When I was an editorial staff writer at BuzzFeed, I wrote a post called “15 Things That Diet Coke Addicts Don’t Want to Hear About Anymore,” wherein I defiantly accepted the health risks of excessive Diet Coke drinking and only half-jokingly pledged allegiance to the beverage over my own family. While I should have recognized my deranged and pathological attachment to the toxic stuff, I focused more on the 778,000+ views and 23,000+ Facebook shares it got and felt better that I was not alone in my feelings that Diet Coke is not just a soda but a magical friend dressed in aluminum.
While Coca-Cola is a corporation that has been making us emotional for years by connecting their products with our feelings, the list of personified brands that come complete with attitudes, voices, and values is growing rapidly. These brands show off their wits and their care for consumers so effectively that we’ve come to value their adulatory, shallow offerings as authentic and reciprocal relationships.
There are many who see friendlier, more approachable brands as a welcome shift away from advertising that was once poorly targeted and considered mostly a nuisance. In a market economy, we will inevitably encounter brands, and it is understandable that we want a pleasant customer-oriented experience. But the shift from transactional relationships with brands to emotional ones has the potential to distort our relationship expectations in a way that makes us value brands over people. That might seem like an underestimation of our ability to differentiate brands from humans, but there is no denying the appeal of a relationship wherein we are endlessly catered to and entertained without the attendant accountability of responding in turn.
If you are imagining a Gollum-like creature caressing a Hot Pocket and whispering “Preciousssss” in a cave swamp, you are not alone.
Before social media, brands often made themselves familiar to consumers with celebrity spokespeople and cutesy fictional brand characters that made them more approachable. We trusted Cindy Crawford not to mislead us about Pepsi and possibly fantasized that the Brawny paper towel man would be comfortable enough in his masculinity to help out in the kitchen. But the rise of social media has made it possible for advertisers to develop independent personas for their brands by employing clever social media managers to animate formerly static logos, which have infiltrated our feeds with witty, often self-effacing quips.
The slew of clever accounts has inspired lists like “The 13 Sassiest Brands on Twitter” that celebrate, among other things, the fact that the Hot Pockets Twitter is some kind of an online pervert. Our decision to reward this behavior indicates that people feel a commitment to brands and even an emotional attachment not dissimilar from human attachments.
Recently, Facebook posted an update titled “News Feed FYI: Balancing Content From Friends and Pages,” that promised to give brands more real estate on our News Feeds. “The goal of News Feed is to show you the content that matters to you,” it explains. That “content that matters” is a mix of consumer and media brands, public figures, and, of course, our own friends. It is a fair enough mission to provide users a variety of material to engage with, but the impetus for doing so is telling. “Lastly, many people have told us they don’t enjoy seeing stories about their friends liking or commenting on a post,” the post continues. “This update will make these stories appear lower down in News Feed or not at all, so you are more likely to see the stuff you care about directly from friends and the pages you have liked.”
Facebook came into existence because of the idea that people want to learn what their friends like and care about, hence the idea of a social network. A News Feed that relegates or even disappears the engagements our friends make on Facebook, however obnoxious those feelings can be, replaces fellow humans with their own agendas with brands that tell us exactly what we want to hear without having any actual human needs of their own.
A 2005 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that people develop emotional attachments to brands in the same way that they make attachments to other people. The study was careful to differentiate between brand attitudes and brand attachments, with attachments having characteristics like a feeling of distress at separation and a tendency to seek security in the object, person, or brand.
The study found a correlation between a brand’s financial success and the level of emotional attachment people felt to the brand, indicating that these attachments do indeed translate to higher consumption. In a rather chilling section of the study’s conclusion, the researchers noted the need to differentiate between types of brand attachment to predict interaction with brands. “A consumer whose brand attachment is characterized as high in connection might expend considerable effort to preserve that brand,” they wrote, “perhaps through brand collections and ritualized care of the brand.” If you are imagining a Gollum-like creature caressing a Hot Pocket and whispering “Preciousssss” in a cave swamp, you are not alone.
A more recent survey conducted by customer experience management company InMoment found that four out of five consumers who left feedback for a brand selected “I enjoy offering my feedback and making a difference” as a reason for doing so, while more than 40 percent of consumers said it was their primary reason. Consumers also cared twice as much about feeling “valued” and “acknowledged” by a brand than about feeling “rewarded” by it.
Recent research at IBM found that 61 percent of respondents would willingly share personally identifiable information with a trusted brand but 80 percent felt that brands didn’t know them as individuals. But as more and more brands learn to cater to us as individuals in their efforts to sell products, it may change our idea of relationships. In a video accompanying the research, one woman says: “A great brand experience would be a brand that’s kind of like my best friend. They know what I want and need when I want it.” That sounds more like a mind-reading servant than a best friend. In reality, a best friend is more likely to give you a no-nonsense talk about all the shit you’re buying because of your emotionally manipulative brand friend.
Consumers cared twice as much about feeling “valued” and “acknowledged” by a brand than about feeling “rewarded” by it.
Mega-brand Coca-Cola has learned to activate friendly feelings with consumers in even more elaborate ways than having their Twitter flirt with people. The “Share a Coke” campaign is a case in point that involved putting common names on Coke products and making customized bottles and cans available to order online. The #shareacoke hashtag spread across social media and featured consumers hanging out with their Coke cans as if they were just really short members of the crew. A Scottish man named Donnie even proposed marriage to his girlfriend Eloise by setting up a row Coke bottles in the refrigerator that spelled out “Beautiful Eloise Will You Marry Me.”
Like a good friend, Coca-Cola caught wind of the engagement and created a photo of two Coke bottles, with the couple’s names on them, leaning in as if to kiss. The photo also read: “Congratulations on your engagement.” Donnie told Coca-Cola: “We were amazed when Coca-Cola posted a congratulatory photo and when the CEO of Intervino, which prints the labels for Share a Coke in the UK, reached out to us. This made our engagement feel even more special.” Though it is possible that Donnie is an aspiring beverage label printing executive, the enthusiasm for the CEO making a PR phone call more likely indicates outsized excitement about a brand that managed to weave itself into the new family’s origin story.
One example of the friendly brand strategy going awry is the much-publicized Super Bowl prank that Gawker played on Coca-Cola’s “Make It Happy” campaign. Allegedly inspired to combat online negativity, Coca-Cola called on consumers to tweet negative online comments at their account that an algorithm would then transform into pictures of cute things like cats playing drums and sentient baby pirate ships. Gawker built a bot that made Coca-Cola tweet Mein Kampf line by line in these pictures for several hours. This was little more than brands out-branding each other: Affable brown-noser Coca Cola being taken on by clever but self-righteous Gawker.
The public reaction cast Gawker as a bully and Coca-Cola as a wounded kid who just wanted to spread a little cheer. Some went so far as to call it “a Gawker hate crime.” This is absurd. The stunt itself highlighted that Coca-Cola’s campaign mechanism was not a team of cheerful sentient Coke employees but an easily manipulated artificial intelligence. Despite that, the reaction was still human sympathy. The whole fiasco was one for-profit company’s robot tricking another for-profit company’s robot. These entities are as capable of committing hate crimes and being the victims of hate crimes as a Hot Pocket or a can of Diet Coke.
There is some temptation to call brands malevolent by virtue of their profit-seeking nature, but that is crediting them with too much human agency. It is not a secret that brand advertising which makes us feel good has an ulterior motive of selling us things. What is more troubling than their profit-seeking motivations is the fact that we inadvertently emotionally invest in brands and help them earn those profits on purpose. We give them far too much credit for giving us experiences when they are really just giving us things.
Brands may be more personified than ever, but it is in such a one-dimensional and transparently insincere way that we should resist attaching to them. If we trust a company to consistently make good pants, we should reward them by buying their pants, not by surrendering our personal data because they’ve earned some modicum of trust by delivering a decent product. If we have a good customer service experience, we should say, “Thank you,” not compete to get on the voluntary customer feedback board. And though I don’t work at BuzzFeed anymore, perhaps I would have been well advised to simply drink and enjoy the enchanting brown elixir rather than erect a digital advertising shrine to its virtues for 778,000 people to see.
The Science of Relationships examines the sexual, romantic, and platonic connections that we all share.