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The Brands Are Not Okay (I Promise)
By Christopher Sloce
Whither yesteryear’s brands? The totally radical Chuck E. Cheese, the pied piper rodent who led so many '90s kids onto a children’s crusade to a land full of amusement and games? Does Erin Esurance keep her hair now at its natural brunette? Did the Morton Salt Girl, in her perpetual rain, die of pneumonia, penniless and alone? What happens to a brand icon deferred? Do they have a retirement community? Are they like our elders, saying amongst themselves, “These new brands don’t get it. What’s all this they do? In our day we had to entice you with TV or radio. Now brands can pretend to have conversations with you. Put me in Los Angeles and the consumer in Peoria and we’ll show you magic.”
But we all know what happened. The brands looked to us, the consumers, and they have taken our faces. In a piss-poor attempt, they have taken our image and our moods. And we are depressed. Thus, the brands are not alright. The brands called God and got a busy signal.
The Internet has created a bit of an advertising crisis. On social media, because of algorithms that team together to curate your advertising experience, there are some brands that quite simply will not be able to capture your attention. In the endless vortex, the original tactic of snappy quote plus picture or wisecracking dads fade into the swirl of color. In order to stand out, new tactics had to be hatched up. The brands had to get weird. The weirder brands can get, the more they’ll worm their way into your subconscious and get you to possibly even like, comment, subscribe, and retweet. The new strategy isn’t about getting your eyes. It’s about getting you to engage.
In the old days, you’d have Denny’s post a stack of pancakes and say something like, “Shorty got that sizzurp.” The effect wasn’t entirely unlike seeing a history teacher do a rap about the Civil War, but it was par for the course. Advertising and the subculture had an uneasy handshake, like cops and robbers who understood the score and had a respect for each other. A few years after something undeniable happens, we will co-opt it. This style of advertising is still rampant, particularly on the “savage” clapbacks of the Wendy’s Twitter (who still refuse to answer my very simple question: “hey fuck face, why is the burger square”). Obviously if you can’t pay teens $15 an hour, you don’t get to use their lingo, but, again, to be expected. As access to information became easier, having the snarkiest dad or most sneakily attractive mascot was part of that swirl. Does it matter if Flo, the Progressive Lady, makes your heart go aflutter if you can Google her at any time? Does Drake dancing in a T-Mobile ad matter when any teen with a green screen can do the Hotline Bling dance in Star Wars scenes and upload it to Youtube?
The secret language of advertising is that the product will always make some part of your life better, either implicitly or subliminally. Axe Body Spray almost certainly did not make any teenage boy smell good, but when he sprayed glorified hairspray onto his armpits, he did it because he imagined getting tackled by a fleet of beautiful women was a real possibility. Axe's subliminal message was simple: “Use Axe and you will get so laid you won’t know what to do with it.”
But suppose you’re in the advertising demographic of “millennials.” You have to work three jobs to pay rent on a shoebox, you know the coral reefs look like chewed up dog bones, and that any sort of momentary indulgence will ruin your finances for a month straight. How do you fight that sense of dread? Of guilt? Of constant anxiety?
In response to what feels like the horrible and unmovable status of our current predicament, a language has developed, a sort of Internet-based groundswell in the radical acceptance of common pain and shared neurosis. If you’ve spent any time on the Internet and saw a joke that was just a little too dark to be said in real life, you’re probably aware of this phenomenon and have your own opinions on it. When everything can be bought and sold, even peace of mind, to crave a sweet release from this pain acts as the sigh of the oppressed creature, a new sort of opiate. Debating whether this is a good is a completely different essay, but there has to be something said for looking at the state of things and saying, “If there’s a huge steamroller coming my way and I can't stop it, why shouldn’t I just throw myself under in protest?” Martyrdom has limited applications, but it does have them. I’m critical of the application while understanding the impulse.
I'm not okay with brands capitalizing on that impulse to sell peccadilloes. And that’s what brands are doing. Sunny D and Steak-Umms have co-opted the language of lament, of fear that there is nothing else. On February 3rd, 2019, Sunny D tweeted “I can’t do this anymore.” Of course, this caused a little bit of an uproar because the Internet is what it is, but you don’t have to have a Tumblr to understand why it might be gross and insensitive for a pretend orange juice drink to fake a mental breakdown to sell you what a kid trapped in a box for 30 years would remember oranges as tasting like. Here's a brand threatening suicide for attention, like actually. The brands, thankfully, all came to help Sunny.
What this outcry sold was a fantasy of a world where social media outcries get support. There are plenty of real-life occurrences of somebody attempting to stand athwart their pain and yelling “Stop!” publicly, only to be met with nothing but blank stares. I say this from experience.
The most odious practitioner of this branded mental illness tactic is the Steak-Umms Twitter account. Steak-Umms. Mussolini called fascism when you couldn’t slide a cigarette paper between the government and corporations. He would have called Steak-Umms when you can’t slide a Zig-Zag between human and dog food. Steak-Umms the product may have faded but now people care about Steak-Umms again, large in part due to their social media presence. Or rather, their Twitter.
Steak-Umms’ manifesto about millennial malaise captured the hearts and minds of many with its tweet-storm. It was probably the most odious display of that useless form since Eric Garland hoovered enough ale and amphetamines to make Mark E. Smith wince so he could ROFLcopter his way through a diseased view of the Cold War—not for what was said, but for the intent. All the points were sound if not a bit self-serving. Since then, the brand managers have kept this tact of using that quavering voice, the melancholy and infinite millennial dada sadness. Definitely mediocre but not altogether worse than any other advertisement, is it?
When the Steak-Umms Twitter tweets “People don’t have memes, memes have people,” they’re speaking to the very standing order of things while taking the guise of lament. Beneath all that truth there is something savaging: the voice and concerns of its tweets can be traced back to real resistance against this constant social media spectacle, and that is millennials writing about their own experience. Even if I disagree with the aesthetic, I do know what they say to be true and sincerely deployed.
What Steak-Umms and Sunny D have done has stripped the resistance so they can make a quick buck. That’s what’s insidious: They pretend to be you to sell to you themselves. That does require actual condemnation. But we also have to develop new aesthetics. We have to become grotesqueries by their order, completely unrecognizable. And there is nothing more grotesque than this proposition: There are some things that should not be sold. Try following that up with, “Steak-umms bless.”
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