brands do, which inevitably exploits the workers representing them and creates a confusing new environment for everyone involved.

There are also convenient connections made between social media people and the brands they manage when the brand is being criticized, and convenient disconnections made between them when the brand is being praised. For example, when a brand is in the news for their good work on social media, there will likely be no mention of the individuals running it. The PR focus is on the company or the representing agency. Yet whenever a brand is in the news for backlash from a bad post, you will almost always see them throw their social media person/people under the bus. The rhetoric can quickly go from, “Our content is carefully strategized to align directly with our brand values” to “the content this employee made is not what we represent and we were unaware it was posted.” Obviously this is tied into the inherent responsibility of marketers to make clients look good and do PR damage control as needed, but the double standard still adds to this slippery slope toward exploiting social media workers and continuing the stereotype of them being incompetent interns.

All this ties into the confusion people feel when interacting with brands online. A person might have fun interactions with a brand they like, then simultaneously be vitriolic toward one they don’t like. Part of that is human nature, but part is due to media driven attitudes of social media advertising as a whole, which rarely tell the stories of the people behind the brands. Brands on social media display the full gambit of not just customer service, but advertising, PR, brand development, and more, all wrapped up in one department. Knowing that, how we choose to define the line between brands and the people behind them dictates our behavior toward both. Once you define that line for yourself, the next big questions to ask are:

These are questions that disturb nearly every brand in the world from political parties to tech giants to local businesses to bankers and beyond. Slowly but surely, that’s where we’re headed if we keep on this trajectory. People continually demand more transparency. We want to know who really runs the brands we follow, where our politicians are funded from, how our food is prepared, where our goods are made, and we want the option to make those informed consumer choices for ourselves. It’s important to caveat here that there’s a separate systematic discussion to be had on this topic around the socioeconomics of income inequality. Many people trapped in lower income brackets don’t have the power to demand this transparency and even if they did, they would be unable to act in the same ways as consumers with more income to leverage. That disparity is a dictating factor in people’s motives or ability to choose luxury items, which is layered on top of our preexisting individual needs for comfort and social capital. Tabling that discussion for another time, think about this — what if it turned out today that Apple was openly committing some close to home moral atrocities? How many people would stop buying their products?

Being informed comes with a cost. Some are willing to pay it, while others are not ready or able to.

When it was discovered that the CEO of Urban Outfitters was donating money Rick Santorum, who is anti-LGBTQ, mobs flooded the internet. The story went viral and thousands of people signaled that they would no longer shop at the store in protest. And yet… most people went right back to buying their favorite clothes there. It’s a bit like when you’re at a party and someone starts talking about how everyone’s smartphones are made in sweatshops. For a moment it strikes a chord, but a moment later it bounces off. “I could never give up my smartphone” we think. On the flip side, when the president of Papa John’s Pizza, John Schnatter, was found to have made racist comments in a conference call, the masses took to the online world by creating massive pressure to the company, forcing him to step down. People didn’t forget this time. However, it’s also important to note that it’s a lot easier to boycott a company like Papa John’s than it is to boycott one like Apple. We find mixed cases on the effects of online outrage because we’re still in the infancy stages of online culture and each person is wrapped up in their own cognitive dissonance, which allows each of us to function day to day by focusing energy on select social issues, while dismissing others.

What we’re seeing here is a sign of our social conscience shifting. It’s the first time people on a global scale have been able to connect and organize in this way. People have power. Whether that reveals a net positive or negative is yet to be seen, but it clearly has potential to be valuable for society to keep power structures in check (there’s a broader conversation to be had on whether or not online outrage should be able to dictate someone’s employment or a company’s status, but that’s another rabbit hole). Point being, this is just the beginning. As the fourth wall comes down and the masses realize that it’s just people behind brands, they realize how much influence they really have, which forces brands to reevaluate their approach moving forward. If you work for a brand, how will you react to controversy? How will you fix something you broke? When the clock is ticking and the online world is getting angrier by the minute, what is your plan? In recent memory the general strategy was through some vacuous, carefully worded press statement. That doesn’t cut it anymore. People want to hear something real. Sincere. Transparent. Human.

Taking a step back we can all admit that brands acting human is intrinsically strange, but lets be honest… we live in strange times. It’s the era of memes affecting political outcomes, growing meat in labs, and printing 3D body parts. Strangeness aside, it’s also important to keep in mind that we live in a producer-consumer based world. What we buy is driven by demand (and yes fellow critics, I know it is also manipulated by powerful influences). Brands taking on more human personas is a new evolution of that. The goal of most advertisers has always been to blur the lines of what an ad is to get into people’s subconscious without being overtly obvious or offensive. This can be used on a scale between good and evil, depending on what the company is, who the people are behind it, what they’re selling, how they’re selling it, and so on. It’s not as simple as good or bad, unless you follow the Marxist idea that there can be no ethical consumption under capitalism. Gene Park made a great point to me about how grey this can become on social media:

“I do find it a bit eerie to see every account under a single corporate banner promote and talk amongst each other. Cross promotion is great but there’s something unsettling about corporate synergy that doesn’t rest well with me, as if it’s a reminder of our shrinking economic power structures.”

On some level, the emotional appeal of brands taking on human personas is inherently devious because it tricks people into creating a connection to the brand through the person/people behind it. No matter how genuine the people involved are or how altruistic the work is, the brand goal is ultimately some sale-oriented bottom line. When brands do this with each other, it multiplies that effect into a whole online community of shared advertising. It would be a bit like befriending a person or group that is decked out in a brand’s swag 24/7 and predominantly talked through that brand’s voice. Maybe you would connect through interests or shared experiences, but at some point you’re going to say, “hey… can you take that outfit off and stop using bad puns about your brand? It’s getting weird.”

These tactics aren’t unique to social. We see appeal to emotion in advertising all across the board. Toy manufacturers use television shows or movies to sell products, popular influencers are hired to show off products because people worship them, activist companies like PETA use sexual and violent tactics to provoke reactions. People crave connection, entertainment, and binary ingroup-outgroup thinking, so naturally anyone selling anything will look to exploit those baseline instincts, including people generally not thought of as part of this critique, such as entrepreneurs, artists, or journalists. There’s a hypocrisy by critics who report on the manipulation of advertising because they themselves play in the same game in order to build an audience, generate clicks, or some other means to an end. That observation isn’t a “gotchya” to say everyone is equally harmful or that hypocrisy somehow negates their points, it’s merely a social admittance that we each need to make if we’re going to be honest about the confines we’re playing in.

There are multiple layers of critical analysis that can be made about all this, from the broader capitalist-consumer based system we exist in, to the blurry lines of advertising, to the specific boundaries of social media marketing, and beyond. Addressing these critiques requires looking internally not just at ourselves, but at all our systems in place. Each day our personal lives become more integrated into these social platforms. We’re fusing with our technology, and our technology is run by advertisers. We all currently use social media for free because advertisers spend billions of dollars each year to advertise on it, then they mine our information to create even better targeting. We’re inundated by hundreds, if not thousands of ads each day, most of which primarily infiltrate our subconscious because we can’t consciously process them. In a way we trade our privacy for access. The more those ads become integrated, the more transparent the brands they represent will have to become, thus the more complicated this entire conversation gets.

Most industry professionals have been slow to discuss the nuanced cultural implications of this advertising evolution because their main priority is protecting their brands and meeting their bottom line. They’d rather know what new algorithms Instagram is using or what blockchain means for their businesses. They’re not interested until it directly affects their ability to generate profit. Every news story that’s published about brands breaking down the fourth wall is a threat to corporate interests and brands in general because everyone is putting on a front, both on an individual level and a brand level to enhance public perception online. We post what we want other people to see and cover up the rest. As for the solution to future advertising integration? Who knows. Maybe the market will balance itself out. Maybe the government will install regulations. Maybe people will come together to demand total transparency. Or maybe we’re headed toward a cliff where the powers that be will seize control and prevent any critical changes that are demanded from the masses.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

No matter where you stand in the world of online advertising, the fourth wall that separates brands from consumers is coming down and we need to start seriously thinking about the world we’ll create once the dust is settled.

Article originally published on Linkedin here on October 23rd, 2018

writer covering internet culture, advertising, and conspiracy theories

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