Sometime during the 2016 campaign, American culture stuck out its tongue and—against all prudent advice—began careening down an enormous hill. The descent has rapidly picked up speed in the years since, sometimes feeling like an unhinged bit that never turns off, sometimes a genuine tragedy, and sometimes the same as ever. For the last six months, though, our pop cultural acceleration has ramped up to the point of speed wobbles—heading for a massive wipeout, with us along for the ride.
Even putting everything in the political arena aside, something is majorly off with the brands. Like the rest of us, they seem to be completely losing it on Twitter.
Newly fetid waters of some kind of marketer's Rubicon were crossed in September, when the Twitter account for Steak-umm—some kind of frozen, pulverized meat brand—embarked on a viral rant about generational disenfranchisement, loneliness, student debt, mental-health issues, social media addiction, and our parasitic remake culture of endless sequels.
Since then, a mounting trove of deranged tweets has emitted from the Cheshire mouths of brand accounts. They often slip by ad blockers—browser extensions that remove paid advertisements from view—as they are shared as screenshots and quote tweets by horrified users, and not as ads proper. These include juice-like brand Sunny Delight posting about its apparent suicidal ideation, Little Debbie snacks tagging along with seemingly coordinated advice for those who feel similarly, and Burger King promoting its "not-so-Happy Meals," now rebranded for an age of swelling anxiety and depression. Netflix's branded accounts (they are legion) have been squabbling with random users, issuing performatively "woke" callouts, ostensibly in the name of social justice, and have developed a pervasive undercurrent of pathological horniness. A tweet from megabank Chase sarcastically tsk-tsk'd its customers for not pulling their bank accounts up by the bootstraps.
In their desperation to be memed, shared—even shouted down into oblivion—these bizarre tweets didn't come from nowhere. They're all blatant ripoffs of different kinds of terminally online identities and extreme posting styles: woke Twitter; lecherous reply guys; catastrophically lustful fan communities; depressive shit-posters; adults who appropriate African American Vernacular English; loud libertarians; the whole menagerie.
It's not as if brands only began mimicking the slang, memes, and tenor of the young and online last year. The Twitter account Brands Saying Bae has maintained periodic documentation of the dregs of this marketing behavior since 2014. And brands have been doing analog versions of this, at least as far back as their mining of the 1960s counterculture for consumerist ends, as documented by Thomas Frank in The Conquest of Cool—think the "Pepsi Generation" ad campaign. Though lacking the horrible memeified desperation of contemporary advertising culture, an ethos of wacky, postmodern referentiality and irreverence have prevailed since the 1990s—with early precursors in the self-deprecating Volkswagen "Lemon" and "Think Small" campaigns that ran during the Eisenhower presidency.
"Advertising has a constant desire to co-opt cultural forms and values on behalf of corporations," says Michael Serazio, a communications professor at Boston College and author of Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing. Nevertheless, he describes a broad "shift away from product utility toward consumer identity" in brand marketing since the 1990s. Whereas decades ago, most advertising touted a product's high quality and purportedly distinct qualities (Lucky Strike: "It's toasted to taste better!"), today's marketing strives to shake the potential consumer into relatability, forcing them to concede: "it me."
But how did we get here? In No Logo, the anti-corporate Gen-Xer's bible, the journalist Naomi Klein offers one intriguing hypothesis: the now mostly forgotten "Marlboro Friday." In April of 1993, Phillip Morris abruptly cut the price of Marlboro packs by 20 percent, causing the company's stock to drop by a reported 26 percent, or $10 billion, that day. Following suit, stock prices also plummeted for many industry leading brands: Coke, Pepsi, Heinz, Quaker Oats, RJR Nabisco, and Procter and Gamble.
As Klein tells it, to many at the time, "Marlboro Friday" sounded the death knell for brands. If the undisputed premium brand of cigarettes couldn't sustain its elevated prices, then perhaps this meant that ads touting product quality no longer worked. She describes the price cut and its fallout as a wildly destabilizing event for Madison Avenue, Wall Street, and related circles—the fear being that the Homo economicus had finally arrived, the consumer who made purchase decisions based only on price. Brands were about to be a thing of the past. "If one or two powerhouse consumer products companies start to cut prices for good, there's going to be an avalanche," Klein quotes the national director of consumer products marketing for the consulting firm Ernst & Young as saying, "Welcome to the value generation."
Obviously, brands are still here, if not quite of sound mind lately. Klein argues that, instead of quietly accepting their fate, brands responded to Marlboro Friday by doubling down even harder on mimicking jaded '90s youth-speak and adopting new anti-advertising, guerrilla marketing techniques. Reading No Logo with Twitter open in another browser window, it's not hard to connect the dots from her two-decades old argument to today's online brand behavior.
Not everyone buys what Klein is selling though. "Marlboro Friday is not high on my radar as a turning point within the marketing industry," says Mara Einstein, the chair of media studies at Queens College and author of Black Ops Advertising: Native Ads, Content Marketing and the Covert World of the Digital Sell. "I was working in the industry at that point, and it's not something that I remember being particularly fearful about."
Perhaps Marlboro Friday was at least as much about Wall Street traders' perceptions about the state of branding as it was about the evolving ethos of the advertising industry. "Marlboro Friday was a cluster of things: increasing health awareness and tobacco taxes, fewer people smoking, lots of lawsuits—multiple points of crisis," says Roberta Newman, an advertising historian at New York University, who wrote Here's the Pitch: The Amazing, True, New, and Improved Story of Baseball and Advertising. Still, she says Klein is correct that cost-conscious, generic brands were a rising force to be reckoned with at the time—one that affected how marketing was carried out "The whole concept of advertising started to change at that point."
Nevertheless, Marlboro Friday's role in that change, and in the eventual rise of Bad Brand Tweets, is probably subordinate to technological change—specifically, the shifting capacity of audiences to eschew advertising. From the mid-century introduction of the remote control, through DVR in the early aughts, to the ad blockers and spam filters of now, "with each new iteration of technology, it becomes easier to avoid the ads," Serazio says.
Underlying this is an ad industry paradox. According to Einstein, the most effective advertising is and has always been straightforward information about what's for sale, how much it costs, and how to buy it—effective, that is, if only anyone would see it. "People don't stop and look at advertising," she says. "They don't want to engage with advertising, and will do everything they can to avoid it."
Ad firms have been updating their understanding of ad avoidance and trying to counteract it at least since the Mad Men of the '60s. "Through focus group marketing and one-on-one interviews, they began to have psychological researchers try to understand the intellectual mindset of people when they were buying products and services," Einstein says. During the 1980s, traditional marketing incorporated the burgeoning British practice of account planning, which she says designated "somebody within the creative process [as] the voice of the consumer."
Serazio also points to the rise of the Persuasion Knowledge Model—introduced the year after Marlboro Friday—which says that "every time we see something that looks like an ad, there's something in our brain that clicks and basically says, 'That's bullshit, I don't believe it,'" he says. "Increasingly, consumers have refined their sophistication in recognizing when something's an ad."
This led to the rise of "guerrilla marketing" or, as Serazio puts it, "advertising that desperately wants to not look like advertising."
Today, breaking through ad avoidance takes forms such as sponsored posts from Instagram Influencers, branded content disguised as journalism, and, of course, Bad Brand Tweets. To even acknowledge them is to play into their strategy: To share a bad tweet, even disparagingly, is to bring it into others' feeds. Even this article is a weary concession to the brands' desperate attention-mongering.
These strategy shifts are, again, inextricable from technological change: "The personal aspect of our phones can't be separated from how we engage with the content that appears on it," Einstein says. So perhaps it's unsurprising that advertising in personalized, digital spaces has taken the voice of the consumer to the extreme.
Also influential are the mechanics of sharing on Twitter and other social media platforms. One way to get people not to avoid the ads? Enrage them. "The whole point of social media is share-ability, and people are more likely to share things that arouse certain emotions, particularly anger," Einstein says, "or if it's something that's just really unusual."
A final element influencing the rise of the Bad Brand Tweet was the 2008 financial crisis. In the wake of the Great Recession, many companies had less money to spend, and looked for cheaper ways for their campaigns to reach more people, Newman says. This led to a second, hyper-contemporary ad industry paradox: Digital marketing is cheap and far more individually targeted than any of its predecessor forms, but in some ways it's less informed than ever.
With less money available for marketing, the kind of research that used to be done before an ad launch doesn't happen anymore. "It's really inexpensive to put a lot of this stuff up in a way it wasn't. In the past, you had to do tests, and get approvals to run particular content," Newman says. "You don't have any of that stuff anymore. There's nobody watching." Instead, there's a lot of throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.
Though the chasm of ignorance may have widened, some degree of flying blind has always been an ad man's occupational hazard. The aphorism "I know half my advertising is wasted; I just don't know which half" is often attributed to the 19th-century department store baron and advertising innovator John Wanamaker.
But for all the apocalyptic bit-gone-too-far-ness of today's deranged tweets, do they work?
It depends on the definition of work. "If you're talking about 'engagement'—the single most fetishized word in the ad world today—then, yes, there is evidence that folks 'engage' more with these new, guerrilla forms than other, more staid formats, contexts, and messages," Serazio says. But, in terms of selling products, companies are mostly "throwing stuff at the wall because nobody really knows what will work tomorrow. And if you don't try, your competitor will, and might succeed. So fear drives momentum here, too, as in all human endeavors."
So are we stuck with a skyward-growing pile of advertising debris that nobody wants to see, in which the stupidity is the point, and which might not even work at all? Perhaps. But if the ghosts of marketing past are any indication, at the very least, the Bad Tweets may only be a temporary illness. "Advertising is very trend-based. One agency creates something, and everybody runs after them and copies it," Newman says. "You'll see an increase [in brand tweets] to a certain point where there's a huge backlash against it, and then agencies will come up with new strategies."
On to the next madness. That is, if we—and the brands themselves—survive this galloping tumult of manic un-wellness.