By Zayn Rashid
I’m sure that many of those reading this article are TikTok users who have at least once checked the comments on a popular video to see it flooded with blue checkmarks and corporate logos. Over the course of the past decade or so, the vast majority of customer-facing corporations have built, or have attempted to build, some form of social media presence in the hope of maintaining online relevance and expanding their market to younger generations. It’s a given that at some point, with TikTok having become one of the biggest online platforms, corporations were going to come ruin the fun, though this time in a form that we’ve never seen before.
I call this form the “we’re real people too now give us money” tactic. In the marketing world, this can be referred to as the process of “humanizing” brands. In practice, this strategy usually involves a brand account posting something trendy, funny, and oftentimes “unprofessional” in an attempt to subvert the expectations of consumers who assume that a brand account would act robotic. This defying of expectations adds to the comedic value of the jokes, and more importantly, it personifies the brand in the eyes of the consumer. This form of advertising allows companies to market to people who are only half-aware that they’re being advertised to (like that guerilla marketing episode of Community for those who have watched it).
Of course, advertising is inherently insidious – companies are almost never altruistic or transparent, and they rarely have our best interests in mind. But as this new advertising strategy comes into widespread use, the lines are beginning to blur between what’s human and what’s a corporation, and we’ve begun to let our guard down when it comes to thinking critically about what we’re being sold. This has resulted in the general public often viewing large corporations more like small businesses, making corporations feel more like a “mom and pop shop” and thus diverting business from actual small businesses towards corporations.
Through supporting this social media advertising, people are actively supporting these corporations and, by proxy, their unethical practices. Being a Tesla “fan” means supporting the use of child labour in their cobalt mines, and liking Amazon’s comment on that one video means supporting the exploitation of their thousands of underpaid workers. We’re giving these corporations the power to continue to exploit those around us, and it can only get worse from here. They’re not your friends 一 by supporting them, you’re actively contributing to your own oppression.
This strategy is frustratingly effective. It consistently fools consumers (myself included, until recently) into seeing corporations as human instead of the faceless moneymaking machines they are.
Implementations of this tactic vary both in effectiveness and extent. Duolingo’s TikTok account has now embraced memes about its murderous owl mascot and turned them into comedy sketches; Redbull is making jokes about Couch Guy in comment sections; Bedbathandbeyond has started making… berries and cream jokes? Feeds are inundated with sponsored posts of “real people” (clearly actors) unboxing and promoting products; fake social media interns are begging for likes and followers so they can “keep their jobs”; the comment section of every popular video has become nothing more than a blue checkmark infestation – mention a brand in a video and its comments turn into a massive corporate circlejerk, filled with unfunny jokes and millions of likes.
A prominent example of this tactic at play is the shitshow that came from @emilyzugay’s logo redesign series on Tiktok, in which she made a number of videos joking that she has a degree in graphic design, insulting companies’ existing logos, and (jokingly) redesigning them.
One of the first logos that she redesigned was that of the Detroit Lions, turning it into the Detroit Lines, which was followed by the football team changing their profile picture to the logo and commenting on cringey jokes about her “understanding the assignment” or something. This led to nearly all of Detroit’s comments and videos blowing up afterwards and dozens of companies following suit (woohoo free advertising!)
This quickly spiralled out of control. Nearly every verified brand account on Tiktok was begging Emily for a crappy new logo and to be included in one of her videos, in hope of allowing them to attach themselves, being big, faceless corporations, to Emily’s very literal human face. As she continued the series, corporate accounts gained hundreds of thousands of likes and followers, newfound reputations as the “funny” companies on Tiktok, and millions of dollars worth of free advertising.
This trend spawned from a video that one could argue began as pseudo-anti-capitalism. Emily had been mocking these corporate logos, and many of those that originally contributed to her videos blowing up didn’t want this awful, stale, unfunny corporate trend to begin. These companies (as usual) took something positive and monetized it, thereby sucking the life out of it, and to add insult to injury, we cheered them on as they did it.
Over the past decade, companies have consistently always found a way to monetize them, becoming the laughingstock of the internet, and we let them profit from it every time. Chips Ahoy (yeah, the cookie brand) started selling T-shirts and making animated shorts after a horribly cringeworthy ad of theirs (“when the drip is respectable”) exploded in popularity on the internet. Duolingo’s terrifying owl mascot (and the meme tagline “Spanish or vanish”) have become the center of comedy sketches on Duolingo’s brand account on Tiktok, and Discord has started making promotional Youtube videos making fun of the blinding light mode on their own app.
As much as one might assume these corporate accounts to be harmless, their actions are unethical, they are actually deceiving consumers, and they’re beginning to corrupt and take away what makes Tiktok so special – content made by real people. By supporting these brand accounts, we’re also supporting the unethical practices of the corporations, thereby contributing to the further oppression of ourselves and of those around us.
Now, the next time you’re on TikTok, I urge you to take a second to stop and think about the larger implications of double-tapping on that video of the Duolingo bird twerking.