The Blue Checkmark: TikTok and the Personification of Capitalism

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.


4 thoughts on “The Blue Checkmark: TikTok and the Personification of Capitalism

  1. I can see clearly that you are not a fan of capitalism. I can also see that you are not exactly taking a ‘balanced’ view of the situation. I think you are also basing your opinions on those of someone else, but that is just an observation. I think it is fine that companies, corporations if you wish, advertise on TikTok, whether it is obvious advertising or candid. After all these corporations give us our employment for which we then use in our consumption, so I don’t see why cooperating with them is a bad thing. Furthermore, I do not agree with your perception that corporations are posing to be small businesses and that because of this they are taking away income from real SMEs. SMEs have a very important role to play in the economy, they are the actual basis, the foundation of the economy; but not the most productive ones. The most productive businesses are actually those large, often public corporations (but they also only make up a portion of employment, because they are highly concentrated, innovative and productive). Standard businesses like bakeries, supply stores, repair shops, tax and accounting firms, etc. can never be replaced by mega corporations, at least not fully and even if they are replaced partially it wouldn’t matter because they would absorb both the employment and consumption lost by the closure of the previous businesses.

    Now the last thing that concerns me is the obvious hate towards capitalism – primarily considering companies as exploitation devices and non human. This is simply false. Fist companies are actually governed by human beings, people make things happen, there are great leaders and followers. We can discuss the details of capitalism and what is wrong about it which I will not here because it is simply to complex and economic, but it is a fact that the reason why you can write this article and even get such education to be capable of questioning capitalism (reading, YouTube, Google, school, etc.) and the device you are using, etc. is all thanks to capitalistic companies. Capitalism has a clear objective, which is profit, and so to break into profit, especially as a new entrepreneur, you have to do something that allows capital to be more attracted to you than the former industry, which is why capitalism drives innovation and productivity, especially at such extreme speeds (and naturally). And yes you can be very proud of the accomplishments of Tesla and Elon Musk, and no, you cannot have a perfect world where employees are paid an equivalent of their value (you wouldn’t even have capitalism in such a scenario) and at least now you cannot expect for various industries to be in full control of their supply chain, dictate every reality, and deal with every country. Some things will happen out of our control and we just have to accept that it won’t be perfect. These demands are simply unrealistic. If there is a cobalt or what have you plant in some poor country that doesn’t adhere to our standards as a rich nation, we can’t just expect Tesla or other companies to go into protest, it is not sustainable and instead of blaming, we should work towards making those poor countries more advanced so that such extreme exploitation won’t exist (if this is even reasonable). But the only way we could do this is actually to increase capitalist production as much as possible so that these countries can catch up with the developed world, so if anything Tesla’s or Procter and Gamble, J&J, GM or TikTok or whoever’s business in these countries is a positive for their people in the long term (essentially what China did, ‘opening up’).


    1. I wasn’t trying to take an objective stance on the situation or appear to do so – my article is in the opinion section of the website for a reason.

      In your comment, you said that we should be supporting corporations because they create jobs. While that is true, the workers employed by these large corporations are exploited (underpaid, made to work in inhumane conditions, etc.), in pursuit of profit. These workers have no real choice in the matter, as they rarely have or are able to achieve the financial freedom needed to pursue different employment options and the education necessary to work their way up the socio-economic ladder. I would argue that in order for workers to be treated responsibly, the perpetrators (large corporations) need to be held accountable.

      You said that you don’t believe that corporations are indirectly diverting businesses from small businesses by using this marketing tactic, but failed to elaborate on why. This advertising strategy mimics the personality and humanity of small businesses- part of their appeal. When companies like McDonald’s start literally attaching a human face to their brand, it appeals to the same desire for humanity and personality that makes people more likely to shop at small businesses.

      You also said that small businesses provide services irreplaceable by corporations, and as a result aren’t threatened by them, but time and time again it’s been proven that someone will find a way to monetize anything at a large scale. Uber destroyed the taxi industry, chain restaurants have been gaining market share from small businesses for decades, and even businesses like bakeries are losing market share to chains like Cobs for a multitude of reasons (including the disparity in productivity between SMEs and corporations you previously mentioned). Although the employment and consumption lost by the closure of SMEs would be absorbed by these corporations, the outcome would be almost entirely negative for both the consumers and workers, as the workers would inherit the inferior working conditions, pay, and hours, and the reduced competition would eventually drive up prices, negatively affecting consumers too.

      I would argue that what makes corporations so robotic is their one and only goal – the pursuit of profit. Once a company reaches such a size, its only goal will be to increase revenue through any means possible. This often means reducing worker pay, reducing worker safety precautions, increasing hours, etc. The preprogrammed steps needed to generate profit is what makes each and every person in a corporation replaceable – even the CEO. As much as one might like to idolize Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, their companies could be led equally as well, if not better by an alternative CEO. Each cog can be switched out easily, and the operation of the slow, clunky machine will rarely change at all. The machine hardly has any human parts – it simply does what makes money.

      I believe that I have the right to critique the system that I involuntarily take part in, and the device that I used to write the article being created by a capitalistic company is irrelevant to whether or not I should be allowed to criticize this exploitative and oppressive system. We’re both using the internet – a network built off of government funding, but that doesn’t mean that either of our criticisms of our government are any less valid. Besides, the innovation that was necessary to create the device I’m using isn’t only possible under capitalism. Innovation for the sake of innovation has led to some of our greatest inventions; the world wide web, the credit card strip, matches, most medical advances, even the game Tetris.

      While the motive of profit admittedly does breed innovation, innovation for profit rarely coincides with innovation that benefits humanity. Problems like climate change continue to exist, largely because it’s profitable for corporations to ignore them and use cheaper, polluting options. Humanity won’t continue to move forward for long under capitalism, in fact our hunger for money is leading to our own extinction.

      I also find that supporting Tesla does still mean supporting the child labour used in their cobalt mines. Although Tesla may have not been aware of their own cobalt mining sweatshops, outsourcing the labour still comes with the responsibility to see if they’re operating in an ethical manner. However it’s more profitable for Tesla to turn a blind eye to their own malpractice (even after it’s become common knowledge), since it’s cheaper to ignore it and continue to use cheap labour. By supporting these corporations, you are supporting this lack of accountability. You also said that in order to end the aforementioned exploitation of workers in developing countries, we should increase capitalist production in these countries so they can catch up with the developed world. However, under capitalism, the exploited poorer countries will only continue to be exploited for profit. When Thomas Sankara’s socialist government came into office in Burkina Faso, they implemented mass vaccinations, infrastructure improvements, expansions of women’s rights, and much more before Sankara’s assasination in 1987. He vastly improved the state of the country, not by increasing capitalist production, but through government programs.

      You also said in your comment that if workers were paid an equivalent of the value of their labour, we wouldn’t even be living in a capitalist society, which is kind of my point. Workers should be paid an equivalent of the value of their labour – members of the capitalist class shouldn’t reap the rewards of someone else’s labour.


      1. Basically to sum up, you are getting everything wrong. Like literally everything. Your understanding of socialist policies is totally off. Any socialist policy that benefits the economy must exist in a capitalistic way. The unproductive moves in sync with the productive (Adam Smith even mentions this very important point in The Wealth of Nations). The reason why a society has so much military and art and education is because of the riches of its productive sectors because the productive pay for the productive, once again, Adam Smith theory and discovery from a long time ago (and we can see this historically). And the Burkina economy has grown much faster in 5 year increments of the last 20 year (due to a dramatic increase in capitalist production in Africa) than it did during the 5 year term of Sankara. From 2003-2008 GDP doubled, while from 1983-1987, about 4 years, I know 4 isn’t 5 but close enough, the GDP went up about 50%. Mobutu did similar things but over his 30 years in power the Congolese economy completely failed. Gaddafi did great socialist things as well, but once again, derived from capitalistic output and for the general prosperity of production. And yes, people don’t need capitalism to make things or produce, but it is a reason why we, here, produce. Yes most inventions were made for the sake of inventing, but we buy them from capitalistic means and interests like computers, the internet, light bulb etc. And the government can pay for programs and infrastructure by taxing capitalism and borrowing from it. If there was not the incentive, it would not be produced on such a large scale. Command economies like in the Soviet Union where output equaled utility (income) failed, and in fact it was the New Economic Policy from Lenin that saved the Russian revolution (it is important that you search all this up, especially the New Economic Policy because it will amaze you, and how comparable it is to China’s Socialist Market Economy). Capitalism is a catalyst and a supporter of production. And yes, the leaders of a company matter greatly, leaders are not without their followers, and followers are not without their leaders. No, a government or company with such a mechanism cannot continue in the same way necessarily if they lost an important leader. Apple is a great example where yes, they continued to grow after Jobs but not innovate. And besides, Tim Cook is also a great leader. Apple could not function the same way if say, the ousted CEO of Peloton, or the executives of bankrupt Stein Mart were put in charge. We have seen fortunes fall due to bad management and fortunes made due to good management. You can find stories after stories of family fortunes being destroyed because although the companies were so integral the children who inherited them were incompetent. One of the reasons why this is, as mentioned in my original comment, is that if you lose there is someone else willing to win. There is always someone else ready and willing to work hard enough to go from rags to riches so that you could go from riches to rags. I don’t know if I mentioned this but humans naturally and perhaps forcefully adopted capitalism for a very good reason, which is survival. Capital production is necessary to keep our population growing and in fact thanks to capitalism we no longer suffer from overpopulation as we used to. Everything is about population. There was even an economist, Thomas Malthus, proven terribly wrong, who thought that population growth would outpace food and resource supply and essentially that the economy, or capitalism couldn’t fix it. I guess he never realized that it would be capitalism itself and profit incentive to produce more that would greatly increase food production and in fact give us obesity, not starvation hahahah (: You can even see how because Africa has more food and is richer, they now suffer from a major obesity problem, thanks to glorious capitalism. I think that communists and socialist alike fear profit in capitalism because they don’t actually understand that profit does not screw the whole system up. A portion of that profit is reinvested into the community to purchase capital assets and this is what keeps the wheels turning (Keynes and other economists explain this in depth) and profit is really just the renewal of money, or selling last week’s products to this week’s income. So do not fear profit. And yes, I am saying that if people made the equivalent of their output, capitalism would disappear and it would be catastrophic because production would collapse entirely. Millions, even billions would die and become dependent on the government to produce but that is essentially communism of the 20th century and that failed entirely.


      2. To add to my response, this is also why doomer predictions are almost always wrong, and why we should not assume, for example, that a lack of money being put into renewable energy to stop climate change will kill us all. Most likely you will end up being just as wrong as Thomas Malthus (in regards to overpopulation). I also think that perhaps a better example of someone taking over a successful company’s executive team would be a politician, or employees or something of that nature where they don’t have merit to be in such an important role. And there is the Chinese saying, wealth does not last beyond three generations, don’t you think there is a reason why this is? And after all, internet or cable is not public, you pay for it either through your taxes or to an actual, capitalist corporation like Rogers, Telus or Bell.


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