Content warning: brief mention of depression, suicide
Way back in the day, in the year 1926, there was a company that produced a brushless shaving cream called Burma-Shave. They wanted to increase sales, and the recent rise in popularity of the automobile led to an idea that would change advertising forever: witty roadside signs. They would write rhyming slogans, split them across multiple signs, and place them on the sides of the new highways nationwide.
Now can snore
Six more minutes
-The sort of slogans printed on Burma-Shave signs
Fast forward: today, the internet has revolutionized the way we advertise. “People who came out of college with degrees, or even people who have been in marketing for years, all of a sudden, they found themselves saying, ‘Well, what are we supposed to do with this?’ And nobody knows! There’s a chapter in the textbook, but even it is so incredibly far behind,” says Jane Bell, GU’s own marketing professor.
“You kind of have two different options. You can either be just really selling your product, talking about your product, and some social media accounts do that. Others just want to engage with customers or engage with potential customers. And so, obviously, you’re not interested in reading all about what Wendy’s has on the menu because you probably already know that. But, you might be interested if they tell a joke, or if they have a funny video; that might get you engaged more than just posting things about that particular product.”
She’s not wrong. More and more companies have made the shift in tone from “regularly scheduled updates on sales and limited time offers” to “lol look at this meme #blessedanddepressed.” Take, for instance, the progression of the MoonPie Twitter account. It began early on posting tweets like this one:
That strategy made for almost no brand engagement (at the time of writing, I am actually the only person on Twitter who has liked that tweet). A few years passed, and the account pivoted and began posting tweets like this:
This pivot worked in their favor, at the time of writing, that tweet has almost thirteen thousand likes, and over two thousand replies. Ironically, MoonPie has found success doing what Burma-Shave did all those years ago: creating a conversation around their product. People would point out the Burma-Shave signs to one another on road trips, there’s even books today compiling all of the 600+ rhymes that were once spread across the continental United States. Many of those rhymes had little to nothing to do with the product itself, but by making the signs ubiquitous and witty, it led to the words “Burma-Shave” burrowing their way in to the American cultural consciousness.
At the time, it was difficult to spread one’s branded wittiness, it required the production and placement of hundreds of physical signs. Now, however, communication is instantaneous, and we have hundreds of thousands of companies lined up at the shouting match vying for our attention.
500 million-The average number of Tweets per day on Twitter
Professor Bell explains: “Sometimes products aren’t that exciting. So, if you’re buying tools (a hammer or a screwdriver or something), what are you going to do? (apart from, you know, ‘buy your Dewalt screwdriver’). It’s not that exciting. So, you need to do something fun and clever to get people’s attention. Just think about how many tweets are tweeted every day. I mean, how are you going to get attention in all of the noise of social media, advertising, online web sites, everything? There’s a lot of noise out there and they’re trying to get your attention. And, if they have to get it by being a little quirky, well…”
Which leads us to the tweet at the start of the article, the tweet which prompted my investigation into this subject matter. SunnyD (an orange-flavored drink that tastes almost, but not quite, entirely unlike orange juice) posted “I can’t do this anymore,” which, at the time it was posted, was in reference to the Super Bowl score. However, as tweets come devoid of context, many believed it to be a depressed/suicidal cry for help (or at least, a #relatable imitation of one by a marketing department). Other brands began jumping in, providing emotional support:
SunnyD, for their part, played along with the idea of their tweet as a depressed cry for help, and began responding in kind to the various other brands:
Curious to understand why an orange drink was imitating a depressed person, I asked Professor Bell to explain more about the basics of brand engagement.
“There’s three main ways you can approach it: one is humor, and that does get your attention. Another is fear, and it doesn’t have to be fear, like, ‘oh my gosh, I’m going to have a car accident.’ But even, fear of ‘I don’t fit in,’ or fear of ‘I don’t have the right product,’ or some other fear of mine. And then, of course, sexuality always sells. You’ll see plenty of that in any type of advertising, and not just the raw sex kind of thing, but also, just beauty, handsomeness, those sort of things. So, things that appeal to people in just a physical visual appeal.”
MoonPie obviously took the route of appealing through humor, and for an example of appeal through sexuality, one needs to look no further than Planet Fitness (pictured right). So what is this? Is SunnyD appealing through fear? There doesn’t seem to be any implication of “drink SunnyD or you’ll be suicidally depressed,” in fact, quite the opposite, as it’s the drink company itself tweeting these things.
No, instead, it seems as if we’ve reached a point in which, in order to be seen as a relatable brand persona to social media users, brands now mimic the behaviors of depressed individuals. And it works, people find these brands relatable enough to get in legitimate conversations with an orange drink company. These brands are seen not as tendrils of massive corporations or as the focus-group-tested results of marketing departments, but as one individual persona, your depressed friend who cracks jokes, SunnyD.
However, the idea of an individual making these tweets clashes with the reality of the situation, per Jane Bell: “When we’ve talked at different ad agencies, they have a very strict gate of how their tweets, or their posts on Instagram, or anything else goes through when they write them, who gets to approve it. The intern can’t just put something on there…. [the tweets are written] very far in advance so they’re probably already writing their tweets that they’re going to post for spring/summer now, and brands do want to create a brand personality. You think about Harley Davidson, for instance: what’s their brand personality? So, they continue to build on that because that draws people into that type of culture around their product.”
Regardless of one’s views on the subject, the fact remains that the phenomena of brands being treated as fellow people on social media isn’t going away. The question then becomes…why are so many young people flocking to brands on social media for love, guidance, and attention?
I think I’ll get with the times and allow my close personal friend Steak-umm to answer this one. Click below to be taken to his/her (what gender is a Steakumm?) lengthy Twitter thread examining the issue.